Assholes: Another Theory by James Miller
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In the film Assholes* *A Theory, Canadian documentary filmmaker, John Walker, asks the question, “Do you have to be an asshole to be a great filmmaker, artist, architect, whatever?”
Relying on serendipity to help him find the answer, Walker says he was guided to a book, Assholes* *A Theory, by Harvard educated, University of California Irvine philosophy professor and California surfer, Aaron James.
Walker buys the book and days later is at the beach interviewing James. James complains that surfers are used to having “paradise spoiled by crowds” [think Sartre’s, Hell is – other people] and says the asshole does it in a particularly pronounced way. James explains he’s not just “venting feelings” but “classifying the asshole as a certain type of moral personality”. This isn’t new. The more “refined” of us are quite capable of intellectualizing our condescension to those beneath us. Blacks, Jews, Indigenous peoples and other identifiable sub-humans receive this treatment. And not only individually but, more times than we’d like to admit, through government-initiated programs of brutal repression and genocide. China’s Uighurs are a recent example; Hitler’s final solution another and North America’s attempt to destroy American Indigenous peoples, another.
Walker takes the first step in the process of turning others into those we can justifiably hate by cutting to an interview with an imposing black man who, after Walker has introduced the theory, states, “It’s not just a theory it’s reality.” Walker doubles down, “It’s not just a theory?” The man responds, “Oh come on, it’s out there, it’s a reality.” This man, whose credentials aren’t identified, is imposing and forceful, so probably not a good idea to disagree with him.
In James’ book, the asshole is described on page five of the Doubleday hardcover I borrowed from the library as someone who:
Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically
Does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement
Is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people
In case you haven’t already guessed, my intent is to politely point out the many flaws I see in James’ theory. One that he doesn’t address fully is the proviso he seems to place on the last part of his definition, when he also states on page five, that the asshole is “extremely sensitive to perceived slights while being oblivious to his crassness with others.” To be immunized means to be protected against complaints while to be extremely sensitive to them is the opposite. Here James contradicts himself. More examples will follow but this and other issues, like a justification of violence, add up to a theory that is ill-conceived, full of unsubstantiated claims, and essentially insane.
Let’s move back to the film. Beautifully coifed Aimee Morrison, a Professor of Literature and Digital Humanities at the University of Waterloo says, “Asshole, you can really lean into it, right? That guy’s such an asshole.”
James and others, in particular an unidentified man in a red t-shirt, have no trouble telling us that there are numerous types of assholes and that they are found everywhere. He also states they are on the increase, a point James supports in footnote 16 on page 21, where he writes, “Even so, the near plague of narcissism in our culture might explain why there are more assholes than there used to be.” This statement is completely unsubstantiated. No figures are provided to support his contention. Exactly how and when assholes first started to be counted and how that number has increased in relative percentage to today’s current asshole/non-asshole population is not provided.
Heading to LA, Walker interviews people on the street and, though we’ve been told how prevalent assholes are there, he miraculously finds only, for want of a better term, non-assholes, to talk to. They waste no time in confirming for him what he wants to hear: Assholes are a real problem and we all have to deal with them. Curiously, given their identified ubiquitousness in LA, Walker never runs across a single asshole.
A number of interviewed individuals claim to be assholes but they really come across as people that are looking after what they consider their own self-interest and not fully demonstrating they have met James’ definition.
Suji Gellerman, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, says assholes, as narcissists, don’t even know other people exist so they aren’t even aware they’re being unkind, unforgiving or negating. One of Gellerman’s favorite assholes, the sexist, is particularly skewered for being unkind to young females that don’t fall into the perfect body image, or to women that have aged and are no longer attractive.
Is there any point in asking if Gellerman is being unkind, unforgiving and negating to assholes? Does an asshole deserve any consideration? But wait, isn’t that the qualities of an asshole? Feeling superior and dismissive? So, is Gellerman, using James’ definition, being an asshole to assholes?
Gellerman does offer a glimmer of positivity by saying there have been some she’s encountered that are willing to change and do so because they want to. There are moments of positivity in this film but they are hard to find given the self-righteous, judgmental and attacking tone it inherited from the book.
Gellerman’s note of hope is echoed later by Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law, Cornell University who tells the story of an unruly student who she advised to change his behavior by speaking when he had something relevant to say and avoid being annoying and obstructive. Colb said she didn’t expect him to change and noted her surprise when he became a model student, who later thanked her for telling him what no one had told him before.
Walker uses a series of montages from films and sit coms to lighten things up a bit. Sort of. Clips of actors calling each other assholes can distance us from the dynamic of conflict because we know it’s not real, but what is Walker’s purpose here? Is he at all interested in presenting us with an alternative or is he just reinforcing our right to judge and be angry?
We’re about eight minutes into seventy-eight minutes of mostly misery when the knives come out for real as we cut to a woman who lashes out at Harvey Weinstein.
“Harvey Weinstein, I think he’s a perv and an asshole. When you think you’ve got more money than God has and you can treat people any way that you want to, yeah, I think that’s sad.”
The kind of self-righteous anger that the #metoo movement and others like it inspire, commonly known as witch hunts, doesn’t allow for anyone to question what’s going on. There’s a huge sense of entitlement here. The few that tried to raise their voices were quickly silenced. But wait, isn’t that another aspect of assholery as Walker calls it? The knowledge you are so right there isn’t even another way to look at the question and if you don’t agree, you’re, you guessed it, an asshole.
