When Aaron James arrives at the corner of Broad and Exchange on a cold Monday evening, my first question is an obvious one: Did you see any assholes on the way over? He pauses to think. “I noticed a bit of masculine overassertiveness when I stopped to ask a guy for directions,” he says, “but he was actually very helpful.”
James, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, is the man to talk to about these matters. He’s just published a new book, Assholes: A Theory, the latest in a boomlet of works on the subject alongside Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word and Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule. James’s volume is equal parts philosophical meditation and historical survey, but its true value lies in his attempt to precisely define the term. James’s asshole has a sense of ironclad entitlement. He’s superior, immune to your complaints, though he insists you listen to his. He’s reflective, but only to the extent that it allows him to morally justify his behavior. And though he ordinarily acts within the boundaries of the law and exacts a relatively small material toll on society (which distinguishes him from the sociopath), he nonetheless triggers feelings of powerlessness, fear, or rage in those who cross his path. Most important, he behaves like this systematically. He is terminally, incorrigibly, an asshole.
So, how to know assholery when you see it? “What you’re looking for are telling details,” James says, though he warns that it’s essential to maintain a “sort of anthropological humility” to keep from making snap judgments, which could make you a bit of an asshole yourself. As we walk, we notice how the façade of the Stock Exchange is bathed inexplicably in purple disco light. Is that asshole lighting? James laughs. “There is a certain flaunting,” he says. Moving north, we descend the steps into City Hall station. Earlier, there was a man sitting defiantly on the stairs here, forcing everyone to go around him. “He could be an asshole,” says James, but to qualify, he would have to act like that regularly and do so out of a spirit of entitlement. “Was he poor?” he wonders. “Because then it could be a protest, if he feels his poverty is unjust.”
We board the 6 uptown. How about the guy blocking the door? “If he’s willful about it.” Would knocking him out of the way make you an asshole? “Not necessarily,” James says. “Asshole enforcement is a completely different problem.” We exit at 28th Street and walk into the Gansevoort Park Avenue, taking the elevator to the rooftop. A woman named Gina Fallone is manning the bar. As it happens, her definition dovetails with James’s. “You can travel from one bar to another, but the social dynamic remains constant,” she says. While she has no asshole-management tips to share, she has developed an ability to spot them from a great distance, which can be useful. “My A-dar goes off,” she says.