Blue Line

BACK OF THE BOOK – Assholes are a fact of life

February 26, 2013  By Robert Lunney

by Robert Lunney

Policing struggles for recognition as a legitimate profession against the stubborn conventional wisdom that authentic professions must possess the characteristics of established lines of work similar to the law, medicine and engineering. These include a standard code of ethics, professional organization and body of specialized knowledge which, arguably, should include the tenets of the profession, a specialized vocabulary and an accepted definition of terms.

That is all very well but policing is a highly practical occupation functioning in a gritty real-world environment. Some commonly used language may seem unusual, even vulgar, to outsiders but nonetheless essential to clarity of communication. Consider, as an example, the need for a common definition and body of knowledge essential to dealing professionally with assholes.

Two recent popular books offer information essential to understanding assholes, with a common definition and body of practical strategies for dealing with them. The first and most scholarly is by Professor Aaron James, an associate professor of philosophy, University of California, Irvine.¹


James hypothesizes that the asshole is not just another annoying person but a deeply bothersome person – bothersome enough to trigger feelings of powerlessness, fear or rage. People count as assholes when, and only when, they systematically allow themselves to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes them against the complaints of other people.

The asshole not only takes special privileges but refuses to listen when people complain.

The author goes on to enumerate categories such as the borderline asshole, the average proper asshole and the royal asshole. Anyone can act like an asshole, but a person can only be an average proper asshole through routine behaviour. Not surprisingly, the author finds that while women can sometimes meet the criteria, assholes are mostly men. (Please ensure you get the right order of this because it is NOT to say that all men are assholes). The author speculates this is a problem of socialization rather than male nature. If it is accepted that nurture and not nature is the prevailing influence, this is at odds with the notion of the born asshole.

The second book is by Dr. Robert I. Sutton, PhD², an authority on the workplace environment. Sutton stumbled into recognition of the rule during a team building session. Various candidates for recruitment were discussed, until one participant declared, “Well, okay, but no assholes.” The rule was subsequently adopted in the workplace.

Sutton went on to explore the principle in a wider context, developing a number of conditions for enforcing the rule such as: Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees; Get rid of assholes fast and; Assholes will hire other assholes.

As a preventive strategy he recommends linking big policies to small decencies. Sutton’s book is a and best seller. Inevitably, there are humourous passages such as this one describing a police officer’s encounter with an objectionable motorist:

Policeman to motorist stopped for speeding: “May I see your driver’s license, please?”

Motorist: “Why the hell are you picking on me and not somewhere else looking for some real criminals?”

Policeman: “‘Cause you are an asshole; that’s why. But I didn’t know that until you opened your mouth.”

Both volumes are a welcome contribution to the professional library of policing and solid assurance that police are not the only ones burdened by asshole behaviour. They belong on the shelf of every serious student of policing, together with Harry G. Frankfurt’s’ classic,

There is a gloomy observation gleaned from recent sociological studies. There seems to be more assholes than there used to be. Some observers see a link between overuse of social media that breeds narcissism, self-absorption and social distancing. If this is true and this behavior becomes entrenched, brace yourself for a rising tide of assholes.


¹Aaron James, Assholes – A Theory, Doubleday 2012

²Robert J. Sutton PhD, The No Asshole Rule, Business Plus 2010

³Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton University Press 2005

Print this page


Stories continue below