Friday, September 2, 2011

A little meditation on assholism

Ah... blogstorms. I love and hate them at the same time. I hate them because if, like me, one is a blogger who can't keep his cyber-mouth shut, they can prove to be an enormous expenditure (waste?) of time and energy. I love them, because without them, I would have less avenues to deposit the unceasing output of chitta vrtti.

So it was with the recent wave of criticisms of Okin Carmegorg (I'm starting to get to the point where I probably remember this anagram better than the original name...). There was a part of me that went, "Oh no, not another wave of this!" But another part of me was secretly happy, because now I have more things to ponder and write about.

One concept that came up quite a bit in this recent blogstorm is that of being an asshole. If you were following the blogstorm, you probably already know how this unfolded, but here's the short version of it: When accused of being mean/abrasive/nasty, one blogger, instead of defending herself directly, took the interesting move of declaring herself an asshole. As I understand it, she was essentially declaring: "My blog is a space in which I am free to express myself. And that includes being an asshole at least some, if not all of the time!" At least, this was how I understood her position.

Before I go on, I should make something clear: I have nothing against this blogger's stance; nor do I have anything against said blogger personally. On the contrary, I think this blogger is admirably honest and forthright in openly proclaiming such a position. I really, really think so; I'm not being sarsastic. 

But this nevertheless brings up a question: Is there a place for assholism (not sure if there's such a word, but whatever) in the yoga practice, in the blogosphere, and perhaps, in life in general? If there is, what would be the conditions under which one is justified in being an asshole?

Given what I do for a living, I can't go on with this discussion without trying to define the term under discussion. So, what is the definition of "asshole"? The online Urban Dictionary defines an asshole as (1) "someone being arrogant, rude, obnoxious, or just a total dickhead....", (2)"Your butt hole. Where your s#%t comes out." 

(2) is obviously an anatomical definition, and thus not what we are looking for. As for (1)... well, it seems to point us in the right general direction, but I think it is inadequate and not precise enough. Why? For one, it is possible for somebody to be arrogant, rude or obnoxious without being an asshole. Being rude or obnoxious is generally something we ascribe to particular things people do ("It was rude of me not to knock before I came in the door", "The music that was playing in that coffeeshop was simply obnoxious", etc.). Being arrogant can be described as a state of believing that one is superior to others by virtue of something one is or possesses. As for dickhead... the trouble is that if one defines "being an asshole" in terms of "being a dickhead", one would then have to define what "dickhead" is in order to understand what "asshole" is, and in philosophy (well, at least in analytic philosophy) one tries to avoid multiplying definitions whenever possible, unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Nevertheless, although (1) is inadequate as a definition of "asshole", we have actually learnt a few things about what being an asshole might amount to by thinking about what it is not. We now know, for instance, that while somebody can be rude or obnoxious without intending to be so, being an asshole is intentional: One cannot be an asshole without deliberately choosing to be one. Being an asshole is also more than simply believing that one is superior to others. In order to be an asshole, one has to believe that one is superior to others, and then adopt the appropriate attitude that would enable one to constantly remind others of one's supposed superiority, and to employ that attitude in such a way as to put others down and make them feel lousy.

Wow, who knew that being an asshole could be so much work? The thing, though, is that, as with any other acquired character trait, being an asshole becomes easier with practice. Indeed, I am pretty sure that the most accomplished assholes are those for whom the appropriate attitude and accompanying actions have become second nature, almost biological. This is where (2) might actually be useful in describing what an asshole is, even though it is supposed to be an anatomical definition. At the risk of being very crass, one might say that for the accomplished asshole, having the appropriate asshole attitude and accompanying actions come as naturally and smoothly as s#%t flowing out of the biological orifice of the same name.

Hmm... I started this post with the intention of pondering whether there is ever a place for assholism in yoga, in the blogosphere, and in life in general. But the task of finding an appropriate definition of "asshole" took up much more time and space than I expected. So I have not gotten to pondering this question. And I am too blogged out right now to write anymore. So I guess this question would have to wait for a future post. Yeah, this happens more often than not in philosophy: You start out trying to answer one question. And then you realize that you can't answer that question without first tackling another question. And that other question leads you down another rabbit hole. Oh well. At least we got our definition of asshole straight. So here's my official working definition of asshole:

"An individual who believes himself or herself superior to others, and consistently adopts the appropriate attitude and takes the appropriate actions to use her perceived superiority as a club to hit others over the head, put them down, and make them feel lousy about themselves."

Pretty neat definition, no?


  1. Yes, that is an absolutely awesome definition! Beautifully reasoned and conclusive! Love it!

    And for a common-sense answer to your other questions: I, for one, would greatly prefer to have as little assholism in yoga, the blogosphere, and life in general as possible. But I'm not holding my breath - ha ha, quite the contrary :)

  2. dear Nobel
    I'll be surprised if this comment goes through. i've missed your posts, sorry, they are so insightful and funny. I must say something related to this, but not in terms of yoga, but in terms of my work. in my work, there are superstars. they are reputed to be inmensely hard to work with if you are in their firms. what is understood is that the superstars are not intrinsically assholes, as you put it. it's that they are so often put down that they have to develop a thick skin and attitude that comes accross as arrogant, or otherwise they would be pushed aside. that explains the super egos in my profession. there might be a relationship to what you relate with yoga, but i doubt it, because at its foundation, yoga is about simplicity. i just think that some people are passionate about what they do and teach and become very strict about communicating it. they end up coming out as overly strong when they really are not. i'm softening my words, because i don't have the skills you have.

  3. Thanks, Carol. I just went to your blog and read about your experiences at the YFT. Very informative and beautifully written. Thanks!

    I tend to agree with you that less assholism is probably better than more in all areas of life. But I still can't help but wonder if there are people in this world who, because of their life experiences, are conditioned to deal with others in such a way that they come across as assholes a lot of the time (see, for example, Arturo's comment above). I also wonder if these people might actually play a positive role in society precisely because of their "asshole nature". For instance, sometimes we are so set in our ways of thinking and seeing things that only some really strong external stimulus (in the form of somebody coming up to us and getting the point across to us in an asshole-fashion) can jolt us out of our complacency and get us to change our views. It may even be that being an asshole is agent-relative: One person's asshole is another person's hero.

    Just thinking aloud here. Hmm... I have so much to say about assholism, I should find some way of incorporating this into my "real" academic work.

  4. Hello Arturo,
    well, your comment actually went through, and I am responding to it now :-) I do not work in the corporate world, but I have certainly heard many stories (yours included) about how one needs to be thick-skinned to the point of being seen as arrogant and overbearing to get what one wants. Like you, I also hope and believe that the same need not be true of yoga. After all, the very reason why so many of us practice yoga is to get away from (and hopefully, one day, change) this kind of behavior that is so prevalent in so many other areas of life.

    I'm very honored that you think so highly of my written communication skills. I have the feeling that I am one of those people who write a lot better than they speak; in fact, I have noticed that ever since I started blogging, I have become better at expressing myself face to face too :-)

  5. Agree, good debriefing Nobel ,love how you analyze these important themes. I did not catch the contoversy cause of everything going on at my end... At the same time i a, with Carol, hope to see less and less of those expressions, guess won't hold my breath either...

  6. Thanks Claudia. Yes, I hope to see less expressions of assholism (including from me), but then again, I probably won't hold my breath either. I hope you are getting better.

  7. My a$$holism hadn't happened until I was in my early 50s. I had been passed over/ignored/insulted/abused for years long before that.

    Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that it's a "chip on the shoulder", I do think something happens to even a timid woman once she becomes a crone (unless she's wealthy or extremely well-resourced) ...