Consider famous moments of moral crisis throughout the ages, real or imagined. Peter denying that he knew Jesus before the cock crowed, say; or Jean Paul Sartre’s former pupil in Existentialism Is A Humanism, torn between joining the Free French to avenge his brother’s wartime death and staying at home to look after his devastated mother. Or think of William Styron’s Sophie, facing the terrible choice between her children in a concentration camp. If only they’d all had the Am I the Asshole? website to help them out. Don’t say the modern world doesn’t have its advantages.
Called AITA for short, this enormously popular sub-Reddit — which celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer and now has more than nine million subscribers — describes itself as a “catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us” and a “platform for moral judgement”. Its stated purpose is “to assign blame”. Anonymous posters describe the tortuous ins and outs of disputes with loved ones, friends or co-workers, soliciting judgement from strangers. Readers gleefully weigh in with “YTA” (you’re the asshole), “NTA” (not the asshole), “NAH” (no assholes here), or “ESH” (everyone sucks here). Those browsing are encouraged to upvote responses they like. As is probably obvious, the site is based in the US.
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Most of the conflicts described on AITA are no less ferocious for being deeply trivial. As I write this, the stories at the top of the page include a man who told his wife on their wedding day that her make-up looked weird; someone who refuses to eat any food his cousin makes for him because she once tricked him into eating cottage cheese; and a husband who unfolded all the clothes his wife had just folded for him, because she hadn’t rolled them the way he likes it. (At the moment, the dominant verdicts are YTA, YTA, and YTA respectively.)
The site is sometimes touted as a tool for “conflict resolution”, partly on the basis that those who receive a YTA judgement sometimes come back to explain how much they have supposedly learnt from the process. As a profile of the site from 2020 put it: “It’s a place where accountability actually exists… It’s also a place for growth.” It’s really not, though. It’s a place where people get to feel good about themselves by judging and scolding others. It’s great fun, but nobody here is going to get a Nobel Peace Prize.
As with the current vogue for podcasts and programmes about relationship counselling, one motive for browsing AITA is the enjoyable glimpses it provides into the fantastic dysfunction and pettiness of other people’s relationships. Where else could you read about a woman being passive-aggressive because her sister refused to get the “family tattoo”? Or about a man intentionally ruining his wife’s favourite Garth Brooks’s song because she didn’t like his preferred rap music (“I pointed out that the song That Summer is about an old woman taking advantage of a 19-year-old virgin”)? Or how about a woman telling her future sister-in-law that the she had inadvertently chosen a song about genocide as her first wedding dance (“Carrie was livid, screaming that the whole family would think she was a white supremacist”)?
A lot of the commentators seem intent on getting revenge for their own past emotional scars by castigating anyone who vaguely resembles a real-life foe of theirs. Whether the majority verdict on a post is YTA, NTA, or ESH, there is always an asshole around somewhere, upon which to project one’s situation and so get cathartically self-righteous. Harassed wives queue up to snark at hopeless-sounding husbands with just a little bit too much enthusiasm. Those who must secretly think of themselves as perpetual doormats respond to tales of freeloading friends with DIATRIBES IN CAPS. People with mummy issues take the side of daddy, and vice versa. “No Assholes Here” is everyone’s least favourite and most anti-climactic verdict.
And as for the motives of those offering up their own behaviour to scrutiny — for many of them, it’s apparently a desire for vindication rather than for self-improvement or reconciliation. (One imagines many a fight escalating rapidly with the fateful words “I asked Reddit who the asshole is, and they said it’s you!”) Skilful authors know how to craft innocent-sounding narratives putting their antagonists firmly in the wrong. The outcome is resounding validation from commentators, to whom the thought of unreliable or partial narration hardly seems to occur. Less adept and more hapless posters can seem almost masochistic in their inability to tell a sympathetic story about themselves, and get treated brutally as a result. (Ironically, these are probably the more honest and reliable contributors, though they receive no credit for it.)
