I really loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent reflection on the “working definition of an asshole.” I think he summarizes things nicely in describing such a specimen as “a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms”, although I wonder if he doesn’t quite go far enough – for it’s not only social interactions that can be forced to square with the worldview of an asshole, but the narrative of one’s entire life.
I was thinking about this when I read this story about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. Sandberg is a working mother addressing the issue of women in the workplace, and if there is anything Internet commenters – or the world at large – love to judge more than the decisions women make about work and childcare, well, I don’t think I’ve encountered it yet. The judgmentalism and assholery that spews forth from the comments sections of such stories is astonishing, and this one is no different; when one commenter, a single mother with two special-needs children whose degree in a STEM field has not enabled her to find work flexible or high-paying enough to afford adequate childcare, advocated for a sane and compassionate national childcare program – the likes of which can be found in most other Western democracies, and which was once seen as a viable policy objective (in the 70s, a bill passed Congress before being vetoed by Nixon) – well, for speaking out about her own particular needs, this poor commenter is brutalized. After all, she chose to have kids; she chose to marry a guy who would leave her; she is solely responsible for all her misfortunes and if any of the other Internet commenters offering up such quick and ready judgment had ever been in her shoes, facing similar decisions, they are damn certain that THEY would have made better ones.
The arrogance of such commenters is jaw-dropping, but it is also not unique. Remember when this happened – a middle-class white guy who came from middle-class roots, unexceptional in all aspects of his life but happy to proclaim all of the truly exceptional things he would accomplish if he’d been born into more challenging circumstances? That arrogant exceptionalism is the same. And it flourishes on the Internet: when I wrote about my financial difficulties for the financial website of The Awl, a random stranger took the opportunity to psychoanalyze my entire childhood based on inference and assumptions, something that I didn’t expect to experience until reaching a much greater level of Internet notoriety.
Whether it’s ganging up on Anne Hathaway – not for any particular grievance but just because the collective Internet has agreed not to like her anymore – the worst of worst of our impulses tend to find expression online. It’s so easy to judge without context but the real danger comes when those impulses are inscribed into policy; when our unwillingness to walk a mile in another man’s shoes, when our certainty that we know best, becomes not just Internet assholery but the law. This is the mindset underpinning, for example, the “reformist” emphasis on testing in education. Policymakers with limited or no experience in urban schools but full of certainty that they nonetheless know how to fix the problem are sure that testing is the answer, that the teachers with the actual, on-the-ground knowledge and experience of working towards solutions (and making a genuine difference) are themselves part of the problem.
The consequences of being a jerk on the Internet and rewriting education policy are vastly different. But they spring from the same place of self-assurance, the same smugness, the same unwillingness to humble oneself before the lived experience of others.