An internet meme that went viral last week has to do with a new-age practice of perineum sunning. The idea being that natural light focused on that usually hidden area of the human body is exponentially healthier than traditional tanning practices. The theory is unproven and not even that interesting.
A more compelling hypothesis comes in the form of Assholes: A Theory, a new documentary by Canadian filmmaker John Walker. The lively, spryly edited film, inspired by Aaron James’s 2012 book of the same name, genuinely attempts to define and account for society’s most odious people.
“I’m not venting feelings,” says James, a California surfer and philosophy professor, in the film. “I’m classifying a certain type of moral personality.”
And that personality is this: "The guy who allows himself special advantages in co-operative life out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”
And yes, more often than not, it is a guy – an entitled, empathy-challenged guy who could use a good perineum-kicking.
Recently, James and Walker – along with interviewees Robert Hockett (a Cornell University law professor) and the great British comedian and Monty Python member John Cleese – spoke to The Globe and Mail in Toronto. We gathered in a board room, where I mostly sat back and listened to four charming, well-educated people talk about why the louts of the world seem to be more prominent than ever.
“The media empowers assholes,” Walker said. “They love them, and that’s a problem.”
“They’re good copy,” piped in Hockett, an adviser to congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who earlier this year got into an onscreen dust-up over the Green New Deal with Fox Television’s smug Tucker Carlson.
According to James, there’s an eroticism involved with obnoxious behaviour. “There’s a thrill in the transgression, not only the people doing it but those who are witnessing it.”
Added Hockett, “It’s sort of vicarious.”
The conversation went back and forth for more than a few minutes before Cleese, whose Basil Fawlty character was the intolerant, incapable and ill-mannered hotel manager in the British series Fawlty Towers, finally leaned forward and spoke up. “It’s intrinsically more interesting to humans when there’s evil around," said the 80-year-old Cleese, arms folded to his chest. "The devil gets the best joke.”
But of course, it’s no joke, as the film makes clear. Looking for fertile grounds of boorish, anti-social and narcissistic behavior, Walker ventures to Hollywood – where strong sentiments on Harvey Weinstein are expressed – Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
Social media have given rise to trolling and bullying. The one-sided, echo-chamber thinking facilitated by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook invites people to be extremely righteous and utterly sure of their own positions, the film suggests.
Asked to name their favourite jerks, each of the men interviewed by The Globe picked other men. “Kanye West,” James said. “He lives in his massive delusion about his greatness. But you can sympathize with him. He’s locked in this egocentric cage and he just can’t get out.”
Walker picks Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media mogul and former prime minister who’s mentioned in the film. “He’s lovable, unlike Trump, who enrages me."
Hockett goes with Muhammad Ali, but hesitantly, because he thinks the boxing and bragging champion was only playing the role of the heel. “I think he thought the only way to beat the white hierarchy was essentially to say, ‘I’m not subject to your rules. I simply reject your game.'”
And Cleese? He told a story about Robert Benchley, the American humorist and drama critic. Apparently, Benchley was at a play that wasn’t going well on opening night. A prop phone rang on the wrong cue. The actors kept talking and the phone kept ringing. “Benchley stood up and shouted, ‘Could somebody get that, it might be for me,’ ” Cleese said, as everyone around him laughed. “I think to be an occasional asshole, when it’s funny, is acceptable.”
The devil gets the best jokes, but Cleese got the last laugh.
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