It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is an emerging intellectual field best described as “asshology”: the study of the assholes who seem to be suddenly all around us, from the assholes who tried to pay their kids’ way into college to the assholes who harass mass-shooting victims and all the way up to, of course, our asshole political leaders.
Among the many books on the subject (including Assholes Finish First, which was written by an asshole, Tucker Max), there is University of California, Irvine philosophy professor Aaron James’s 2012 best-selling book, Assholes: A Theory, which has just been turned into a documentary of the same name, and features a cast of anti-asshole activists, including actor John Cleese, Cornell professor Robert Hockett (who is behind Elizabeth Warren’s accountable capitalism platform) and Vladimir Luxuria, the first transgender member of parliament in Europe. James defines an asshole as a person, usually a man, who allows himself special advantages in social relationships in a systematic way; is motivated by an entrenched sense of entitlement; and is immunized against the complaints of others.
The film, directed by John Walker, had its North American premiere last week at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. Fast Company sat down with Cleese, Walker, and James to discuss the documentary, which aspires to do for awareness of the imminent asshole crisis what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change.
Fast Company: Earlier today, I was sitting on a couch in my hotel room eating potato chips and I wiped my greasy fingers on the couch, clearly an asshole move. When was the last time you exhibited asshole behavior?
John Walker: I am quite competitive. When I have been confronted by asshole behavior, I would try to out-asshole the asshole. But after reading Aaron’s book and talking with him, he said, “Don’t go there. That’s just encouraging your inner asshole.” I do think there is an inner asshole within us all.
FC: Mr. Cleese, you read the book on your own accord?
John Cleese: Yes, I can’t quite remember how I came to it but once you’ve noticed the title you tend to pick it up.
FC: Do the characters spoofed on Monty Python suggest you’re an expert on assholes?
JC: I don’t think so. In my generation, on the whole, people were pretty well mannered.
FC: Not the ones in Monty Python!
JC: Oh, no. No. But if you deal with well-mannered, kind, considerate, intelligent people, you’re not going to have many laughs.
FC: In the documentary, you go so far as to call your mother an asshole.
JC: After reading the book, I realized she was. There are actually very few women who are assholes. Ann Coulter is another one. Catherine, the Great, perhaps.
FC: Who else is on your list of top assholes?
JC: I think the most dangerous asshole is Rupert Murdoch. Whichever country he goes to, whether it’s England, Australia, or the U.S., he poisons the culture. He coarsens everything.
FC: Who else?
JC: Most of the people in the White House because, deep down, they can’t really believe in what they are doing. Or look at Sean Hannity; can you imagine what he’d be doing if he wasn’t Trump’s pet? You wouldn’t put him in charge of a candy store. And he’s the only Irishman on the planet with no sense of humor.
FC: Mark Zuckerberg is basically called an asshole in the film. What about Steve Jobs?
Aaron James: Steve Jobs was definitely an asshole; A creative genius but he was parking in handicap spaces, curbing philanthropic giving at Apple, finding his associates’ weaknesses just to hurt them to vent his frustrations. Jony Ive said that Jobs thought the ordinary rules didn’t apply to him.
JC: That’s the classic definition of an asshole. And that’s why Trump is so destructive. Because he doesn’t think that any rules or laws apply to him. He defines checks and balances as presidential harassment. It’s crazy.
FC: Mr. Cleese, you’re in the film and you’re stumping for it. Are you an anti-asshole activist?
JC: If I knew how do to it, I’d say, “Yes.” What I do know is that one of the best things you can do with very pompous people is to make people laugh at them. Sometimes a frontal attack is not the best way to deflate them.
As arranged earlier, Cleese leaves the interview at this point in the conversation. (Ed: He wasn’t just being an asshole.)
FC: We’re having a laugh about all this and the film is satire but there’s an underlying, real concern here, right? Is the lowering standard of behavior an actual crisis?
AJ: I think it’s a crisis of the republic. The house is on fire and we’re acting like everything is normal.
FC: You wrote a second asshole book, Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump. Will you keep writing these books for the next significant asshole who comes around?
AJ: I don’t think so. I had to feel like there was a good reason to do the second one. It wasn’t just that Trump is an asshole. It was the fact that people thought of him as a solution to the asshole problem: “Have the uber-asshole reign in all the other assholes and bring order.” That was a thought that goes back to Thomas Hobbes. That seemed like an interesting moment to write about Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose response to Hobbes was the foundation of French and American democracy. Hobbes is the classic authoritarian. He said, “If you don’t have an absolute monarchy, you will have chaos.” Rousseau thought people could be regarded as equals and make collective decisions. That caught on over two centuries. But now the new politics of [Italian billionaire and politician] Silvio Berlusconi and Trump is the resurgence of authoritarianism. It’s not an outward rejection of democracy but a subversion of democracy from within.
FC: And it’s happening at a time that new technologies like social media are emerging.
AJ: Yes, political power has always come for people that have been able to master the newest technology. That was true with the shift to radio and then the shift to television and now with social media. Trump is the pioneer of the new social media environment. It’s partly because of his narcissism that he is able to appreciate how it worked sooner than others. Maybe the Kardashians figured it out earlier.
FC: You feature money management company Baird as being a possible antidote to what’s happening. [Baird has a “no-assholes” policy for its employees.]
JW: The problem is that we reward assholery. I found that in Silicon Valley, there’s a huge tolerance for the asshole genius. Everyone wants to be Steve Jobs. What we provide in the film is the alternative to that model. A company like Baird is beating the competition three to one in terms of profit. [Baird chairman Paul Purcell] says, “We can take the long view because we are our own shareholders. We don’t have to be greedy.” I pose the question, “Do you have to be an asshole to be a great artist, architect,or whatever?” And the answer is, “No.”