On assholes, douche bags and bullshitters, part one

Or, My Ethical Imperative: Don’t be an Asshole

Inspired by STA’s recent post, Beware the self-identified “expert”, I’ve decided to do a little bit of research and reflection on the origins and meanings of asshole and douche bag. For good measure, I’m throwing bullshitter into the mix too; I’ve already written about it on this blog and I think it’s fitting to include it beside asshole and douche bag because they all seem to be useful ways to describe people who are either too excessive or deficient in their troublemaking practices.

I appreciate the terms over other moral judgments, like bad, evil or immoral. And when I think about how to evaluate my own practices or how I want others to evaluate my practices, I find not being an asshole (or a douche bag or a bullshitter) a much more compelling achievement than being a good girl.

In “A Response to Lesbian Ethics,” Marilyn Frye (rightly) asks, “Why should one want to be good? Why, in particular, would a woman want to be good? (56). Her short answer: you shouldn’t. Her longer answer: The demand to be a good girl is intended to keep women in line, to pit them against each other–the “good girls/ladies” vs. “the bad/rebellious women,” and to prevent them from challenging dominant systems of power and privilege. Being a “good boy,” isn’t much better. In The Future of School, which I wrote about last year in this post, Paulo Freire objects to any efforts to label him a “good boy.” He writes:

I am not a “good boy.” I try to be a good person, but “good boy” — God forbid! If you want to hurt me, call me a “good boy.”

I am an educated person, very educated, polite, disciplined, and courteous. That I am, indeed, and more. I try to be respectful, but “good boy,” for God’s sake, no! So I am antagonistic to all this.

In the Queer/ing Ethics course that I taught last spring, we spent a lot of time imaging what an ethics outside of/against/beside the moral framework of good vs. bad might look like. Could an ethic with the moral imperative to “not be an asshole” fit as a queer ethic? It reminds me of Kate Bornstein’s key value: don’t be mean. Ze writes about it in the blog post: What does mean mean?

I’ve been telling people for nearly four years that the only rule in life they need to follow isdon’t be mean. It’s not even a rule. “Don’t be mean” is a value, meaning it’s something you can apply to every choice you’ll ever make for the rest of your life. If one rule can cover that much ground, I think that the rule deserves to be called a value.

Bornstein appreciates how the demand to not be mean is more expansive, and less regulating, than be kind:

And why didn’t I simply write, be kind. I almost did.

But people have ruined that word by calling for a kinder, gentler nation and then effecting a nation that’s very close to the opposite. Another example: someone could consider truthfully that they’re being kind to you when they stop you from being a homosexual… because then you won’t go to hell. It’s become too easy for people to convince themselves that they’re not being mean when they simply call themselves kind. Nope, the word kind can be stretched way out of shape. So, be kind couldn’t be the rule.

Bornstein’s discussion of “kind” reminds me of my recent troubling of Pinterest’s Pin etiquette: Be Nice. Interestingly enough, since posting about this rule, Pinterest has changed their rule to: Be Respectful. I like that much better. In fact, I think I suggested something to that effect in podcast #6 with STA over at The Undisciplined Room.

Speaking of the podcast, I just remembered that I need to prep for the one we’re doing this afternoon. Time to stop thinking about assholes, douche bags and bullshitters. In concluding this post, here are a few sources that I want to examine more closely on the topic:

1. Douche Bag by Katie Keenan. An assignment for a really cool looking class, Thing Theory from 2007.
2. On the Evolution of Douchebag
3. my class summary from queering desire, including a discussion of the hipster douche bag.
4. A Taxonomy of Proud Assholes
5. Are you dick on purpose or were you just born that way?
6. Brown Betty’s Taxonomy of Assholes
7. Bitch Media’s Douchebag Decree

On privilege

In the past 24 hours, I’ve encountered several online discussions about privilege (especially, but not exclusively white privilege). I want to archive these conversations for future reflection.

Encounter One: Scrolling through my politics of sex course blog from last semester last night, I came across my lecture notes on privilege. Here they are:

Today’s topic for discussion is privilege and oppression. This is a continuation of our discussion on Monday about heteronormativity and straight thinking. Ingraham writes:

The question then becomes not whether heterosexuality is natural, and therefore ‘normal’, but, rather how do cultural meaning systems work to normalize and institutionalize heterosexuality? And, more importantly, what interests are served by these processes? In other words, who benefits from the ways we’ve named, defined, and organized sexuality (74)?
In today’s class we focus on the question of whose interests are being served (who benefits)? At whose expense do some benefit? We are extending the question beyond sexuality to think about how heteronormativity is part of a larger network of normativities. 

  • Audre Lorde in “Age, Race, Class and Sex” in Sister Outsider: “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising.”
  • Kate Bornstein in My Gender Workbook: The pyramid

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  • Not just about any one category, or about envisioning the problem as one of binaries: oppressed/oppressor, white/non-white, male/female.
    Instead, about a larger network of norms (in terms of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality) that together contribute to this larger power pyramid of status/identity/privilege


  • Not isolated instances or individual practices of a few “bad” people
  • When analyzed cumulatively we can begin to see larger structures that enable the systematic oppression of groups who don’t fit the mythical norm/who fall outside the normal. What structures do you see emerging in these lists?
  • While becoming aware of privilege and microaggression involve individual experiences and encourage individual reflection, they are not about our individual intentions or about who we are (it’s not about us). Instead, awareness of privilege, microaggression and oppression is about the effects and affects of our actions/understandings on others. And how those actions are made in a larger context and social/material/historical processes of meaning-making.
Some examples (from “The Color of Supremacy”):
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 Jay Smooth: How to tell people they sound racist:
What they did vs. What they are…the goal is to analyze actions, not to focus on whether or not an individual is racist.
  • Individuals/groups learn/are taught how to ignore privilege and to take it for granted
  • This learning process involves being discouraged from thinking critically about race, sex, gender, class.
  • It also requires active refusals to become aware and to engage in critical thinking.
  • Learning process trains us how to engage in practices of racial/sexual/gender/class/ability/ethnic microaggressions. We may engage in these wittingly and unwittingly.


  • Importance of discomfort in addressing these issues
  • Why study micoraggressions? Privilege?
  • What do we do with this knowledge?

What do you think about this statement “about this site” on the microaggressions blog?:

This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal.  ”it” is in the everyday.  ”it” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it.  ”it” happens when you expect it the most.  ”it” is a reminder of your difference.  ”it” enforces difference.  ”it” can be painful.  ”it” can be laughed off.  ”it” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both.  ”it” can silence people.  ”it” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed.  ”it” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
but “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.

A few more resources:

  1. There are lots of privilege lists circulating on the interwebz. Here’s a list of many of them.
  2. Check out these, in particular: The Black Male Privileges Checklist and Daily Effects of Straight Privilege (by Peggy McIntosh) Why are there so many privilege lists available? What are the benefits and limits of such a proliferation of lists?
  3. Check out this critical assessment of the privileges approach: “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of “white privilege”

Encounter Two: Woke up this morning and checked my twitter feed. I found a tweet via @racialicious about a post on racism vs. white guilt.

This video is the subject of her post:

Encounter Three: After encountering my notes and the video on white guilt, I remembered that Slutwalk Toronto was planning to post on privilege soon. We’ve been following Slutwalk in my feminist debates class all semester and read/discussed their statement on racism in class a few weeks ago. I checked their blog this morning and found it: What’s All This About “Privilege”?