Revisiting My Ethical Imperative

Last May, I wrote an entry about assholes, douche bags and bullshitters. I argued that perhaps, instead of, “be nice” or “be good,” our ethical imperative should be: don’t be an asshole. I intended to do more work on thinking through what this (might) mean. I even ambitiously titled the entry, part one. But I haven’t had the brain space or time to work on it since then. Now, after getting On Assholes: A Theory for Christmas and reading a recent article on The Chronicle of Higher Education—‘A’ is Asshole, I’ve decided that I must devote a little attention to it on this first morning of writing in 2013. Here’s what I tweeted a few minutes ago:

The lack of race analysis and/or discussion of the overlaps between having/using/ignoring privilege and being an asshole bother me and make me wonder if “not being an asshole” is a compelling-enough ethical imperative. Does it accurately and effectively convey our ethical need to not reproduce power structures and dominant hierarchies? When I finish (since I’ve barely started) the Asshole book I’m reading, I want to write about my questions and concerns.

a queer ethics? not good/bad, but charming/tedious

As I was scrolling through my Tumblr feed this morning, I came across a quotation by Oscar Wilde, posted on the explore blog (edited by Maria Popova/Brain Pickings). Curious (as always!) to know where it came from, I clicked on Wilde’s name. Brain Pickings side project, literary jukebox popped up. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical. But, when I clicked on the record player and Wilde’s quotation was paired with Aimee Mann’s new song (which I really like), Charmer, I was intrigued.

I’m not sure if I’d like all of the match-ups as much as this, because I haven’t had a chance to review the literary jukebox archive. But, as I thought about the lyrics to Mann’s Charmer, I was struck by the challenge they offer/trouble they cause to how we make sense of Wilde’s quotation. I’m intrigued by his quotation, which comes from Lady Windmere’s Fan (according to Brain Pickings), so I’m planning to pick up Wilde at the library this afternoon.

Mann’s version of the charmer is fairly dark:

When you’re a charmer
People respond
They can’t see the hidden agenda
You got going on…

When you’re a charmer
The world applauds
They don’t know that secretly charmers
Feel like they’re frauds

Since I don’t know the context of Wilde’s quotation, I’m not sure what he means by his shift  away from good/bad to charming/tedious. Is he suggesting the foundation for a new (queer?) ethics? Denouncing ethics? Or, something else altogether? That exploration will have to wait until after I’ve read Wilde’s play.

For now, his quotation makes me think of some discussions within queer ethics about moving away from moral judgments of good/bad. I’m trying to remember some of these discussions right now. I wish I had my copy of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness with meI’d like to put Wilde’s quotation and Mann’s song beside my post, On assholes, douche bags and bullshitters.

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