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What Makes Someone an 'Asshole'?

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Is Donald Sterling an asshole? He's a racist, and a sexist to boot. But is the Clippers' current owner an asshole as well?

The answer depends on what an asshole is. But what is the precise difference between the asshole and the mere jerk, boor, cad, schmuck, prick, douchebag, twit, ass, or ass-clown? If former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is an asshole (is he not?), what distinctive moral vice might he have in common with Donald Trump, or Kanye West, or Newt Gingrich, or Steve Jobs?

Here's my suggestion: the asshole is the guy who systematically helps himself to special advantages in cooperative life, out an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.

So, first, the asshole is the guy -- yes, assholes are mainly, but not only, men -- who helps himself to special advantages in cooperative life. Maybe he cuts in line without an emergency. He also does such things systematically, across many areas of social life, say, by parking his car in handicap spaces, talking too loudly in public on his cell phone, and berating the referee at his child's little league game.

Second, he does such things from an entrenched sense of entitlement. Maybe he styles himself as especially smart, or rich, in which case he certainly should not be expected to wait in line like everyone else.

Third, he is entrenched in this sensibility so to be immunized against the complaints of other people. When the guy cuts in line and someone complains, saying "hey asshole, there's a line here, get to the back of it, asshole," he might brazenly retort, "Piss off!" He might be genuinely angry and indignant. After all, he is not to be questioned, and so he is the one chiefly wronged.

So the term "asshole" isn't simply a term of abuse, or a way of venting disapproval (though it can be that as well). It isn't like saying of someone, "you're a cow," which cannot strictly speaking be true. (A human person can't also be a four-legged, hoofed member of the biological family bovinae.) And if you mean to (rudely) suggest that some woman is fat (which may or may not be true), you're at best using "cow" metaphorically, with no claim to literal truth.

But it can be true, literally, to say of Berlusconi that he's an asshole. Not in any biological sense, of course: he, the man, isn't and can't be one and the same thing as the fleshy end of the human digestive tract. But speaking morally, the term "asshole" can correctly apply, to Berlusconi, or to Trump, West, Gingrich, or Jobs.

Yes, yes, Jobs was a World Historical Game Changer, a genius in his own way. And, boy, you gotta love those gadgets! But surely he didn't therefore have the right to park in handicap spaces, or savage his associates with cruel insults (both of which he in fact did, among other misdeeds). Likewise, the guy in a new Tesla, who blazes by your bumper on the road, swerving through three lanes of traffic, is driving too damn fast. No matter how rich he is. No matter how beautiful or environmentally friendly his car.

But take a simpler example: Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose plain racism yearns for halcyon days of slavery. While the man is simply vile, hold back your feelings of disgust for the moment, and consider his property argument.

Bundy says he's entitled not to pay taxes for letting his cattle craze on government land, to the tune now of millions of dollars. The land, he says, is really his, for having been acquired before the founding of the United States. In which case, a philosopher can't help wonder: Is he, per chance, thinking of John Locke?

For Locke, you can take land as your own from the commons, and justly defend it by force, when you mix your labor with it, leave enough and as good for others, and don't take so much as to let it spoil. In that case, Bundy's forbearers could have gained natural rights over the land, even against government usurpation. In which case Bundy, now having inherited title, actually wouldn't owe tax for its use.

Yet, even by these standards, if there was an original owner, it was probably them Native Americans. When Locke mentioned them, though, he nullified their claim in a rather convenient way: the natives, he said, were letting the land spoil, or "lay waste," simply by not improving it with European farming techniques. In which case, you know, it is fine for colonists with guns to carve up plots and finally drive the natives into the sea or wherever.

And if the common land should have been shared, with no one acquiring a permanent ownership stake, then Bundy never inherited title from his forbearers, and now has to the pay the taxes (if only to descendants of the natives long ago displaced).

Which brings us back to Donald Sterling. Perhaps his plain racism itself makes him asshole. But he can also be an asshole just for this gem of a thought about his winning team: "I... give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?"

Sterling takes the lion's share of the credit for the team and its wins, suggesting that he's entitled to it. That's despite the obvious fact that he'd be nowhere without the players. (Sterling can't dunk, I presume.) He needs the players to play and couldn't easily replace them. A winning team dynamic generally can't be bought. And yet, Sterling, or any particular team owner, is readily dispensed with. Buyers are lining up, as we speak.

I assume Sterling won't get the point. But, thankfully, social protest, an effective player strike, and cruel market logic are ejecting the foul man from the game.

Aaron James is the author of Assholes: A Theory.