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Assholes, A Theory; by Aaron James

Assholes, A Theory; by Aaron James

A book has been released (October 2012) by Aaron James titled “Assholes, a Theory.”

Defining the Asshole

The philosophy professor at Harvard takes a stab at trying to define the Asshole, with the idea that it’s an important step because supposedly there are so many of us around.

The Scientist online newspaper has published an excerpt on their website.

As a man who is frequently called “asshole” in jest, and sometimes seriously, I take offense at James’ definitions.  I’ve frequently responded to that label with “But at least I’m not a jerk.”  To James, the jerk is a softer version of the asshole, but in my experiences, I believe he has the definitions flip-flopped.

James opines that assholes do things out of a feeling of entitlement.  Cutting in front of lines because they feel they’re owed a pass.  Swerving through traffic not considering other people’s safety.  He says that we enjoy special advantages and take advantage of them systematically.

He’s wrong.

On Entitlements

I frequently cut in front of lines.  Whether it’s trying to get into a restaurant with friends or family, getting on a roller coaster, avoiding the maze at the airport, or just wanting to skip the hour long wait at a government office, I almost always try to find a way to jump ahead of the crowd.  Do I feel entitled?  Do I believe I deserve to get ahead of others?

Absolutely not.  I try to jump the line because I take calculated risks and try for rewards.  It comes from a sense of confidence, not a sense of entitlement.  The worst thing that happens when I’m denied front-of-line access is…I end up at the end of the line, where I would be if I didn’t take a risk.  I do consider the other people in line that I pass, and my thought usually is, “if they’re unwilling to take a risk, they should not be rewarded.”  I’ve encountered some lines that are consistently unjumpable.  If I go to those places, I just accept waiting in line (but still I try to get around it).  Confidence is easily measured in every asshole, but we don’t do things confidently because we’re entitled.

On Having Special Advantages

I remember my early 20s — always passing through lines at nightclubs and restaurants, even though I wasn’t (always) with hot women, or even with hot guys.  It was never a problem, and rarely did I actually pass a $20 or $50 to the bouncer or hostess.  In my mid-20s, I would regularly go to conferences and conventions that cost others thousands of dollars for entry, but I paid zero.  In my 30s, I was welcomed to restaurants and concerts and events in lieu of friends who waited in line for tickets and were denied.  Heading into my 40s, I’m finding myself with access to vacation villas and yachts and private beaches.  In none of these situations am I receiving special advantages — in every situation, I am bringing people something of value.  I’ve earned a reputation, and I have a strong network of dedicated people who spend money.  If I am “awarded” with access, it’s only because my reputation tells the person giving me access that they will benefit from my presence.

Gaining that reputation took time, it took years to grow, it took losses on my part to protect it.  Redeeming favors is something the Asshole does, because he knew when he did favors that they would be paid back later.  This isn’t any special advantage, it again was a calculated risk taken, with the reward coming later.  Sometimes the reward comes much later, even a decade later.  But there’s nothing wrong or unearned about it.

The Asshole versus the Jerk

I’ve been called Asshole many times — sometimes in jest, sometimes in jealousy or envy, something just in a passive aggressive response to me hopping a line.  My go-to response is, “At least I’m not a jerk.”

Aaron James opines that jerks are softer versions of assholes.  He’s wrong.  The asshole moves with determination and confidence, but he’s aloof at the outcome.  The jerk pushes through like a knife, and he won’t take no for an answer.  Assholes put themselves first, but know full well that others will gain something along with them.  The jerk is on his own, disregarding the needs and feelings of others.

They’re not even on the same level, two completely disparate types of people.  When I do something to gain advantage, I know I will be taking a calculated risk for a hopeful reward.  Jerks are just pompous because they have nothing to lose, whereas Assholes have their reputation to protect.

The Jerk and Danger

The Jerk tends to not think of how his actions affect others.  He doesn’t care about anything but himself.  He’s the one speeding and weaving through traffic, causing a danger to those around him.  He’s the one who will push and push and push to get something, even if it burns a bridge at that establishment forever.  The bodies he fell that lay behind him are irrelevant and inconsequential to his future, because he doesn’t care to build bridges when he can knock down walls permanently.

Assholes can take calculated risks that have the appearance of danger or mystery, but that’s more a character affectation than it is a truly dangerous behavior.  Jerks care too much about the outcome so they forget the calculation in risk; assholes are outcome independent, so if something fails, they have 10 more things they want to go after instead.  There have been many times where I’ve been with a date, running late to an event.  Instead of driving really fast to make it on time, I’ll drive slower, knowing that there’s no loss in being late.  If we miss the event, other doors are waiting to be opened.  I won’t put my life, my date’s life, or the lives of others at risk all for one simple party when there are hundreds more going on around the area.

That’s the Asshole putting himself first, but also having others involved in the reward even though he alone takes the risk.  With the Jerk, there are rarely other people who gain from his behaviors, and many who have something to lose from them.  Danger is only sexy when there’s a real gain and a minimized risk.

Attraction to the Asshole

There’s no doubt that women tend to be attracted to assholes and jerks.  The adage is that “Women like bad boys.”  But this isn’t really true, either.  Most women appreciate confident men who are outcome independent.  This means the guy is cocky about what he wants, but aloof if he doesn’t get it.  That’s an Asshole.  A jerk, though, will waste his time continuously trying to get something he wants, instead of turning on his heel and aiming at a different target to get.

Yes, some women like jerks — but as many friends of these women know, there’s an underlying sadness in the woman who is attracted to a jerk.  When a woman meets an asshole, though, if she can parse through his rough frame, she generally sees the kindness and softness that is hinted at in his actions.  He’s not just acting entitled or advantaged for his own gain.  There are usually others along with him.  He’s self protective of his inner circle, but can not be concerned with the anonymous unknowns around him as they haven’t taken the time to join his group.

Confidence, charisma, aloofness, outcome independence, knowing when you give up: these are the positive traits of the Asshole.  The jerk, on the other hand, will switch to meanness and anger and even hints of violence in order to get what he wants, and let the cards fall where they may.

There’s a chasm between the two, and Professor James has seemingly missed the ball on it, even though in his photo and biography, he probably is an asshole himself.  That’s a point in his favor, throwing off the truth of the subject to protect his own sphere of influence.

Purchase Assholes, A Theory by Aaron James at Amazon.

Related posts to peruse:

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  3. The Uselessness of Contracts
  4. How to replace the exclamation mark
About A.B. Dada

A.B. Dada resides in Chicago, Illinois and manages a multitude of businesses involved across a wide range of industries.


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