On Assholes and Power: A Public Service Announcement

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ta-Nehisi Coates has what he deems a satisfactory definition of “asshole”, and I have to agree with him that it encapsulates the idea quite well, in all of its implications:

I think what we have here is a working definition of an asshole — a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms.

The implications being, although he doesn’t explore the idea in his article, that the very act of demanding that social interaction happen on one’s terms is in its deepest sense an illegitimate exercise of power. In his example, admittedly a banal one, the individuals making noise in the “Quiet Car” are in effect forcing everyone else to be subjected to their behavior without consulting them or worrying about how it affects them — that is, they’re demanding that everyone else accept their terms, and not asking. They simply don’t care, and not caring is one of the primary and most prized privileges of power.

We don’t need Foucault to tell us that power is generally more effective (in more or less democratic societies, that is) when it is invisible. Those of us who are part of a hierarchy, or who are sensitive to these phenomena, understand through experience that it is often the unspoken, hidden rules which govern the various organizations and relations most tightly because the unspoken rules, by virtue of them being unspoken, aren’t subject to modification. They are simply tacitly accepted, though unacknowledged. The implications of this are much broader, of course, but I simply wanted to show how power manifests itself in even the most ordinary occasions, because I don’t think it’s trivial — quite the contrary. Being aware of it on this small level can only help develop one’s awareness of it, and consequently to apply this knowledge to all other areas of one’s life. David Wong writes, in a quite perceptive piece at Cracked.com:

…he has the power, everything is fine. It’s not even that he disagrees on the issue; it’s that he refuses to acknowledge it as an issue at all. This will happen to you. You will be on one side of a conflict that does not feel like a conflict to you, because that is the conflict. […] You didn’t perceive yourself as being in a position of power because that is the main advantage of power — that you don’t have to think about it.

It’s actually a subtle observation. In other words, a healthy dose of a lack of self-awareness is necessary to any illegitimate exercise of power — and although the “check your privilege” refrain has become a knee-jerk platitude, it is grounded in a sound recognition that those in a position of power and privilege are often unaware of it, being shielded from this reality by that very privilege. Therefore, constant vigilance and self-monitoring are required to ensure that one isn’t being an asshole oneself — which is, of course, the whole point, as it is all too easy to recognize when others engage in egregious behavior while exonerating oneself. Don’t let it happen to you.

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