On Being an Asshole

Posted by Brian PCF
Jan 02 2013

“How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.” Apology, Plato

For those of you that haven’t read this or haven’t read it lately, what Socrates is saying here is that his accusers are full of shit. Note the title in its intended ironic form.

Some additional context may be necessary:

In this story, Socrates is on trial for “impiety and corrupting the youth.” What he actually was on trial for was for criticizing the leaders of Athens. The Athenian leaders fought back through this legal charade to shut Socrates up or get rid of him by exile.*

As the guys over at The Partially Examined Life point out, Socrates is doing the same thing to his accusers that he got in trouble for in the first place: criticizing their authority by pointing out they have no idea what they are doing.

Now whether or not you are a Platonist or a quasi-Platonist or a non-Platonist, you have an idea of what “being an asshole” is, and for the leaders (and many of the people) of Athens, Socrates was an asshole.**

Not only did he criticize the powerful of Athens, but he went out of his way to do it and taught others how to do it as well. He made it very clear in the Apology that he thought “the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Inherent in this is an insult to those that don’t take the time to question or criticize.

Two Socratic questions at the heart of being the less powerful:
1) Is there any way to criticize people with more power than you and not sound like an asshole?
2) Is there any incentive to criticize people with more power than you and try to not sound like an asshole?

To attempt the first question, as a starting point you can say “it depends.” If the people you criticize accept that they can learn and adapt from criticism and that those that criticize will be held in check by a politeness that extends from their shared audience, then both parties can survive without sounding like assholes, and vice versa.

Where the incentive lies is a tricker question. The more powerful party has the capability (and if Acton is to be believed, the desire as well) to destroy the less. So the incentive is to do so.

The less powerful party, sensing that the end game in this is either destruction or capitulation, will consciously or unconsciously choose a direction right out of the gate. If he accepts destruction, then inherent in this is the incentive to “take no prisoners”. If he accepts capitulation (we could call this “providing constructive criticism”), he must necessarily change his stance on many points to satisfy his rulers.

The other very large issue in this question is the idea that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” A larger and more powerful entity will by this virtue have more visibility, or a broader outreach. If they begin to criticize, castigate, or attempt to destroy the gadfly, the gadfly will only get more attention.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb regularly points out that a very significant amount of his popularity is brought about by the established media and banking sectors saying loudly and often that he has no idea what he’s talking about.***

The thing that brought about this whole post was listening to The Partially Examined Life Podcast and reading Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile. This took me down a rabbit hole of criticism on that book and also wanting to examine why I sometimes get called an asshole, something that only bothers me when I do not mean to be so (true to the famous definition of a gentleman: someone who is never rude except on purpose). The most succinct piece of knowledge that I have yet to fully wrap my head around is Taleb’s quote: “English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence toward the temporarily powerful) and arrogant-down (directed at the small guy).” The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

So where does this leave us?

As I don’t like neat conclusions, I’ll just ask two more questions to ponder in the comments or in later posts:

1) What’s the best way to manage “Arrogant-Down” as it relates to Acton’s warning about power corrupting?
2) What’s the best way to manage “Arrogant-Up” so we don’t end up like Socrates?

*You can read a nice blow-by-blow of the trial and some background about Socrates here.
**And why not, while we’re at it:

***Taleb, who is anti-Platonist in much of what he says, uses the same technique as Socrates.

7 Responses

  1. Newt says:

    This kind of reminds me of the new-age business question so often asked of managers/leaders (people with some or lots of power): Would you rather be feared or liked. In my experience, the person asking the question overwhelmingly thinks the right answer is fear, and the asking speaks volumes of the asker. As someone charged with managing/leading teams small and large, you don’t really need either. You need respect. You don’t need to be friends with everyone (and indeed should not be), and you don’t need fear if people believe you will make the hard but fair/right decision. But I think respected leaders often have good people willing to be an asshole up and learn from it. I don’t know how respected I am, but I love it when my one of my managers calls me a cocksucker and then explains why. He’s often right.

    I usually get rid of the people who change their stance to satisfy me too much.

  2. Brian PCF says:

    Thanks for the comment Newt. I think the issue with the Private/Voluntary versus the Public/Totalitarian dynamic adds some ambiguity here.

    I think we are programmed to cooperate and I think the adage of “lead, follow or get the hell out of the way” applies to voluntary groups and to a degree to states.

    But with voluntary groups, you can always just leave. With states, you rarely (except in Socrates case) have the option to just leave.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on that?

  3. Newt says:

    That’s a good point. I think with states in the US, we do see some “voting with your feet” in the strict American “state” sense, but it’s much more gray. For example, a lot of people unhappy with the various “systems” in California moved to Oregon. When I first moved to Oregon, it was a swing state, now it’s firmly blue (oh the irony, as Oregon becomes more like California because of it). But I’d hazard that’s as much economics as other things.

    I think in the true Sovereign, sense, you’re mostly right. Most won’t leave even in the face of that totalinariasm. And even then, they are often prevented (like the Jews in the Soviet Union who flooded to Israel after the fall).

  4. connie m says:

    never saw your blog before today. love it!

  5. Brian PCF says:

    Thanks Connie, very kind.

  6. Simon H says:

    I don’t think you’re an asshole :] I think you, like all of us, can be an ass. It’s hard not to be an alpha type male with testosterone and not be an ass to someone. It’s moving and establishing dominance, something testosterone makes us do. Moving in and out of that dominant state has a sense of balance. I think that’s different from being an asshole.
    But assuming asshole = being a temporary ass, managing “arrogant-down” should include some type of value to the tribe. That guy’s an asshole but he provides a lot of meat for us. Building value gives one the social right to be an asshole (on occasion).
    Arrogant up is tough, because it’s about establishing your dominance in society, or the social circle in question. It’s fraught with opportunities for ostracizing yourself. Today I think it’s about moving masses, marketing, media, etc. Much more complicated than the past, where it was about killing more boars, or something like that. Just my thoughts :)

  7. Brian PCF says:

    Thanks Simon, good stuff.