Let’s go back to Walker’s bookstore and see if we can’t find another book or books that deal with assholery in a different way. As an aside my Word spell check had no problem with assholery but immediately flagged assholiness, (which would be an oxymoron) so I guess, to some, these are legitimate terms.
Let’s say, instead, Walker happened across the biggest selling book of all time: the Bible.
Most people, except for the ardent die-hard, of which there are many, will agree that the Bible is contradictory in its presentation of the “good news” aka the gospel and you have to look carefully at the teachings in it to find the two stories it really tells. And, you guessed it, the stories are of assholes and the holy.
Some passages point to the unity of creation and the call to unconditional Love, while others speak to its opposite. You want hatred and judgement, you can find it in the Bible, you want Love, you can find that, too. The question to ask is, “Which one makes more sense?” Or, to put it another way, “Which one leads to peace, the one goal we all share, and which one leads to despair?”
Consider these two opposing definitions of God and His Creation, us:
Psalm 7:11 tells us “God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day,” presents God as an infinite asshole counter. I can just see him with his little clicker in his hand, hanging over the edge of a cloud. He’s got to be fast to keep up and he won’t get any rest either. I think I’d prefer to be Sisyphus, at least he got a change of scenery.
Now, let’s look at the opposite as presented by Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount starting at Matthew 5:43.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
Reasonable definition of an asshole, don’t you think? Jesus continues:
That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
There might be a temptation to not fully appreciate the profoundly inclusive expression of unconditional love in these verses. “That ye may be children of your Father which is in Heaven” places everyone in Heaven, acknowledging the collective Oneness that is the “Son of God”. God’s love falls upon all through the analogy of the sun and rain, which pour down, regardless of what the person in the sun or rain is doing. The rain or sun can’t judge they simply fall and truly, it is the same with love. Love can no more judge than can the rain or sun.
To paraphrase a recent advertising campaign: Saints? Not without Canadian farmers. Sinners? Not without Canadian farmers.
Is Jesus really telling you to love the Weinsteins, Hitlers, Mansons, Homolkas, Mussolinis and assholes of this world?
To understand this seemingly incomprehensible concept, at least to the ego, let’s put the Bible back on the shelf for a moment and imagine Walker turned to another book, A Course in Miracles. First published in 1975, ACIM has been translated into 27 languages and sold in the millions. It primarily consists of a theoretical Text and a Workbook of 360 lessons. The only direction in studying the Course is the recommendation that no more than one lesson be studied a day.
I’m referencing the version of the book as published by the Foundation for Inner Peace.
ACIM is spectacularly beautiful in its language and uncompromising in its teaching. Lesson 127 There is no love but God’s, in the Course Workbook, mirrors Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
W-pI.127.1. Perhaps you think that different kinds of love are possible. 2 Perhaps you think there is a kind of love for this, a kind for that; a way of loving one, another way of loving still another. 3 Love is one. 4 It has no separate parts and no degrees; no kinds nor levels, no divergencies and no distinctions. 5 It is like itself, unchanged throughout. 6 It never alters with a person or a circumstance. 7 It is the Heart of God, and also of His Son.
W-pI.127.2. Love’s meaning is obscure to anyone who thinks that love can change. 2 He does not see that changing love must be impossible. 3 And thus he thinks that he can love at times, and hate at other times. 4 He also thinks that love can be bestowed on one, and yet remain itself although if it is withheld from others. 5 To believe these things of love is not to understand it. 6 If it could make such distinctions, it would have to judge between the righteous and the sinner, and perceive the Son of God in separate parts…
W-pI.127.4. No course whose purpose is to teach you to remember what you really are could fail to emphasize that there can never be a difference in what you really are and what love is. 2 Love’s meaning is your own, and shared by God Himself. 3 For what you are is what He is. 4 There is no love but His, and what He is, is everything there is. 5 There is no limit placed upon Himself, and so are you unlimited as well.
Walker also looks at what happens when an asshole becomes the leader of a country and shows how everything is simply magnified. He takes a swipe at a more contemporary political figure, Donald Trump, as he’s filmed walking outside the Trump Building with Robert Hockett a Law Professor at Cornelll University.
“I don’t know what it is but something about this place just makes me think of assholes,” says Walker and Hockett replies, “Yeah, I know what you mean there’s a distinct air of it here. Yeah, a very poignant, pungency to it.”
Instead, Walker examines former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. A wise choice that points out an aspect of being an asshole that isn’t among the prime traits listed: people can believe in assholes to the point of becoming violent in their defense. If, like many Canadians, Walker likes to sleep at night with his door unlocked, calling out Trump as an asshole is far more problematic than Berlusconi.
And, when you’ve been funded by the participation of the National Film Board, The Documentary Channel, Canada Media Fund and the assistance of the government of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Fund, the Canadian Video or Film Production Tax Credit and Rogers Telefund, a trip to Italy sounds like way more fun than trying to track down Trump.
Researching Berlusconi’s right to be called an asshole brings Walker to an interview with Lorella Zanardo, Italian Filmmaker, Writer and Women’s Rights Activist, who makes a stunning statement, “So Berlusconi’s an asshole, yes. We too. It’s a country of assholes.”
