- Bertolt Brecht and Nora Bateson unpick the way that - in our disapproval of assholes - we all make ourselves assholes.
In a poem called ‘An die Nachgeborenen’, written in the run-up to the Second World War, Bertolt Brecht observed in an exquisite few lines that:
Even the hatred of meanness
Distorts one’s features,
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh,
We who tried to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.
We are, he is saying, all culpable. We are all intricately and implicitly involved and enmeshed in whatever it is we’re currently disapproving of.
Writing in February 2017, Nora Bateson, in a piece called ‘An Ecology of Assholes’, extended Brecht's analysis with this equally precise observation:
The world is a beautiful place, full of souls who want only to be loved… but there are also the assholes. With all the name calling and finger pointing right now why not take a minute to apply the axioms of systems thinking and ecological patterning to something closer to home than saving the world. We all know a few assholes… that much is given.
Commonly, and paradoxically, assholes are thought of as individuals. This is a mistake that should be untangled. This is a short exploration into the way in which assholes coexist within frames that are larger than their own sphincters, even though they may not realize it. This is a moment perhaps to look at an ecology of assholes.
It is all very well to say we are all interconnected, but what about the implication of being interconnected to all the assholes? And what does that say about the non-assholes? Are we all in the oneness?
An “ecology” has a couple of important characteristics that we would do well to keep in mind for our analysis. First, as Webster says, ecologies are found in: “The totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment.”
Is the asshole really an isolated island of their own dickwadery? Or is their relational interaction taking place within the larger context of communication that the asshole is responding to? Is the asshole-ness within them? Or is it in their relationship with you, me and the world?
Interacting with someone who is prone to humiliating others, lying, believing their own life to be more valuable than that of others… can cause one’s faith in humanity to falter. They cannot be trusted, they judge others, they are blamers, they boast about the way they’ve shamed someone else, or made them suffer — they go on and on about how others are jerks.
Ummm wait a minute… am I an asshole for making this list? Judging, blaming, etc?
In other words, you ask, “Who do those assholes think they are?” You might confirm your suspicions by making a list of their characteristics: of personality, politics, profession, family, nationality and so on. You can then point to them, personally, and individually and say with some evidence in hand, “That asshole is an asshole”. In that sense the asshole is indeed an individual with their own cluster of personal choices that have resulted in their being a douchebag.
But here lies the paradox. The way that asshole makes sense of their world is uniquely their own. Their family, their culture their job, their friends and acquaintances their sleep habits, their micro biome, all of those things that come together to form the filters through which that asshole experiences the world are uniquely theirs and no one will ever be exactly the same as they are. They are their own lens, and no one else has the same one.
But how did they get that way? Is there any aspect of them that is not influenced by their family, their culture, language, food, etc.? Is there a definable part of them that is outside of the great interconnectedness? In this sense they are a combining of all that they embody. Is it really a choice to be an asshole?
I am not suggesting solving this paradox. Living within the interconnectedness of assholes is not something we can opt out of. Even as non-assholes (or so we might hope) we are all caught in a web of deplorables, and in that sense, we are part of the systemic ass-hating of our world.
The next characteristic of an ‘ecology’ is interdependency. Ecologies are relational and interdependent contexts. There is nothing outside of the processes that are continually forming and informing the ecology. Assholes are not stand-alone entities.
So, maybe the nice people are really the assholes because they go around pointing out assholes to make themselves look good?
Or is the asshole identifiable as the one who is constantly pulling things out of context and dissing them? It is the ultimate violence to take one tiny piece of information out of a larger set of conditions and circumstances, decontextualize it — cast it as the TRUTH, and then disavow all other contextual input as “beside the point”… That is certainly what assholes do. And they do it to people in disrespect, but also to other living systems, and to art, ideas, other peoples’ projects and so on.
Assholes don’t get interdependency. They don’t get that they are in interdependency.
But then I find that I don’t get how it is that they don’t get the interdependent consequences… and in that swift move I become the asshole.
Within this dreaded reflection I see it is me then that does not ask about the ecology we share. It is me that cut the picture and cleft the context.
The real problem with assholes is that humiliation, disrespect and decontextualized judgmental arrogance contaminate the ecology of our communities. The overtones of life in general can go sour when vile exploitative attitudes abound. Assholes underestimate the profound awe of each remarkable living being. In doing so they escalate trouble untold. So just keep in mind that it takes a great deal of collective tenderness to heal ecologies, asshole.
(This is an extensively edited and abbreviated version of the original piece - see below for a link to her original.)
Bertoldt Brecht's 'An Die Nachgeborenen' in German and in English
Nora Bateson's 'An Ecology of Assholes' (full, unedited text)