On Monday Vivian covered the fact that Harry Potter himself Daniel Radcliffe has some admittedly racist friends, which led to a long discussion in the comments about judging a person’s value based on their sometimes wrong beliefs. That of course led to a longer and more detailed discussion on people’s beliefs and their standing as a “good” or “bad” person. Should racism be a deal breaker in relationships? Can people appropriately judge me based on my beliefs? Do my beliefs make me an asshole?
Short answer: yes.
So, yeah, I did just call you an asshole. But before you get too pissed off about that, being an asshole doesn’t mean that you’re a worthless person who deserves to be cast out from society. I’m not arguing that there’s an objective body that declares a person an asshole or not, and which can dole out some form of punishment. I’m arguing that how we view ourselves, our loved ones and our collective beliefs makes up the bulk of our ethics and it’s better for us if we view those things through the prism of being an asshole. It’s better for three specific reasons:
Everybody Thinks Somebody Is An Asshole
Anytime you establish and express a belief, someone will establish and express an opposite belief. And just like that, you two are inverse assholes. The Duggars believe I’m going to hell for being a heathen atheist, and I believe they’re an abusive cult with a deep-seated fear of sex and affinity for oppressing women. I think Trump fans are racist xenophobes, they believe I’m a bleeding heart hippie destroying ‘Murica with my PCity. People on my Facebook feed post memes about how Blue Lives Matter, and I shout, “Of course they do. Now could you please stop killing unarmed black people?!”
The only time no one thinks you’re an asshole is when you’ve adopted beliefs so wildly bland that they are unable to court controversy. And with the exception of Jimmy Fallon, Ellen, and NPH, no one can do that and still be likable (and things are still real iffy for Fallon). If you’re uninteresting enough that no one hates you, chances are you’re uninteresting enough that no one really likes you either. Bear in mind, being an asshole has nothing to do with how nice you are. I’m sure the Pope is a very polite gentleman. When he says that we shouldn’t judge gay people, that Christian beliefs dictate helping the poor or that atheists aren’t necessarily the hellbound scum Catholics used to believe us to be, I think, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.” And when he says bullshit about how acceptance of trans people is terrible, I think, “That guy can go fuck himself.” Because his beliefs and actions, not his manners, exhibit his morality. Speaking of which:
Being An Asshole Isn’t An All Or Nothing State
Very few people are total assholes or totally-not assholes. If people were absolutely terrible in literally every conceivable way, they would either have no relationships and no contact with the outside world or they’d be the GOP nominee for president. But that’s not most people. Your coworker is an asshole who cracks sexist jokes and talks over you in meetings, but he also coaches a little league team for low income kids. He’s still an asshole, he’s just an asshole who has some redeeming qualities. The one doesn’t negate the other. Helping an elderly woman with her grocery bags doesn’t entitle some guy to One Free Street Harassment Of The Woman Of His Choosing. Which means Radcliffe’s friend might be kind, caring, thoughtful friends to him in some ways. But being a racist still makes them assholes.
And by the way, refraining from unethical, immoral or illegal behavior doesn’t make a person “good.” That is literally the bare minimum required to be a decent human being. Not beating your wife, not calling for the genocide of minorities, not being a hitman? These are not testaments to a person’s moral fortitude, they’re the bare minimum requirements to exist in society. Similarly a person who is kind to their loved ones isn’t necessarily not-an-asshole either. Blake Shelton is a racist, sexist, xenophobic asshole who is nice to Gwen Stefani because he likes her and wants to continue having sex with her. The fact that he treats his girlfriend/friends/fans well only indicates that he’s willing to maintain relationships that are beneficial to him.
None of which is to say that you need to stop being friends with the assholes you know. Requiring that would mean no one is friends with anyone ever. But it’s important to know the ways in which your friends are assholes, and be able to justify to yourself continuing that relationship. That part is important because:
Being An Asshole Makes You A Better Person
Acknowledging that you are an asshole can be difficult. For the most part, we’ve been raised to believe that we are, in fact, “good” people. And even when we haven’t been explicitly instructed to believe that we’re good by parents or caregivers, our brains cope with negative information about ourselves by lying. Our egos require that we see ourselves as good people so our brains make that happen for us.
Only “good” people don’t have any reason to improve. Do you think Brock Turner sees himself as a deeply flawed person who knowingly and intentionally assaulted a woman because he somehow believed he was entitled to her body? Or do you think he sees himself as a fundamentally good person who got drunk and made a mistake? We know which one Turner’s dad believes it is. And this is why even convicted assaulters continue to see themselves as the perpetual victim.
Of course you don’t have to be raping or beating women to engage in rationalization of your own behavior. “I stole that money from work because they aren’t paying me enough.” “I cheated on my husband because he wasn’t paying attention to me anymore.” “I’m not racist, I just hate that all black people would rather live off the welfare system than do an honest day’s work.” Justifying these things externalizes the problem. But the way to stop doing things that need to be rationalized is by acknowledging that you have flaws which need to be actively corrected. “I did these shitty things because I’m an asshole. I should stop doing shitty things and work on not being an asshole.”
And this line of thinking should be applied to our friends. I actively work against of number of beliefs held by Trump supporters, Duggars and pieces of shit the world over. When someone calls me an asshole for being a feminist, I think, “Well good! I am a feminist, and if you’re anti-feminist, I’m glad my beliefs clash with yours!” It’s harder to justify holding onto to shitty, prejudiced beliefs when those closest to you are telling you they’re shitty. People, and therefore society on the whole, becomes more tolerant and less assholish when people are forced to examine their own beliefs. Being an asshole and acknowledging our assholishness is only a tool for either solidifying our beliefs or adjusting them. Refusing to examine, change and confront our own shitty beliefs or those of our loved ones sacrifices the benefit of society for our own comfort. And when you choose to be selfish and rationalizing in this way, you’re being an asshole in all of the worst ways.
Then again, what do I know? I’m just an asshole.