Let me cut to a film clip of my own, this one from Kinsey, where he’s making a statement about the need to be more forgiving of homosexuality, when he states, “Everyman’s sin is no man’s sin.”
Before leaving Berlusconi, let me mention, if the Wikipedia article on him is correct, he has been elected and served as a member of the European Parliament since 2019. And, in a note of levity, the section entitled, Jokes, Gestures and Blunders, states that “in September 2003, Berlusconi listed a series of reasons to invest in Italy, the first of which was that ‘we have the most beautiful secretaries in the world’. This remark resulted in outrage from female members of Italy’s parliament, who took part in a one-day cross-party protest. Berlusconi’s list also included the claim that Italy had ‘fewer communists, and those who are still here deny having been one’.”
One reason for checking out James’ book was to see the level of scholarly investment he’d put into it. To my great disappointment, he’d put a lot, referencing the philosophical writings of Socrates, Rousseau, Hobbes and the more contemporary thinking of others on the subject.
James seems obsessed with defining an asshole in a way that leaves it without synonyms and argues, on page eight, that what sets off an asshole as opposed to “a jerk, a boor, a schmuck, or a mere ass” is a stable trait of behavior. To support this line of reasoning, he points out on the same page that “A single courageous act or magnanimous act doesn’t make for a courageous or magnanimous person.”
I would argue the opposite. Medals are given out to people for one act of heroism. And those of us with the good sense and righteous qualities required to judge assholes, which is essentially all of us, don’t wait to see a series of asshole behaviors before we judge one. No one I know says, “Wait, before I judge this person to be an asshole, I have to see a stable trait.” Cut us off in traffic and we know exactly what you are.
James compares assholes to “fully cooperative people” on page 13 by stating “Fully cooperating people, we may say, see themselves as equals, as having grounds for special treatment only in special circumstances that others will equally enjoy at the appropriate times.” and uses birthday celebrations as one example. The asshole’s birthday, however, “comes every day” says James. (page 16).
One thing James doesn’t do is to look at the antithesis of an asshole because if he did, he would find something almost incomprehensible, at least to the ego, and defined as someone who:
Allows himself to enjoy no special advantages and does so systematically
Has no sense of entitlement, and, as a result,
Sees nothing to complain about and nothing to judge against.
This, in essence, describes the unconditional love previously mentioned in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and Lesson 127 from A Course in Miracles.
I’ve already noted a contradiction in James’ definition of an asshole, as being simultaneously insensitive and sensitive, but he makes an even greater contradiction. In analyzing “narcissistic personality disorder” a quality James ascribes to many assholes (footnote 16. on page 21) it’s suggested they believe they are “not getting the respect [they] deserve”. Yet on page 27 he states fully cooperative people want the same thing: “That is why otherwise coolheaded people fall into a fit of rage or lash out at the asshole: they are fighting to be recognized.”
So, it seems assholes and fully cooperative people, of whom James counts himself among the latter I am sure, share the same need to be recognized. What’s really happening here, I suggest, is that James is grappling with his belief that paradise has been spoiled by the actions of people in a world exterior to himself over which he has no control and, because he doesn’t know what to do about it, projects his discomfort onto others in an attempt to get rid of it. James has abrogated his responsibility for his happiness to persons and circumstances, which is the exact opposite of how love is described in Lesson 127 which “never alters with a place or circumstance.”
ACIM Section II. The Alternative to Projection from Chapter 6 The Lessons of Love addresses this. The passage refers to a “split in mind”, as a part of our awareness that allows us to believe we are separate and to pretend the negative qualities we see are in others are not found in ourselves. This is also a definition of the ego.
Any split in mind must involve a rejection of part of it, and this is the belief in separation. The wholeness of God, which is His peace, cannot be appreciated except by a whole mind that recognizes the wholeness of God’s creation. By this recognition it knows its Creator. Exclusion and separation are synonymous, as are separation and dissociation. We have said before that the separation was and is dissociation, and that once it occurs projection becomes its main defense, or the device that keeps it going. The reason, however, may not be so obvious as you think.
What you project you disown, and therefore do not believe is yours. You are excluding yourself by the very judgment that you are different from the one on whom you project. Since you have also judged against what you project, you continue to attack it because you continue to keep it separated. By doing this unconsciously, you try to keep the fact that you attacked yourself out of awareness, and thus imagine that you have made yourself safe.
Yet projection will always hurt you. It reinforces your belief in your own split mind, and its only purpose is to keep the separation going. It is solely a device of the ego to make you feel different from your brothers and separated from them. The ego justifies this on the grounds that it makes you seem “better” than they are, thus obscuring your equality with them still further. Projection and attack are inevitably related, because projection is always a means of justifying attack. Anger without projection is impossible. The ego uses projection only to destroy your perception of both yourself and your brothers. The process begins by excluding something that exists in you but which you do not want, and leads directly to excluding you from your brothers.
We have learned, however, that there is an alternative to projection. Every ability of the ego has a better use, because its abilities are directed by the mind, which has a better Voice. The Holy Spirit extends and the ego projects. As their goals are opposed, so is the result.
The Holy Spirit begins by perceiving you as perfect. Knowing this perfection is shared He recognizes it in others, thus strengthening it in both. Instead of anger this arouses love for both, because it establishes inclusion. Perceiving equality, the Holy Spirit perceives equal needs. This invites Atonement automatically, because Atonement is the one need in this world that is universal. To perceive yourself this way is the only way in which you can find happiness in the world. That is because it is the acknowledgment that you are not in this world, for the world is unhappy.
