I make an effort not to swear in the presence of older ladies, minor children, and evangelical clergy. I reviewed Jesse Sheidlower's The F Word without using English's most versatile verb/noun/adjective/adverb/interjection. But over the past week I watched American journalism contort itself attempting to write about the Russian band Pussy Riot without actually naming it, and I thought, "Enough."
Today I am reviewing a book about a vulgar word and how it reflects American culture, and, damme, I am going to use it. So if your sensibilities are delicate, STOP READING NOW.
Let's take a moment to allow the audience to clear the exits.
Geoffrey Nunberg, the learned and urbane linguist (whose The Year of Talking Dangerously I've reviewed previously), has published Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years (Perseus/Public Affairs, 249 pages, $25.99). His argument, a compelling one, is that since the word asshole rose from the ranks (literally, from soldiers in the Second World War) into mainstream language, its prevalence reflects salient social and moral aspects of our culture.
Though not ranked among George Carlin's canonical seven, it is a bad word, a rude word, and its prevalence is one indication of the loosening up of speech, though that is not its most interesting feature.
You are familiar with louts, oafs, and jerks, and your reading of the literature of years past will have acquainted you with scoundrels and cads, but Mr. Nunberg argues that the asshole represents a cultural type peculiar to our time and place.*
His first example in the book you will recognize. You are patiently standing in line at a rental car desk at an airport. Flights have been canceled, and people are desperate to arrange transportation. As you stand there, a man pushes to the head of the line and demands of the clerk, "Where's the Gold Card line?" There you see the essential characteristics: a unjustified sense of entitlement combined, a willingness to violate social norms, an utter disregard for the feelings of other people, and, crucially, a lack of awareness that one is behaving like an asshole. You recognize the type. He (almost always a man; we have a different word for women) may be your boss.** The word has become "the primary name of a basic category of American moral life."
Another salient aspect of assholism is that it invites the same in response. The violation of social norms allows one to violate them in turn by insulting the asshole, calling him out by name. That establishes a sense of solidarity among who witness the bad behavior. This encourages a type Mr. Nunberg calls the anti-asshole, the person who can violate bourgeois conventions and social norms in the cause of punishing offenders. Think Dirty Harry.
There you will recognize how the phenomenon has infected our political discourse. In the antics on both left and right, Mr. Nunberg discerns that the insults aimed at blacks, gays, women, the wealthy, or others do not really intend to attack the ostensible target. Rather, outrageous things are said to energize a response of solidarity among the partisans, who imagine with glee how much the insult enrages the ostensible target. "The more of an asshole you can make your adversaries seem, the more of an asshole you can permit yourself to appear, so as to bond with your fellows with provocative gestures." It is a short-term technique to solidify the base, but not a means of governing.
The reciprocal dynamic, psychological and political, tends to draw everyone into a coarsened discourse that is difficult to resist. As Mr. Nunberg says, "The modern world provides us with more opportunities to make a display of forbearance, but not many of us are up to thinking about it that way."
I can only sketch here some of what Mr. Nunberg has to say about the cultural phenomenon encapsulated in this rude word, and I encourage you to look closely at his insightful and witty book, which tells us a great deal about who we are by looking at the way we talk to one another.
*Austen's Mr. Darcy, in his arrogance, anticipates the type, but is instead "one capable of repenting his haughtiness and turning into Colin Firth."
**Mr. Nunberg takes some time to describe various archetypes: General Patton, who was despised by both his subordinates and his superiors; Steve Jobs, who used the license we grant to geniuses to berate and humiliate nearly everyone he worked with; Donald Trump, who needs no further introduction.