THE IDEA THAT America harbors an epidemic of “assholism,” as Geoffrey Nunberg has it, is one that most people would spontaneously accept before feeling an urge to temper it. No doubt people in 1932 or 1872 had a similar feeling that their age was coarser than the last. Nunberg knows that they did, but he proposes that assholism is more rampant in society than ever before. This latter thesis, despite yielding some deft anthropology, is less successful than the first.
Nunberg rightly denies that we are less “civil” than in past eras, with their scurrilous journalism and endless complaints about bad manners in the streets. He usefully notes that the very word incivility “doesn’t belong to the moral vocabulary of everyday English, like polite, rude, and courteous; it is a word we learn from op-ed pieces, not at the family dinner table,” almost requiring, in its utterance, “simplistic narratives of cultural decay.” Nunberg zeroes in not on the “bounder” but on the asshole, which he defines as someone with a “culpable obtuseness”—think Malvolio rather than Iago—with a “brazen effrontery” (Kanye West comes to mind). Nunberg is entertainingly particular about the definition: “You can be an asshole for abruptly cutting into a line of cars waiting in the left-turn lane, but probably not for failing to signal a turn or texting while you drive. You can be an asshole for cheating on your wife or your girlfriend, but not for cheating on your expense reports or a final exam.”
Since the asshole has enough self-awareness to know the inconvenience he causes, we are less likely to apply the term to the foreign or unknown. Even if we knew that Osama bin Laden maltreated his wives and subordinates, we would be unlikely to call him an asshole. “Asshole” seems inapplicable to even the brattiest of children, and “men are even more likely to confess to having been an asshole than having been a prick”—that is, someone unsavory to the core of their being.
Nunberg is correct that asshole cannot be dismissed as lazy verbal vagueness just because it is profane. Meanings can be both vulgar and precise: we have a more particular sense of what raunchy is than prurient, and we know that prick means something more than the Oxford English Dictionary’s hazy “a vulgar term of abuse for a man.” Asshole is not even a substitute for a politer equivalent: “bug off and scram are slang for go away, and chuck and deep-six are slang for discard. But for us today, asshole isn’t a colorful substitute for jerk or boor.” Asshole occurs to most of us more immediately than either.
That happened rather recently. The first literary attestation of asshole is in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead: “Lieutenant (sg) Dove, USNR. A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole.” Yet at the same time Orville Prescott, reviewing the book in the New York Times, could still sniff in reference to the book’s obscene language: “It is probably truthful reporting, but it is unnecessarily offensive and marvelously tiresome.” In 1950, The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, for all of his contempt for “phonies,” said goddam and hell but never fuck up, No shit or asshole; Nunberg points out that “adolescent boys didn’t yet talk that way.”
Nunberg argues that asshole became a true part of the language after the 1960s, as class identification came to focus less on economics than culture. When even the affluent came to reject elite manners and diction as antithetical to authenticity, it became a signature societal gaffe to imply that one was more entitled than others were. The very essence of the asshole is his implication that one is allowed to break the rules despite inconveniencing others. Nunberg uses new text-searching technology to show that the term sense of entitlement exploded in usage just as asshole did, in the 1970s.
But Nunberg’s idea that the explosion of the word asshole means that there is more “assholism” is shakier. Nunberg argues that the transgressions of characters termed cads and bounders in Dickens and Austen, or heels in old songs and movies, were not those of the asshole per se. We see Mr. Darcy as an asshole for expecting Elizabeth Bennett to be thankful for his marrying someone below his class level, whereas Austen contemporaries fully sympathized, but looked down instead on Darcy’s self-congratulation.
But we could also say that societies differ over time in what qualifies as being, generally, a jerk. Today we most revile the person with a sense of entitlement and have a name for him. Two hundred years ago, the same brain centers lit up in people against the man who was too openly self-congratulatory, and there were names for him. But does this mean that there were also fewer people among them with the same sense of entitlement that rankles us? More likely it is that our sensibility makes us find that kind of person especially annoying. That, in itself, is a neat argument, but the corollary that there has been an actual “advent of the asshole” seems sensational.
Nunberg considers it to be further evidence that our political discourse has become so shrill. However, do the taunting animadversions of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck flow from a sense of entitlement over the rest of society, or over one target of scorn, the left? If it’s the latter, then we are faced not with a general sense of immunity from society-wide norms of decorum, but with a specifically targeted incivility—indeed different from assholism as Nunberg specifies earlier. Or, how are bloggers, or op-ed writers, being presumptuous towards society as whole—i.e. assholes—with a tone enjoyed by even the mildest-mannered of souls over morning coffee? Were writers like Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken, fond of the same tone, “assholes”—or even heels, cads, or bounders? To designate being snarky as being an asshole would apply the latter term with what most would consider too wide a brush under any definition.
The assholism argument ultimately feels grafted on to the argument about the tone of Fox News and blogs like Jezebel. Ultimately, Ascent of the A-Word is most valuable as an exploration of what the word means and why it came along when it did. If it is hard to confirm a peculiarly vehement assholism on the march, that, after all, is hardly bad news.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.