The Real Problem with Asshole Culture

Given that today is a day that ends with y, there’s a likelihood of yet another instance of a chauvinist publicly being a chauvinist, another dude mansplaining his way into the Hall of Fame of sexism, or perhaps another entitled individual going off on another rant about illegals and minorities. There is also the possibility of a Caucasian ringing up the cops to scold an African-American for being an African-American.

All of these are examples of an asshole — an embodiment of a misanthropic, misogynist, racist, rude, or megalomaniac who is immunized by their sense of entitlement against the complaints of others. One who allows themselves to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically. An asshole is also an individual who prefaces his thoughts with statements like, “I’m not racist, or I’m not sexist, I’m a blunt person, or I’m a feminist, or I don’t hate poor people but…”

As Jon Snow reminded us, “Everything before the word ‘but’ is horseshit.”

Geoffrey Nunberg, author of [Ascent of the A-word:] Assholism:The First Sixty Years spoke to me about what I see as an increasing acceptance of asshole behavior. (At the end of our phone conversation, Mr. Nunberg made it clear that despite the title of my blog and its content regarding white people, Seattle, and “my stupid Millennial humor” he did not consider me an asshole)

Nunberg argues the asshole phenomenon has always been part of the human condition. Here are a few examples:

Near the end of Marcus’ legendary reign, Aurelius brought his son Commodus up to the position of Co-Emperor. Upon his father’s death, Commodus became the sole ruler of Rome at 18. One of his first acts was to reduce the value of Roman currency. Such a move earned great dismay from his sister Lucilla. Not desiring any criticism from his sibling, Commodus banished his own sister and concocted conspiracy theories questioning her loyalty to the Kingdom

On the day of the birth of his 10th child, Charles Dickens wrote, “On the whole I could have dispensed with him.” Dickens later went on to leave his wife for an actress 27 year younger than him and was known to be incredibly nonchalant about the death of one his children, even for his time.

During World War II, after hearing an alarming number of instances of her husband, Winston Churchill, displaying asshole qualities, Clementine Churchill wrote her British boo on June 27, 1940:

“One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic & overbearing manner. My Darling Winston — I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.”

What has been an increasingly common occurrence is individuals temporarily feigning outrage over schmuck tendencies but ultimately associating and embodying the worse elements of asshole culture.

Without question, the ultimate paragon of an ecosystem acquiescing to asshole tendencies is Silicon Valley.

In her wonderfully researched piece, Venture Capital and the great big Silicon Valley Asshole Game journalist Sarah Lucy creates an asshole role call that includes familiar tech firms such as SnapChat, Uber, Tinder, Rap Genius, and Crunchfund (to name a few). Ms. Lucy doesn’t find entrepreneurial hubris to be the most shocking element in Silicon Valley. In her examination of douchebag culture in the tech-world, the freelance writer found that every venture capitalist will tell you the same lie, “They invest in people first and ideas second.” Yet, almost every major unicorn bet(a start-up with a valuation of at last $1 Billion) will invest in the Travis Kalanick and Evan Spiegel’s of society. In tech, money sides with the privileged blowhards of the world.

As tech journalist Kara Swisher points out in a Vanity Fair interview titled Are All tech C.E.Os Jerks? that even if there is a discovery of the investee displaying pompous and pedantic behavior there is a propensity to double down and dole out more cash to tech entrepreneurs. Ms. Swisher notes, “These days in Silicon Valley, if they see an asshole be an asshole they give them more money. Months later when the jerk’s behavior is exposed, venture capitalists pretend to be shocked… What a bunch of assholes”

Coddling repugnant tendencies can even be seen in the most mission driven sectors. Leaders in social impact, the industry encouraging businesses to look past the bottom-line and integrate environmental, social, and governance values into their corporate philosophy, can often be some of the biggest culprits when it comes to associating with dirtbags.

In a number of off-the record conversations (for fear of being blacklisted from social impact venture dollars), almost a dozen social impact professionals recounted tales of pitching ideas to help inner city schools or a building app that locates medical centers in low-income communities in front of social investment professional who were often on their phone or talking amongst each other during their pitch.

One social entrepreneur experienced a investment analyst, from the Case Foundation, show up drunk to a meeting and laugh at his ideas of community banking. He eventually received funding, but when turning down the seed money he notified the founder of the analyst’s execrable behavior. Jean Case, the CEO of the Case Foundation, herself notified him he would be fired immediately. A year later he was promoted to Partner.

Asshole behavior can even stand up to the criticism of hypocrisy. One female, who’s run a successful investment fund for 15 years was shocked to learn that the two men who refused to provide her funding, because “bitches always lose my money”, often sat on panels focused on investing in women. When I asked around about these two men, not one person flatly denied their shauvanism, but none were willing to discontinue doing business with either or admit to their sexist phoniness.

In his 2008 book, The No Asshole Rule, Stanford Business Professor Jeffrey Sutton chronicles ways to deal, and survive, “bullies, creeps, jerks, tyrants, tormentors, and egomaniacs.” Sutton provides multiple strategies on pinpointing and extinguishing negative instances for good. The publication also includes a self-diagnostic test and a program to identify and keep your own “inner jerk” from coming out. Shortly after the release of his work, several hundred organizations, from across all industries, reached out to the academic to garner his services in hopes of taming their “asshole problem.” Due to heightened interest, Sutton went on a national tour promoting his work for two years.

Almost a decade after the release of The No Asshole Rule, a sobering diagnosis of America’s reveals our asshole culture to be just as poisonous, if not worse. There is a healthy amount of Americans who believe being an asshole is a redeeming quality. Moreover, with the advent of numerous media platforms, rise in “social awareness” conferences, and the public blindly embracing any display of empathy assholes can easily hide in plain sight behind hollow gestures of compassion.

Further, our current political climate only throws gasoline on the asshole fire. Civic instability is a wellspring for incivility. Strife and distrust among us plants the seeds for more assholes in the future. A growth in unhealthy tribalism only creates more disregard for others and creates a winner take all mentality that leaves little time to think about the virtues of being the opposite of an asshole — kind, considerate, cooperative, respectful, and understanding. Plus, as my mentor Nancy Rogan points out, “when the leader of the free world is the largest asshole of them all and is setting an example no one is willing to oppose” how much can one expect from his constituents?

Recently, Sutton published the follow up to his original work, [The Asshole Survival Guide]: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt. To me, Sutton’s work on this topic is the most peculiar of them all. During my time in graduate school, I took two classes and attended a few workshops run by the Professor. Every lecture seemed to be sprinkled with indiscreet racial or sexist jabs as if it was innocuous bar chatter. Sutton would often bring in, or show videos, of business professionals being the epitome of assholes and boasted about knowing them well. On several occasions, he mistook me for another young Indian man and laughed it off as if it was merely an anodyne act.

When I reached out to my peer, for whom he confused me for, to chat about our old teacher, his first remarks were, “Can we talk about how big of an asshole Professor Sutton was?”

Note: I reached out to Professor Sutton for this piece, because not doing so would seem like an asshole move. He said he didn’t remember me, confessed “to being a temporary asshole”, and would “prefer to avoid people who will be unkind to me.”

Please follow and like us: