Power

We live in an age of Assholes

The worst people in the world get all the attention, but what can we do about it?
Power

We live in an age of Assholes

The worst people in the world get all the attention, but what can we do about it?

“Very evil people,” Adorno tells us in Minima Moralia, “cannot really be imagined dying.” The worse someone is, it seems, the longer the rest of us will remain somehow subject to their whims.

We live in an age in which our political system seems constantly to be conspiring to elevate the worst people imaginable. Donald Trump, who had spent his whole life being publicly thoughtless and racist and misogynistic and being subject to rape allegations and bullying people on television and profiting directly off human misery, only needed to so much as announce that he would be seeking the Republican nomination for president for his rise to mount inexorably: at one point during the election, he even stopped to admire the force of his momentum by declaring that he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and still not lose any voters.

Meanwhile, in the UK last week, we were treated to the spectacle of Tory Member of Parliament Mark Field, being filmed literally assaulting a female protester at a black-tie event, grabbing her by the neck and bundling her out of the room, while a room full of his colleagues looked on approvingly. The following day, The Guardian reported that police had been called to the address of Boris Johnson, runaway favorite to succeed Theresa May as Tory party leader and thus as Prime Minister, after neighbors tipped them off over an alleged incident of domestic violence.

How did politics come to resemble a clogged toilet — with these constant Assholes and what they drop on us, unflushable?

This sort of scandal might still be enough to sink most politicians — but Johnson, who first rose to prominence by playing a sort of upper-class idiot character on a topical panel show, is already seeking high office on the back of a record of clownish failure in basically every aspect of public life he has pursued to date. To give just one particularly egregious example: a British woman is currently rotting in an Iranian jail as a result of Johnson’s mistakes and stubbornness while serving as foreign secretary — and still he feels entitled to be in charge of the country.

Trump and Johnson are not the only examples: I could also name May, who hung around in office well after her premiership had become untenable, like an undiscovered corpse; or Johnson’s political kindred spirit, the recently resurgent Nigel Farage. Or perhaps the spiritual father of Trump, Johnson et al: the Italian media baron, soccer club owner and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. There are many prominent people out there who fit the following description: everyone, or almost everyone, knows that they are terrible — and they know exactly why they are terrible, to boot. Their terribleness seems natural — it is so widely-known and agreed upon it has almost become unremarkable, like the weather. And yet, no one seems to be able to do anything about them.

The question, then, is why. Why does it feel like there is nothing anyone might do to dislodge Trump; why does it feel like even if Johnson doesn’t become prime minister this time, he will keep on coming back? (As he has already done so many times before). How did politics come to resemble a clogged toilet — with these constant Assholes and what they drop on us, unflushable?

“Am I the Asshole?” a popular subreddit asks. Am I the Asshole if I don’t want to look after my nieces and nephews after my sister dies? Am I the Asshole for getting my Muslim boyfriend to unwittingly consume pork? Am I the Asshole for not supporting my best friend after his wife died?

AITA users are worried about being seen to be Assholes — for the most part, by posting on the forum, they are seeking to have their behavior vindicated. Sometimes they receive what they want; other times, they don’t. Some users take the advice to heart; others double down. But as this recent MEL article about the forum contends: regardless of what the advice is, or how it is taken, AITA posts can help contribute to its users’ moral education. Quite contrary to the common belief, spread by broadsheet newspapers, that “public shaming” on the internet is a matter of the gravest, most career-ruining concern: “The power of the collective to change behavior can be a very good thing... using subreddits like Am I the Asshole — especially when the original poster really wants to know what other people think — is prosocial and healthy.”

But for Asshole politicians, the exact opposite seems to be the case. With the advent of social media, we are able to criticize the Assholes of the public sphere in ways far more immediate than were available to us before. Every utterance they make can be systematically dissected, just as soon as they happen to have made it; in screenshots, their self-parodying behavior can be dunked on from every time zone. But far from providing the Asshole with some sort of “moral education,” this only seems to serve, like in the @dril tweet, to make their opinions worse.

At times, simple contrarianism can seem to be the dominant factor winning supporters to the Asshole cause, which is an instinct that social media also serves to both perpetuate and reward.

Once someone is established as an Asshole, they become a sort of focal point, around which consciousness — both positive and negative — can be formed. You can get a lot of cheap, easy shares and faves from, say, parodying something that Ben Shapiro has said. But ripping on this nonsense also disseminates it. Hate-clicks are still clicks; they’ll help boost the algorithm anyway. And so with every detractor, a charismatic enough Asshole is also able to pick up more and more supporters. Likewise, while the likes of Trump and Johnson constantly do and say terrible things — they often also do it in a way that is, relative to most politicians, pretty entertaining (Trump claiming that “the Moon is part of Mars,” for instance — a line it is, I admit, hard for me to read without feeling the perverse urge to argue that it’s true). Thus regardless of how terrible they are, producers are always going to feel incentivized to have them appear on the news.