How else can you find joy in a joyless place except by realizing that you are not there? You cannot be anywhere God did not put you, and God created you as part of Him. That is both where you are and what you are. It is completely unalterable. It is total inclusion. You cannot change it now or ever. It is forever true. It is not a belief, but a Fact. Anything that God created is as true as He is. Its truth lies only in its perfect inclusion in Him Who alone is perfect. To deny this is to deny yourself and Him, since it is impossible to accept one without the other.
The perfect equality of the Holy Spirit’s perception is the reflection of the perfect equality of God’s knowing. The ego’s perception has no counterpart in God, but the Holy Spirit remains the bridge between perception and knowledge. By enabling you to use perception in a way that reflects knowledge, you will ultimately remember it. The ego would prefer to believe that this memory is impossible, yet it is your perception the Holy Spirit guides. Your perception will end where it began. Everything meets in God, because everything was created by Him and in Him.
Note that the Course uses the word atonement, not in the traditional sense of making up for a wrong action, but in the sense of the undoing of fear, which is the basis of all negative emotions, including anger. The first section of Chapter 1, The Meaning of Miracles, Principles of Miracles states in paragraph 26:
Miracles represent freedom from fear. “Atoning” means “undoing.” The undoing of fear is an essential part of the Atonement value of miracles.
The Course notes continuously that the ego urges the mind to identify itself with the human body, further emphasizing the idea of separation through the concepts of its weakness and eventual death.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, on page 61 of The Essential Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, says:
To identify with the body and yet to seek happiness is like attempting to cross a river on the back of an alligator.
In truth, you are Spirit.
The body has been projected by the mind, which itself originates from Spirit. If the wrong identification ceases, there will be peace and permanent, indescribable bliss.
Whether he believes in God or not, on page 24, James states he does believe in the fundamental equality of people, as Rousseau defines it, writing “Even so, nothing in the human social condition per se requires status competition. Instead, Rousseau suggests, we can acknowledge each person’s need for status recognition without treating anyone as either better or worse than another, we need only recognize each as fundamentally equal. All can rest content with this solution – except, of course, the asshole.”
When James excludes the asshole from this equation (pun intended) is he excluding assholes from resting content, or excluding himself and using assholes as his “excuse” for his discomfort?
This statement points to our definition of the antithesis of the asshole as the person who sees only equality or, if you prefer, Love or the Self, in all things and situations and can thus “rest content”.
James holds that assholes are responsible for the feelings they generate in him and others. On page three he states:
The asshole is not just another annoying person but a deeply bothersome person – bothersome enough to trigger feelings of powerlessness, fear or rage. To make matters worse, we may be unable to understand why exactly someone should be so disturbing.
That others can be in charge of or “generate” the feelings we have is, I would argue, the single greatest unchallenged “truth” of human existence. When properly and logically examined, this belief is false.
To paraphrase Christ’s sermon on the mount, Jesus is essentially saying, “Wait a minute, you don’t have to hate your enemies, you can actually choose to love them. You have control of your feelings. Your feelings are your own responsibility.”
At every moment we have a choice we can freely make: to love or to hate, to accept or to judge.
The ACIM Chapter 21 Reason and Perception addresses this issue. It states that not only are we responsible for our emotions, we actually generate our own experience. Consider this passage from Section II. The Responsibility for Sight:
T-21.II.1. We have repeated how little is asked of you to learn this course. 2 It is the same small willingness you need to have your whole relationship transformed to joy; the little gift you offer to the Holy Spirit for which He gives you everything; the very little on which salvation rests; the tiny change of mind by which the crucifixion is changed to resurrection. 3 And being true, it is so simple that it cannot fail to be completely understood. 4 Rejected yes, but not ambiguous. 5 And if you choose against it now it will not be because it is obscure, but rather that this little cost seemed, in your judgment, to be too much to pay for peace.
T-21.II.2. This is the only thing that you need do for vision, happiness, release from pain and the complete escape from sin, all to be given you. 2 Say only this, but mean it with no reservations, for here the power of salvation lies:
3 I am responsible for what I see.
4 I choose the feelings I experience, and I decide upon the goal I would achieve.
5 And everything that seems to happen to me I ask for, and receive as I have asked.
6 Deceive yourself no longer that you are helpless in the face of what is done to you. 7 Acknowledge but that you have been mistaken, and all effects of your mistakes will disappear.
T-21.II.3. It is impossible the Son of God be merely driven by events outside of him. 2 It is impossible that happenings that come to him were not his choice. 3 His power of decision is the determiner of every situation in which he seems to find himself by chance or accident. 4 No accident nor chance is possible within the universe as God created it, outside of which is nothing. 5 Suffer, and you decided sin was your goal. 6 Be happy, and you gave the power of decision to Him Who must decide for God for you. 7 This is the little gift you offer to the Holy Spirit, and even this He gives to you to give yourself. 8 For by this gift is given you the power to release your savior, that he may give salvation unto you.
