Thursday, May 14, 2015

Assholes Bullshit

Biologically speaking, those two go together, right?  

But, that is not what this post is about.

Years ago, I came across a write-up about a book that was coming out and I didn't need anything more than that write-up to order myself a copy.  One reading and I knew I had to use that as a required text for an Honors course.  That book?  On Bullshit.  

If you have been paying attention, then you would have come across a number of posts where I refer to the book and its author, Harry Frankfurt, who is an Ivy League philosopher.  (Like in this set of posts.)  One student withdrew from Honors because of that book as a requirement, and most students enjoyed it--especially the video interview with Frankfurt.

Who wouldn't love it!  Even the few sentences that Frankfurt writes to begin the essay will make you want to read more:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. 
DrB, who is one of the closest colleagues at work, was so fascinated by my constant talking about Bullshit that she invited me to talk with her class.  A music class!  I did.  Students loved it.  Since then, I have also been re-invited, more than a couple of times.  Was it last term, or the one before, that I talked to DrB's students, after which one of them came to my office to borrow my copy of Bullshit; he said he would return it.  Maybe he loves Bullshit way too much! ;)

A few months ago, DrB told me that she had picked up a book for her travels and that as a Bullshit fan I would love this book also.  The book?  Yes, you guessed it by now what the first half of the title of this post is.  

I told her it was an old book.  Turns out that she was not referring to The No Asshole Rule, which was a few years old, but to a different one: Assholes.  

Earlier today, she emailed me: "I will bring you Assholes, A Theory by Dr. Aaron James, PhD in Philosophy from Harvard..."

Isn't it wonderful to have a colleague who thinks only about me when she thinks about Bullshit and Assholes? ;)

What is James's book about?
What does it mean for someone to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often personally stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. Try as we might to avoid them, assholes are found everywhere—at work, at home, on the road, and in the public sphere. Encountering one causes great difficulty and personal strain, especially because we often cannot understand why exactly someone should be acting like that.
Asshole management begins with asshole understanding. Much as Machiavelli illuminated political strategy for princes, this book finally gives us the concepts to think or say why assholes disturb us so, and explains why such people seem part of the human social condition, especially in an age of raging narcissism and unbridled capitalism. These concepts are also practically useful, as understanding the asshole we are stuck with helps us think constructively about how to handle problems he (and they are mostly all men) presents. We get a better sense of when the asshole is best resisted, and when he is best ignored—a better sense of what is, and what is not, worth fighting for.
I am now thinking this: wouldn't it be interesting--I mean, interesting--to have the authors of Bullshit  and Assholes in the same room for a philosophy parlor?  Imagine a drinking game in that setting: a shot every single time the word "bullshit" or the word "asshole" is uttered. 

Ah, such is my life of Bullshit and Assholes. In more ways than one, of course! ;)

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