In February 2011, I met my friend’s fiancée (now husband) for the first time. We were talking about movies, and he commented about how much he was looking forward to the new Atlas Shrugged. I rolled my eyes and said a small piece about how I think Ayn Rand is ridiculous from the philosophical perspective. And I realized, “Wow, I’m an asshole.”
Fellow blogger Preston Yancey and I had a Skype conversation last night that ranged across all kinds of topics, but one that kept me up was the HBO show Girls, and how the conclusion seems to be “everyone is an asshole.”
For those of you unfamiliar, Girls is a television show about the malaise of the current generation of 20-somethings. We’re a generation of over-sharers, dreamers, and, frankly, assholes. The show is witty and hilarious and extremely polarizing, in part because each of the characters is infinitely unlikeable. The two main characters – Hannah and her best friend, Marnie – are selfish. They are unconcerned, really, about the lives of others. As this last Sunday’s episode (“Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. the Crackcident”) demonstrated excellently, often, this selfishness can be self-destructive.
For me, the reason the show functions so well is that I see elements of myself in each one of the characters. Shoshanna’s unbridled enthusiasm and incredible awkwardness are exemplars of how I act in many social situations. And I see a lot of myself in the writer Hannah – wanting to stand on her own, and often struggling to empathize with her friends. And Marnie’s lack of certainty in breaking up with her boyfriend of four years, lack of willingness to go without that comfort, and then her own self-destructive hurt when she refused to let things go…there’s so much of myself in that.
In short, the things that make these characters assholes are the parts of them that I identify with. And that is why the show is so polarizing – we identify with a character and then we go, “Oh. Ew. I don’t like that about this character.” We see bits of ourselves reflected within those characters, and don’t like what we see. Some people react by calling the show itself bad; others by saying that it speaks to our generation (both are wrong in part). And it's those parts that we don't like about the characters that we need to examine the closest.
The basic fact of it is: every single one of us is an asshole, at least part of the time. I know I am, and I’ve seen it in others. The offhand tweet insulting someone, the comment left when you have a short fuse, the eyeroll and death glare when someone suggests something you absolutely disagree with. Sometime, somewhere, you will be an asshole to someone. You may not even mean to, but I know each and every one of us can think back to a moment where we cringe and think, "Geez, that was bad."
It’s easy to have a life philosophy of “Don’t be a dick.” It’s much harder to live out such a philosophy. There are times when being an asshole is the only response we can muster. This doesn’t excuse our assholish tendencies – it just means that we have them and fail to control them all the time. The balancing act is deciding when it’s appropriate to be an asshole – and here’s a hint, it’s not when your waitress screws up your order at the restaurant.
We should still try to ensure that we’re not destructive when we’re in “asshole” mode. We should try to minimize the damage that we do, and be willing to recognize when we are being an asshole. That, ultimately, is what’s important: recognize that, sometimes, you will be an asshole, and work to remedy those situations as quickly as possible.
You won’t always be able to stop being an asshole, but it is always within your power to apologize for it. That is how we grow.