Book review: “Assholes” by Aaron James

Oct 12, 2016

Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Assholes: A Theory” is a philosophical / psychological treatise on the definition, characteristics and treatment of the group mentioned in the title. James defines assholes as follows:

“In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”

James, Aaron. Assholes: A Theory (Kindle-Positionen 88-91). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle-Version.

When collaborative people are confronted with asshole behavior, for example reckless driving or people cutting lines etc. they are sometimes not only offended by the behavior but also taken aback by their own (always futile) indignation at something apparently so small. James argues that collaborative people are upset not at the “small thing” but at the refusal of the asshole to see other people as their moral equals with the same rights and privileges as the asshole.

James lays out his theory, describes the different styles and types of assholes. There is a chapter on gender, nature and blame, a chapter on how to manage assholes and a very interesting chapter on the societal impact of asshole behavior becoming more and more accepted (“asshole management”). James’ final chapter deals with how to handle the fact that there always will be assholes and how to not be caught between “there is nothing I can do” and being upset at the futility of standing up to the asshole.

I am not sure I personally buy into labelling a group of people as “assholes” and assume their inability to change. James’ definition seems a bit circular here: an asshole is only an asshole if he or she “(3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people” and that already presumes immutability. I would be able to go along more easily if James more strongly included the social constructionist point of view. For me an asshole would be one in relation to someone who observes the asshole behavior and evaluates it as such and an exploration would be interesting to me. After all, we cannot observe, see or ascertain whether someone “has an entrenched sense of entitlement”, we assume they do from their actions and justifications of such actions.

I gained valuable insights into asshole definition and management and really enjoyed reading the book. It is well argued, well referenced, funny and insightful. Any collaborative person who is interested in philosophy / psychology and sometimes is confronted with / exposed to asshole-type behavior would benefit from reading it. Leaders will especially benefit from the chapter on “Asshole Capitalism” and thinking around creating an environment where such behavior does not happen and in which groups / teams can function without its debilitating effect. Anybody who is regularly in front of groups of people will benefit from the strategies James mentions: recognize the behavior, realize that you are getting upset because someone is assuming a privilege they don’t actually have or more rights than other people, mention to the group that you have a contract of equal rights for everyone in that group and (my addition) ask them how they would like to handle the situation. What will certainly help coaches, leaders and facilitators is the insight that when you or your clients get upset about seemingly “small things”, it’s not about being petty — it’s about wanting to ensure the fair and equal treatment of all involved, which is surely something worthwhile to uphold.