T-21.II.4. Begrudge not then this little offering. 2 Withhold it, and you keep the world as now you see it. 3 Give it away, and everything you see goes with it. 4 Never was so much given for so little. 5 In the holy instant is this exchange effected and maintained. 6 Here is the world you do not want brought to the one you do. 7 And here the one you do is given you because you want it. 8 Yet for this, the power of your wanting must first be recognized. 9 You must accept its strength, and not its weakness. 10 You must perceive that what is strong enough to make a world can let it go, and can accept correction if it is willing to see that it was wrong.
T-21.II.5. The world you see is but the idle witness that you were right. 2 This witness is insane. 3 You trained it in its testimony, and as it gave it back to you, you listened and convinced yourself that what it saw was true. 4 You did this to yourself. 5 See only this, and you will also see how circular the reasoning on which your “seeing” rests. 6 This was not given you. 7 This was your gift to you and to your brother. 8 Be willing, then, to have it taken from him and be replaced with truth. 9 And as you look upon the change in him, it will be given you to see it in yourself….
T-21.II.13. Yet the truth is you and your brother were both created by a loving Father, Who created you together and as one. 2 See what “proves” otherwise, and you deny your whole reality. 3 But grant that everything that seems to stand between you and your brother, keeping you from each other and separate from your Father, you made in secret, and the instant of release has come to you. 4 All its effects are gone, because its source has been uncovered. 5 It is its seeming independence of its source that keeps you prisoner. 6 This is the same mistake as thinking you are independent of the Source by which you were created, and have never left.
Before you dismiss the idea that we can choose to love, regardless of circumstance, and perhaps even more radically, that we generate our experience, consider this. Only our life experience that we deem to be objectionable or uncomfortable is generally thought to come from something or somewhere else. When “good” things happen we often ascribe them to the hard work of the person involved. He or she is a “self-made” person who has earned the good things they are enjoying. But life’s experience, to be understandable, needs to be consistent and we have two choices: either we make all our life experience or we are in all cases at the whim of some unknown force outside ourselves and beyond our control.
James further externalizes the ability to be content or happy when in the same paragraph on page 24 just mentioned he states:
According to Rousseau, healthy self-love does not require comparing oneself to others at all; feeling worthy does not necessarily involve feeling superior to someone. Yet we invariably care and rightly do care about how we are regarded by others in our social relationships.
Oh my! In addition to not being responsible for our feelings, our happiness and self-worth depend, according to James, on how others feel about us. And, since those feelings are rarely honestly given in polite society one has to ask how we are to know how we are regarded by other? And, are those feelings absolute and not to be unquestioned as just or reasonable? How about in those cases where those judging us disagree? Can I choose to accept the feelings of admiration I receive from those around me rather than those of condemnation? Does the depth of feeling make any difference, for example, is one person’s complete disdain for me canceled out by three that have a mild acceptance? And what if someone changes the way he feels about me? Do I get just a plus one, or plus two, since I’ve been moved from a negative to positive and vice versa? Finally, is how others feel about me the determiner of who I am?
Let’s rewrite Descartes in these terms: I am what you think of me.
We mentioned Gellerman’s disdain for those that would judge women and girls on the basis of their physical attractiveness, yet James seems to support this kind of thinking when he says we “rightly do care about how we are regarded by others in our social relationships.” It’s worth noting that social media has become a powerful means for young girls to gain an insubstantial sense of self-worth, mostly through their physical appearance, as judged by the number of friends and positive comments. This is to be weighed against negative judgments that can lead to depression and, in some cases, suicide.
I’ve mentioned the concept of sanity earlier and, to me, the idea that someone’s feelings about me can determine how I should feel about myself or, more deeply, who I am in reality, is the height of lunacy.
James uses the first 37 and a half pages of his book to describe what an asshole is and then launches into a lexicon of the various types. First, the traditional: boorish, smug, boss, royal royal (I kid you not), presidential, corporate, reckless and self-aggrandizing. The next chapter to newer players: self-aggrandizing with a moral pretext, cable news, delusional and delusional banker. Unfortunately, those first 37 and a half pages aren’t enough as James then turns to another chapter to more fully discuss assholes in terms of gender, nature and blame.
James allows that, in most cases, the material cost assholes add to the lives of others is not that consequential but instead of using this as a reason to forgive them, he chooses to see assholes as “morally repugnant”  when they fail to see us as human beings, or  as “morally real.” And, given his already mentioned dependance for his sense of self on an external world and the thoughts and feelings of others, it’s understandable why James feels so threatened. So much so that he actually suggests physical violence in the form of a “sound beating” as a solution to the asshole problem  but recommends against it, not because it is morally repugnant but rather because it has “little to no chance of bringing the asshole around.” How astute. Are there any cases known where to effectively change someone’s mind beating them was a success? You might control behavior through physical violence but, rarely, if ever, change the mind, especially when you want to instill in the person you’ve just assaulted a sense of the equality, respect and, dare I say it, love, you have for them and want to share with them.
I can’t help but wonder if Doubleday in publishing his book and the previously mentioned sponsors supporting Walker in his documentary, or Walker himself, were fully aware that James actually discussed beating assholes as a solution to the problem.
Is it safe to say that with the suggestion of violence, James is failing to see assholes as morally real and, thus, using his own definition, making himself not only an asshole, but a Harvard educated one who seems totally unaware of himself? How unaware? Well, for example, by being able to label assholes as “morally repugnant” while being unable to find a call to beating them as equally repugnant. This could be labeled as disassociation. Can I wonder, had he the power, if James might come up with a final solution to this problem, something many have for others deemed worthy of hatred for reasons as trivial as the color of their skin or religion? Actually, to my dismay, he does just that in the book’s final chapter.