At times, simple contrarianism can seem to be the dominant factor winning supporters to the Asshole cause, which is an instinct that social media also serves to both perpetuate and reward. But perhaps this is too abstract an explanation. In the wake of the two incidents last week, the full brunt of the Tory media and political establishment surged in to defend both Johnson and Field. Johnson’s accusers were smeared as overprivileged “Remain Neighbours,” politicizing a simple blazing row between the couple next door by taking basic steps to protect those involved.

Meanwhile, the still-raw memory of a female MP’s murder at the hands of a (male) white supremacist Brexiteer was invoked to laud Field, a man assaulting a woman who hadn’t even hinted at the possibility of violence, as a hero. “Calm down, move on, and be thankful this wasn’t worse,” tweeted Plymouth MP Johnny Mercer, in what almost sounded like a veiled threat. A twitter thread on the Mark Field incident, posted by the daytime television show Good Morning Britain (hosted by virulent right-wing Asshole and noted Trump asshole-licker Piers Morgan), saw many users congratulating the MP on his actions.

An under-explored problem of liberal democracy, perhaps: divisions do not arise solely because voters have divergent ideas of the good. Given everything, it is hard not to suppose that a critical mass of voters do not have anyone’s best interests at heart — not even their own. There is a section of the public which actively likes the disingenuous corruption and stupidity, actively enjoys the thought of the violence a prospective prime minister might inflict on his girlfriend within the confines of his own home. They think the world has made people too soft, and so want it to be worse.

What can anyone do then, in the face of... whatever the fuck that is? Once not even selfish interests can be appealed to, discourse must completely break down. Thus direct action seems much more likely to prove effective. Recently in the UK, throwing milkshakes has proved a somewhat effective technique against campaigning fascists, even reducing Farage to the point where he was afraid to get off his own tour bus. His party did still go on to win the European elections — but who knows, perhaps if he’d gotten milkshaked earlier that would have stopped him. The milkshakes made Farage look weak, which if I’m right about his supporters is far worse, for him, than being made to seem wrong.

That said, direct action is liable to produce a draining, circular, awful news cycle of its own — is it ever OK to punch a Nazi? (Aamer Rahman really ought to have been allowed the final say on this one). We cannot, at any rate, simply stop talking — critique risks giving Assholes the oxygen of publicity, but it’s also unacceptable to give up on articulating exactly what is wrong with their views. We owe it to everyone who suffers (which of course also includes ourselves), to make sense of how they intersect with all the other myriad horrors in the world.

But while we must critique, we are under no obligation to maintain the Asshole as the privileged figure of critique — far from it. On Reddit, AITA users seek exculpation for their behaviors as individuals. They don’t want to be the Asshole “in this situation.” Likewise, critique of prominent Assholes is often all-too-focused on condemning them personally. To this extent, ethics is conceived of as a matter of individual responsibility: thus if we can just identify — and condemn — all the right individuals, morality will have been solved forever.

All the evils of the world can seem to be congealed in Trump’s orange flesh. If only we got rid of him, as every “moderate” Democrat seems to believe, the Republican party would be restored to normalcy.

This could not be more wrong. If the reality of climate change teaches us anything, it is that judgement will precisely not come to us as individuals — it is something we will be subject to as a species. In your response to any given dilemma, you may or may not ultimately be judged to be the Asshole — but let’s face it, if you’re looking at any complex social situation through that sort of exculpatory lens, you’re probably not a very good person to be around (I mean who cares, right? It’s not all about you).

Trump and Johnson are both extraordinarily bad people: brutal, stupid, selfish men whom we have reason to suppose it is almost certainly dangerous for women to be alone in a room with. But their horror is far from solely individual; it is also systemic. It resides in the states that they are actually or potentially the heads of, institutions whose material interests are directly aligned with the suffering of immigrants, minorities and the poor; with the complete destruction of the planet.

Critiquing and mocking these monstrous Assholes as individuals can be both edifying and a lot of fun. But aside from helping to over-promote them, it also allows those complicit in their horror — whether directly as an agent of the state, or just by providing their tacit support — to hide behind them. Critique must stop concerning itself so much with whether people should be blamed, celebrated, or exculpated as individuals. It must rather primarily be focused on the systems which make “good people” do bad things; which allow “bad people” to flourish. It is not enough to just, say, get rid of Trump: the earth must be salted wherever future Trumps might grow. This requires transitioning away from the individualistic paradigm of ethics according to which, as far as I can tell, the Assholes are always going to flourish.

Very evil people cannot really be imagined dying. But in a way, that hardly matters. If the evil that a person does could be made to fail to outlast their body — would anyone really care if their desiccated husk ended up sticking, vestigial, around.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.