Villainous stereotypes change from era to era. We used to have cads, bounders and knaves, and now we have assholes. But what exactly is the difference? Looking at AITA on its own, it’s tricky to pin down a systematic profile for the modern-day asshole. The term seems to be used there as a generalised synonym for wrongdoing. Males and females alike are dismissed with a YTA, and for no particularly distinctive reason that I can discern.
Away from the site, though, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the stereotype of an asshole is a mostly male-associated one. These days, society always seems to be finding new ways for men, in particular, to be assholes — whether it’s by mansplaining, manspreading, staring at women on the tube, or bantering in an off-colour way. (Indeed, the founder of AITA, Marc Beaulac, has said he started the site as a way to work out whether he was mansplaining to some female coworkers.)
Philosopher Aaron James, author of the improbably titled book Assholes: A Theory, agrees: “assholes are mainly men”, he says, and are “overwhelmingly distributed among only one-half of the human population”. He defines an asshole, somewhat over-technically, as a person who “(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunised by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people”. (This is not, we are told, the same as being “a jerk, a boor, a cad, a schmuck, or a mere ass” — though these too all sound distinctly male-coded).
James’s explanation of why more men than women are assholes, in his sense, is that our culture is “gendered” — by which he means that men but not women tend to be encouraged by society to act in overly entitled obnoxious ways. This is a familiar enough feminist complaint, aimed not at combatting seriously anti-social or violent male behaviour, but at policing relatively small-scale behavioural infractions, or at least perceived ones. The implication, often taken on board by cue-responsive liberal men like James, is that men could do better if they tried. I’m not so sure it’s that simple, though.
An alternative explanation is that — to put it bluntly — the whole thing is a bit of a set-up. The bar for what counts as pro-social, non-assholish behaviour is now placed at a point where more men are more likely to fail than women, for reasons they can’t particularly help. To take just a few examples: from one perspective, mansplaining is the favouring of knowledge-driven, fact-filled conversations, which many men tend to do in single-sex company anyway. Manspreading is accommodating the shape of the male pelvis, and avoiding crushing your testicles when sitting down. Staring at women on the tube is, at least sometimes, a harmless attempt to flirt with the opposite sex — which, moreover, we had better hope young men don’t stop doing altogether, if only to save our pensions. Acting “out of an entrenched sense of entitlement”, as James might put it, is — at least sometimes — confidently owning and prioritising your own projects and decisions, defending them from criticism, and not collapsing in a gibbering wreck of self-flagellation and apologies, as per the present feminised ideal.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, bounders and cads — that is, lower-class social climbers — could exist as comprehensible social types, only because the default moral ideal was the well-bred “gentleman”. With the welcome loss of the gentleman as an archetype also came the loss of cads and bounders as social possibilities for men. Such categories make no real sense in the modern world any more, unless they are characters being played on-screen by Hugh Grant.
Analogously, my suspicion is that, when “being an asshole” isn’t just being used as a generalised shorthand for irritating behaviour, it gets its particular male-associated flavour because the opposing moral ideal is feminine, understood in a particularly boring, passive, and self-abnegating way. The suffocating wave of “kindness” and “inclusivity” that has washed over many institutions in the past decade has left many ordinary male behaviours stranded on the shore.
If I’m right, then this is bad news for men. But actually, it’s bad news for everyone. Excessive passivity and self-abnegation are not particularly good for women either. There’s a sense in which it is totally healthy to think your personal projects and decisions are more important than other people’s — they are yours, after all. Thinking this way doesn’t automatically make you a solipsistic asshole. It would be a strange and self-defeating attitude to constantly treat everyone else’s interests as exactly equal to yours, and nobody should do it, male or female.
What counts as “entitled” behaviour, then, perhaps ought to be recalibrated back to something more obviously dysfunctional. Maybe we could even allow both men and women, if they so wish, to mansplain, manspread, and stare at each other on the Tube. In life if not on Reddit, sometimes it’s ok to aim for YTA.