On page 25 James argues, “If being a person with basic moral status means anything, it at the very least means that one is owed respect and consideration as being endowed with capacity to reason.” Respect seems a difficult thing to find. Sir John Franklin was lost along with all the members of his party searching for the Northwest Passage and, as far as I know, Aretha Franklin’s search for respect was equally fruitless, even though she sang about it thousands of times before her death. Respect, I think, is a lot like love, if you give it, you get it. Demand either and they disappear.
In the next sentence, James makes an interesting claim, writing, “In particular people are endowed with powers that enable them to consider and evaluate how someone has acted.”
Yes, we can judge others, but it’s a completely subjective process and as a species we’ve proved particularly bad at it. Just one of a plethora of areas judgement centers on is the right of a woman to abort her pregnancy versus the right of others who tell her she must carry her child to term. Supporters of the first case point to the freedom to control one’s body and that anyone who would take that away is imposing their belief system on them. Supporters of the latter, in the extreme, argue that they are preventing murder.
We’ve already spoken of the Bible’s contradictory messaging and in the case of judgement we see it so extreme it’s almost incomprehensible unless one side or the other is chosen. Christ continually urges us not to judge. In Matthew 5:7 He states:
“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged.”
Yet in Matthew 25:31-46 we see the “Son of Man” (presumably Christ) sitting on his throne and separating the sheep, those who loved and took care of each other, sent to life eternal, and those who did not, the goats, to everlasting punishment.
A question: If Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, tells us to love those that persecute us, which it could reasonably be argued means to give up any judgment against them, and tells in us in Matthew 5 not to judge, does it make any sense for Jesus/God to be actually less loving, more judging, than He calls us to be? Could God set a higher standard of loving for us than for Himself? This seems incomprehensible.
The process of judgment is at the heart of James’ theory of assholes because if you couldn’t judge, or shouldn’t judge, assholes wouldn’t exist. And the state where judgment doesn’t exist is in the love that, “never alters with person or a circumstance” in Lesson 127, as previously mentioned.
Christ has taught to judge what you think of others is really to judge yourself. I’ve already called this disassociation and another word for it is separation. Judgment then is based on the false belief you are separate from what you are experiencing and projecting that judgment to an “external world” that doesn’t exist. The knowledge that separation is an ego-based illusion is what sets you free. Subsection VI. Judgment and the Authority Problem in ACIM Chapter 3 The Innocent Perception addresses this:
T-3.VI.1. We have already discussed the Last Judgment, but in insufficient detail. 2 After the Last Judgment there will be no more. 3 Judgment is symbolic because beyond perception there is no judgment. 4 When the Bible says “Judge not that ye be not judged,” it means that if you judge the reality of others you will be unable to avoid judging your own.
T-3.VI.3. You have no idea of the tremendous release and deep peace that comes from meeting yourself and your brothers totally without judgment. 2 When you recognize what you are and what your brothers are, you will realize that judging them in any way is without meaning. 3 In fact, their meaning is lost to you precisely because you are judging them. 4 All uncertainty comes from the belief that you are under the coercion of judgment. 5 You do not need judgment to organize your life, and you certainly do not need it to organize yourself. 6 In the presence of knowledge all judgment is automatically suspended, and this is the process that enables recognition to replace perception.
The concept that we can’t really understand our brothers or ourselves until we suspend judgment is a novel one but James certainly uses judgment in purely negative terms. Finding something good in the asshole is problematic and James struggles, for example, with Rousseau who he admires as a great philosopher and yet, also sees him as an asshole for fathering numerous children and sending them off to orphanages. In more contemporary terms, can today’s asshole, the one who cuts us off in traffic, actually benefit society? Is he, perhaps, on his way to performing life-saving surgery, albeit so that he can pay for his expensive car and condo?
The idea that we are actually united in one mind with God threatens the very existence of the ego-based belief in separation and gets very little consideration by James. In fact, solipsism, the philosophical concept that only the mind of the experiencer can be certain to the experiencer, seems to be rejected out of hand. On page 27, James quotes Thomas Nagel from his book, The Possibility of Altruism in reference to the cooperative person’s struggle to be seen by the asshole as “one among others equally real”. In footnote 24 James notes:
Nagel uses this phrase to explain how the ethical egoist, who only sees reason to do what is ultimately in his own interests, fails to see himself as but one among equally real others, and so falls into a kind of solipsism. The asshole is not the pure egoist, but otherwise we merely have a different emphasis: the objector seeks to intrude upon the asshole’s solipsistic view of the moral world.
For James, solipsism is a trap we can fall into, but I would argue it is a trap he has set for himself in the sense that he sees himself as separate and has accepted that state as a reality that no longer needs to be questioned. And where does all this happen? Where else can in happen but in the mind? Paragraph 8, following on the passage just quoted, states how the unsubstantiated belief we created ourselves and are separate, is a source of fear and anger:
T-3.VI.8. 2 When you have an authority problem, it is always because you believe you are the author of yourself and project your delusion onto others. 3 You then perceive the situation as one in which others are literally fighting you for your authorship. 4 This is the fundamental error of all those who believe they have usurped the power of God. 5 This belief is very frightening to them, but hardly troubles God. 6 He is, however, eager to undo it, not to punish His children, but only because He knows that it makes them unhappy.
