Dickheads and Assholes

My impression is that it is more acceptable or at least commonplace in philosophy blog discussions to deploy derisive and often, dare I say it, vulgar name-calling than to call someone rude. This is *only* an impression – part of the purpose of this post is to see if others share it. If it’s right though, I wonder why.

At issue in this is how we choose to frame disapproval of others’ poor social behavior. It may well be the case that there is a kind of informal taxonomy of disapproval, such that “asshole” or “dickhead” picks out something richer and more psychologically elaborate than “rude” would. I suspect I would often find common ground with those who despair of assholes and dickheads in the profession, yet I also despair of words such as “asshole” and “dickhead” being the mode of disapproval.

One reason for this is that using “asshole” and “dickhead” distances the problematic conduct from breaches of ordinary manners, rendering those so labeled some especially objectionable species worthy of its own name and thus diverting attention away from how we all could do better at avoiding impolite gestures and slights. Assholes and dickheads often are just people who have done (or habitually do) rude things (or especially rude things). They breach ordinary good manners, but calling them by a special name elides the ways they do what we all sometimes do: behave rudely (or uncollegially, uncivilly, etc.).

I think the reason we eschew “rude” in favor of “dickhead” or “asshole” may be that rude has lost its cache as a term of disapprobation. It simply doesn’t say anything anyone is likely to care about. Being called a dickhead or asshole is, if not worse, then something to care about (or, in certain benighted circles perhaps, to brag about). But being called rude….? Meh. That is, perhaps part of why being called rude has little force is because manners themselves have little force or, worse, are counted deeply problematic. Call someone rude and you may be associated with pernicious deployments of civility standards; call someone an asshole or dickhead and you’re happily free of all that, simultaneously enforcing a judgment regarding appropriate conduct while also disavowing any association with more formal shared, conventional social standards for such. That seems to me part of what is lost by using “dickhead” and “asshole” – but is anything gained? Is it better (read: more effective, more useful, more…?) to call someone a dickhead or asshole than to call them rude?

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12 thoughts on “Dickheads and Assholes

  1. It feels weird to me say “He is rude” rather than e.g. “He was rude (on that occasion)”. (The latter is perfectly ok.) “Rude” doesn’t seem to be a tendency/disposition word in the way that “dickhead” and “asshole” are. One can be a dickhead even when one is not acting dickish. This feels to me like a big difference between “rude” and “dickhead”.

  2. mm, isn’t that part of the oddity of preferring to label people dickheads rather than rude – that calling someone a dickhead is calling them something rather fixed and not (easily) altered?

  3. But… some people are dickheads. ;) In those cases, not so odd. But I can see why if one is cautious, one should say rather that a person was rude on an occasion or that their behaviour was rude. But I think this is also why being called rude has less force – maybe you were just rude on that one occasion.

  4. Or perhaps that calling someone rude sounds prim or priggish, while calling someone an asshole or dickhead does not… and might even sound cool. [I’m sure using the word “cool” renders me utterly not!] But the point is that there might be an attitude scornful to polite convention ostensibly embedded in what amounts to censure of others on the basis of their flouting polite convention – calling them dickheads while really protesting their rude conduct, but disassociating oneself from convention while doing so.

  5. Really fascinating point that ‘dickhead’ can be used to express disapproval without running the risk of appearing on the side of civility standards. This seems right.

  6. I think maybe ‘obnoxious’ also functions in similar way in that calling someone obnoxious expresses disapproval without seeming to commit oneself to prudish civility standards.

  7. As a minor observation: it’s not just that “rude has lost its cache as a term of disapprobation”, it’s that “rude”, per se, doesn’t directly convey disapprobation at all; it’s just that in many social contexts (but perhaps not some blog discussions?) rudeness isn’t appropriate, so it indirectly conveys disapprobation there. If I say “Yes, his comment was rude, but appropriately so”, the implication is that there’s nothing wrong with his comment at all. (Maybe his interlocutor said something so disgraceful that rudeness was needed.) The nearest analogy with “asshole” would be something like “Yes, he was being an asshole, but you can see why”; the implication is that his behaviour was bad but that we can forgive or understand his lapse given the context.

    (Caveat: this is true in UK English, or at least in my dialect of it; sometimes I get caught out by US English variances.)

  8. The good thing about the rules of politeness is that they are clear and applicable, with some minor variations, to all Western cultures and to Asian cultures (in my experience at least): stuff like “don’t interrupt”, “wait your turn,” “say thank you,” “respect the physical and psychic space of others”, etc.

    I, who do not live in the U.S. and whose only contact with the U.S. is online, have little idea of what “dickhead” means. In my experience in cultural situations where there are no few or no exact rules of politeness and where vague criteria such as “be cool” or
    “don’t be X” are used instead to regulate social interaction, the vague criteria are used by dominant individuals (and as a result, by all conforming persons) to ostracize and make life difficult for misfits and for those who are clumsy at social interactions.

    In fact, I would wager a guess that one of the chief functions of vague criteria is to exclude and ostracize misfits and to justify/rationalize the power of dominant individuals.

    In contrast, even those who are clumsy at social interactions can easily learn and follow the rules of politeness.

  9. *Ascent of the A-Word*, by the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, covers many of the topics you raise here extensively, including placing “asshole” in an “informal taxonomy of disapproval” as you suggest. An asshole is someone who combines egotism and stupidity, and is especially clueless about how self-centered and foolish he is being. It is really a very deft analysis of a thick ethical concept.

    Nunberg also goes into depth about how actually using the word “asshole” is an asshole move, and how this is emblematic of our cultural moment. I recommend it highly.


  10. Thanks, rloftis! That looks really interesting! s. wallerstein, I think that’s generally right, but I also think that once the terms come into frequent use, it won’t always be the dominant parties who use them. Efforts to assert one’s own power could take that form (the common form) even when one is out of power. Indeed, using the term could be a way to give a sheen of power to what one says. David Wallace, that seems right to me. “Rude” can just mean to break acknowledged convention without comment on whether the breakage is warranted. But I was simply referring to the way that deeming someone or someone’s conduct rude operates – in such cases, it seems to me it’s almost always pejorative and disapproving, in the US too (at least by my impression).

    One issue in all this is the extent to which having words like “asshole” and “dickhead” in currency as the mode of disapproval indirectly makes some more than others able to express disapproval effectively. E.g., can a woman call someone an asshole or dickhead to the same effect as a man? I tend to think she’d be perceived as vulgar more quickly, more in breach of norms for her gender, more generally a problematic social actor herself. “Woman aren’t supposed to have potty mouths” and all that.

  11. Prof. Manners,

    Vague social criteria are hard to learn and tend to change to suit the purposes of dominant parties. So just when the misfits learned what to do in order to be cool, the criteria for being cool were subtly modified so as to keep the misfits in an outsider position and to assure that the cool folks kept on being cool. On the other hand, rules such “wait your turn” are easy to learn and are hard to modify. I fear that the concept of being a non-dickhead (what is current word for a non-dickhead?) will subtly change with time in order to give dominant people the power to decree who is a dickhead and who is not.

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