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.
Like I said, if you're looking for a Dave Berry type of topical comedy, then you might still love this book; but not because you found what you were looking for. This is a real work of contemporary moral philosophy that's heavy in anthropological and psychological emphasis.
Because, this is a solid work of scholarship for the masses, it avoids all partisanship, and therefore prizes reason over social or political extremes. He defines the various types of assholes in a taxonomy, like a biologists categorizing sub-species. Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh are both assholes, not because of James' politics, but because they are classified as such before any names are named.
Prof. James isn't kidding when he writes that this is a Theory. He's doing what philosophers are best at, setting up theories for social scientists, historians, and others to use to explain data, and to test an explanation for various phenomena. In fact, it would be great if more anthropologists stopped playing amateur philosopher themselves, and just go about testing theories like James' Theory of Assholes.
Because, this work comes from a true scholar, it seems really avoids a lot of the pop social science books being written these days by journalists, and non-specialists who don't often do well in evaluating the data they present. For example, James does a great job differentiating assholes from psychopaths, which is sorely needed; because of the recent books claiming that psychopaths are all around us -especially in business. I take issue with James' assessment that Assholes are worse than what he calls "Bitches." In most situations involving unequal power, I'd much rather deal with an asshole than a psychopath or a bitch. The difference is that the latter won't let you see it coming before you get stabbed in the back, whereas the asshole lays out his assholeness for all to see and deal with openly.
He openly states that the pursuit of the social and cultural causes of asshole production be tested by sociologists and anthropologists, and give more definitive numerical data. He opens up the discussion to how a society can destroy itself, like Easter Island, and I'd like to offer an anthropological way to explain and test James' theory. James' eludes that assholeness is a social role, and even functional; if mostly in a dysfunctional way for society writ large. I would propose that assholeness as James' presents it could be tested and explained through the theory of Cultural Materialism; i.e., assholes are assholes because they can be, and because such a role is in fact functional in the short-term for the fitness of individuals and their offspring. With changes in material reality the multivariate drivers of asshole production will either increase or decrease, not because we collectively choose either, as James tells us; but, because the infrastructure leads the superstructure as sure as we will choose to eat if we haven't eaten in a week before we'll read a book, if we also haven't read in that same week.
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