The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

On assholes and disagreements

Two articles crossed my laptop today. First, from New York, Stanford professor Robert Sutton makes an argument that "we are living in Peak Asshole:"

Sutton doesn’t want to be, you know, an asshole: “Most of politics is everybody calling everybody else assholes.” And assholism, after all, is contagious. “Nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior, unfortunately,” Sutton says. As he points out in his book, research shows that even a “single exposure” to negative behavior, like receipt of an insulting email, can turn a person into a “carrier.” “Literally like a common cold,” he adds. Similarly, when the president calls his detractors “haters and losers” in a tweet, when the wallpaper of life is made up of faces that belong to certified assholes like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Don Jr., etc., etc., ad infinitum, it most likely has a trickle-down effect. “The more assholes you’re around, the more asshole-y you get.” But there are other factors that have led to this explosion of assholes, Sutton points out, everything from heat and crowding to imbalances in power and the wealth gap. “The research says that when we’re in those situations, there’s envy going up, and sort of disdain goes down.” Research also shows that technology has increased the “asshole problem,” as Sutton puts it, because people are much more likely to be mean if they don’t have to make eye contact. And because technology has created the expectation for things to happen faster, and at all hours of the day, hurriedness and sleep deprivation have become major factors.

Although the new book seems exceptionally well timed, Sutton finished writing before the election, and he notes in it that he doesn’t buy into the adage that assholes finish first. The presence of a major-league asshole in the Oval Office would seem to prove him wrong, but Sutton stands by this theory. “The evidence generally is that when you treat people badly, the only time it really seems to work is if you’re in a zero-sum game and it’s a shorter-term game,” he explains. “And my perspective is that even if you’re in the zero-sum game, where the assholes get ahead, there’s all this negative carnage. The people around them, their physical and mental health and personal relationships, they all suffer. And I don’t want to go to Trump too much, but God, look how many people he’s gone through.” In the long run, he concludes, “people who treat each other with some civility generally do better.”

Very much in the same vein, New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens gave a lecture in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday about the dying art of disagreement:

To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.

And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.

There’s no one answer [about why this is happening]. What’s clear is that the mis-education begins early. I was raised on the old-fashioned view that sticks and stones could break my bones but words would never hurt me. But today there’s a belief that since words can cause stress, and stress can have physiological effects, stressful words are tantamount to a form of violence. This is the age of protected feelings purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization.

The mis-education continues in grade school. As the Brookings findings indicate, younger Americans seem to have no grasp of what our First Amendment says, much less of the kind of speech it protects. This is a testimony to the collapse of civics education in the United States, creating the conditions that make young people uniquely susceptible to demagogy of the left- or right-wing varieties.

Both articles are worth reading.

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