This post was originally published on Medium, where I may publish more things first until I finish my redesign.
Some of our world’s more brilliant minds have less than stellar personalities, that much is true. But causation between genius and being an asshole is overblown and misguided.
Ben Kuchera wrote an excellent piece on the damaging effects of online abuse and harassment towards, well, pretty much anyone who does something in public. Abusive and threatening behavior is one of the biggest issues plaguing the web and social media, and while we see more and more people and companies taking steps to start addressing this epidemic and taking victims’ concerns seriously, we are still a long way from seeing the culture change we need.
Confusingly, just over a week ago that same Ben Kuchera wrote an article entitled Why you want assholes to make your video games, in which he argues in defense of creative people behaving like assholes.
I take serious issue with the piece’s notion, expressed throughout, that being an asshole is a favorable ingredient for greatness. This notion is both deeply troubling and wrong, and while subsequent remarks by Kuchera suggest he sees a distinction between a creative person like a game creator behaving this way, and someone commenting on the former doing the same, I hope most people realize that status does not excuse one person’s bad behavior from another doing the same.
But let’s say Kuchera simply chose the wrong word all along; he does explicitly mention he’s “using the word ‘asshole’ here in a very specific context.” This is still a problem, for two reasons:
- It’s quite important we use the right terms when participating in these important and contentious discussions;
- The net effect of the post is still a message being sent out that, “hey, a lot of people who make things are assholes, and that’s okay.”
It is not okay. I repeat: it is not okay to be an asshole. No amount of success or noteworthy achievements justifies or excuses behaving like an asshole.
Now, I cannot stress this next part enough: just like we can love art and media while also being critical of it, we can love and approve of people who make great things while criticizing them for being an asshole. Being an asshole is not a necessary ingredient for success. It’s just one that works favorably for it, in some cases. (N.B.: some, certainly not all.)
You can be super opinionated. You can be a fearsome leader. You can achieve or produce great things—and you can do it all without being an asshole.
Being an asshole means being disrespectful, abusive or threatening. It means not caring about or listening to others; openly lying for your personal gain or agenda when you know you’re spouting bullshit; deceiving or misleading others by twisting the truth in nefarious ways. Being an asshole means being a bad person and not giving a shit. So you know what? That makes you a shitty person.
Not being an asshole isn’t even particularly difficult; it just takes more effort.
Being an asshole is the lazy way to achieve things, sadly, because it drives people to just give you what you want, to avoid having to deal with you. It is no way to inspire or lead; it is simply a way to make people follow or join rank. It is similarly no guarantee for success at all; most people around the world who are assholes are not very successful.
And let’s also not mistake an unwillingness to bow to others’ opinions for being an asshole, nor mistake making other people seem powerless compared to you as an indication of strength of character. Being an asshole is a sign of cowardice and fear; a sign of feeling insecure that one’s character and strengths speak for themselves.
Rather than the asshole-ness of these people making and achieving great things being a driving factor behind it, it is instead true that being successful means more people let you get away with being an asshole. Put another way: making great things and being successful makes it easier for people to show their asshole-ness without negative consequences. Thankfully, this aspect of our culture is slowly changing, and social media are a big part of that. This is why it is important for us to openly call out people behaving poorly, even when we appreciate or approve of their work.
Thus it confused me to see Kuchera write a piece in celebration of people’s asshole behavior, all the more so when a week later he wrote so well about the internet’s assholes. Certain artistic geniuses may be unusually opinionated, intensely focused to the point of being rude, or difficult to work with, but we should make sure to call the behavior for what it is. And if they are being an asshole, we should make sure to call them out for it, for being an asshole is unnecessary.
The internet is full of assholes leaving diatribes and abuse everywhere they go; the more we call this out accurately and appropriately, the more chance we have at stemming the tide. It is but one of many steps in combating the widespread online misbehavior, but it is a necessary one.