The concept of a world where judgment is unwarranted is found in the Sikh faith. Consider this from the Sikhs for Humanity Edmonton Community Food Aid handout, distributed in Sherwood Park on September 25, 2021.
But, Guru Sahib elucidated that when we imbibe the eternal wisdom (The Truth, Satgur) with humbleness, implement it and live a life without any ego or pride of one’s virtues, then that can be called meeting with God in the real sense. …When, one frees from thinking oneself to be special, religious, virtuous or from a high-caste, then one stops labelling others as untouchables, low-caste, sinners or atheists because then one realizes no one can be labelled as a sinner or virtuous.
Two other books, The Other Voice and Journey Beyond Words, support the Text and Workbook of ACIM.
Love 1 in Journey Beyond Words states the following:
Realize that all of Creation, every aspect, whether it be what you call physical, or what you call spiritual, is the same, and is a dance. It is a dance of Oneness. It is a dance of all aspects of Creation, the part of the Self you are calling you, the part of yourself you are calling the animals, the part of yourself you are calling the stars, and the part of your Self you are calling the other humans.
And for them, the others, whom you imagine to be separate from yourself, it is the same. For they are your Self. And it is all a magnificent dance, a magnificent symphony of cooperation and sharing, and Oneness. For without the full cooperation (Note even the word “cooperation” implies separation) of all other aspects of the universe, you could not experience it as you do.
Insofar as you believe that any of it does something different from that which you have desired, what you experience cannot be real love. That belief is the primary source of all this illusion. That belief is the only source of your tears, your pain, your sickness, your grief, your worry, your anger and your doubt.
Then, for you, love shall become the knowing that you have long since BECOME, that you long since ARE, everything you see.
Imagine something which you do not like. Then realize it is only an aspect of your Self. Realize also that there is no goodness, nor badness, in you. That aspect which you perceive to be something you do not like is but an aspect of your Self needing an experience, within the realm of your freedom and your joy.
As you accept that aspect of your Self you do not like, allowing it its freedom and joy, and likewise accept, in its freedom and joy, the aspect of your Self which you call yourself, you shall realize that the two are one and the same.
Then how can you hate? How can you be angry? How can you not forgive? Recall, forgiveness is the purpose of this Course. And your forgiveness is the realization that YOU ARE YOUR WORLD. You cannot label anything as bad, or as good, that you simply cannot judge at all.
For if you label one thing as bad, and another as good, then what you have done is split your Self. And how can you live, if you have been split asunder by your own imaginings? When you talk about anger, or fear, or hatred, that is, indeed, what you are doing. You are trying to imagine that somehow you have been able to rend asunder that which is One, that which is you…
So realize that God, in loving you, has become you. You are nothing more than the expansion of God. And then your love and your forgiveness shall become the same. For they are your awareness that your entire world is but the expansion of your Self, which is really the expansion of God.
The time has come to put this treatise out of its misery.
In Accepting the Given, the book’s final chapter, James’ message is that life is essentially unfulfilling and true peace an impossibility. Libraries and bookstores, especially the new age ones, should start clearing their sections dealing with spiritual development. The “self-help” section, as part of billion-dollar industry, should also be purged, based as it is on the lie that life is a marvel to be enjoyed and that true happiness exists. The final solution would be to strike the words love and forgiveness from the dictionary and from any books in which they are currently found. People, get your markers and scissors ready.
James’s offers a “promising answer” to be explored in this final chapter: there is a way of accepting life while finding much morally unacceptable about it. 
I’ve already mentioned James’ introducing statements that are completely contradictory. It’ almost as if he doesn’t believe his ideas should logically tie in with the next to create a complete and coherent whole, but then he doesn’t believe anything is whole.
Earlier, James’s rejected physically beating assholes as a solution “because it wouldn’t work” yet doubles down on the concept that punishing assholes is a way to redeem them. He notes of assholes on page 175, “Any attempt to eliminate them entirely would either fail or amount to tyranny.” Curiously, again, given the importance of the idea, he continues in a footnote on the same page:
How would that attempt work? Would we enact asshole three-strike laws? If you swerve through three lanes of traffic, park in the handicapped zone, and speak rudely to the coffee shop barista, you get ten years in jail plus time in an asshole reeducation camp? But would we not invariably sweep up innocent non-asshole jerks or pricks in the enforcement juggernaut? And would not assholes take over the asshole witch hunt?
(A note on footnotes: In my opinion footnotes are a scholarly invention that sends the reader to the bottom of the page and requires them to return to the section that sent them there. This is an unnecessary distraction. If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying where and when it is germane.)
It really is hard to know how serious James is in presenting this “theory” about assholes. The proposal for the creation of a society dedicated to the arrest, incarceration and reeducation (note that nothing is said about a trial) of assholes is hard to take seriously, bemusing and laughable, except for the fact that in this world, other words have replaced “asshole” on seemingly countless occasions to create tyranny and witch hunts. Add rape, torture, solitary confinement and other unpleasantries to the list of remedies, and replace asshole with the “other” of your choice, or any of following: Jews, Christians, Protestants, Muslims, Uighurs, heretics, homosexuals, fornicators, prostitutes, Indigenous peoples, skin color, and James’ message really does become rather disturbing. I think it’s reasonable to argue that James has adopted and is promoting the very mindset he so vehemently despises. Is this the pinnacle of unawareness?
In the last paragraph of this final chapter James says we should “hold out in cooperative faith and adopt attitudes that encourage – attitudes such as tolerance, mutual understanding, and long suffering” but really what’s been argued, ad infinitum, is the despair found in the fact that assholes have made life intolerable and we can’t get rid of them.
Any positive alternatives that he introduces are dismissed. We’ve already mentioned solipsism. Earlier in Accepting the Given, James refers to:
Hegel’s “obscure claim that ‘Spirit’ achieves freedom when the subject finds itself in its own object, so that ‘it is home with itself in its own otherness as such.’ In plainer language: in accepting what is given we can, like the lilies of the field, be at peace with our world and so with ourselves.”
The merging of otherness with itself, is essentially what I’ve been arguing throughout and it’s nice to see it supported here, but it gets amazingly short shrift as James labels it “obscure” and soundly rejects the idea in next paragraph:
If peace depends on accepting the given, and assholes are a given fact of life, but assholes are also unacceptable, then being at peace seems to require accepting the unacceptable. To the extent that this is impossible or unjustified, so also is peace.
James has made, in my opinion, an attempt to come to terms with what he regards a serious problem the world faces. I believe he’s failed to really offer any solid advice and created a “theory” that is logically inconsistent and essentially defeatist. For James, reality is a divided world that shall ever be so. If as the Course states “to heal is to make whole”, it will never happen under James’ watch.
Consider this excerpt from Lesson 41 God goes with me wherever I go.
- The separated ones have invented many “cures” for what they believe to be “the ills of the world.” ²But the one thing they do not do is to question the reality of the problem. ³Yet its effects cannot be cured because the problem is not real. ⁴The idea for today has the power to end all this foolishness forever. ⁵And foolishness it is, despite the serious and tragic forms it may take.
- Deep within you is everything that is perfect, ready to radiate through you and out into the world. ²It will cure all sorrow and pain and fear and loss because it will heal the mind that thought these things were real, and suffered out of its allegiance to them.
- You can never be deprived of your perfect holiness because its Source goes with you wherever you go. ²You can never suffer because the Source of all joy goes with you wherever you go. ³You can never be alone because the Source of all life goes with you wherever you go. ⁴Nothing can destroy your peace of mind because God goes with you wherever you go.
- We understand that you do not believe all this. ²How could you, when the truth is hidden deep within, under a heavy cloud of insane thoughts, dense and obscuring, yet representing all you see? ³Today we will make our first real attempt to get past this dark and heavy cloud, and to go through it to the light beyond.
- From time to time, you may repeat the idea if you find it helpful. ²But most of all, try to sink down and inward, away from the world and all the foolish thoughts of the world. ³You are trying to reach past all these things. ⁴You are trying to leave appearances and approach reality.
- It is quite possible to reach God. ²In fact it is very easy, because it is the most natural thing in the world. ³You might even say it is the only natural thing in the world. ⁴The way will open, if you believe that it is possible. ⁵This exercise can bring very startling results even the first time it is attempted, and sooner or later it is always successful. ⁶We will go into more detail about this kind of practice as we go along. ⁷But it will never fail completely, and instant success is possible.
- Throughout the day use today’s idea often, repeating it very slowly, preferably with eyes closed. ²Think of what you are saying; what the words mean. ³Concentrate on the holiness that they imply about you; on the unfailing companionship that is yours; on the complete protection that surrounds you.
- You can indeed afford to laugh at fear thoughts, remembering that God goes with you wherever you go.
I’d like to report that the book’s final chapter marks its end, but I can’t. Instead, a roughly 15-page “Letter to an asshole” follows. Written, says James, in the spirit of Horace’s epistles, it’s logical to assume that philosophers are assholes and vice versa, else why would you write to them in philosopher’s language?
I conclude with a comment on James’ decision to dedicate his book to his parents, and a final quote. Can you imagine dedicating a book to those that brought you into this world that essentially says life is misery? I can just imagine him emailing them in delight:
Hello Mom, Dad. I assume you are well. I have great news! My book about assholes has been accepted for publication by Doubleday. I guess all that money invested in my Harvard education has paid off for me and the world, as I’ve finally proved, as conclusively as anything in philosophy can be proved, that happiness is beyond our reach because assholes spoil existence beyond repair. While some might argue that only an unwarranted sense of entitlement would allow me to reach such a conclusion on behalf of those occupying this world with me; I stand by my theory that the world “sucks”. My message to my detractors is, “If you don’t like it, get over it!”
With much love, your beloved son, Aaron. P.S. Looking forward to Thanksgiving at the cabin on the lake.
The final quote, from the final paragraph from the Introduction to ACIM Chapter 21: Reason and Perception.
Damnation is your judgment on yourself, and this you will project upon the world. ²See it as damned, and all you see is what you did to hurt the Son of God. ³If you behold disaster and catastrophe, you tried to crucify him. ⁴If you see holiness and hope, you joined the Will of God to set him free. ⁵There is no choice that lies between these two decisions. ⁶And you will see the witness to the choice you made, and learn from this to recognize which one you chose. ⁷The world you see but shows you how much joy you have allowed yourself to see in you, and to accept as yours. ⁸And, if this is its meaning, then the power to give it joy must lie within you.
James Miller, November 2021