It’s a futile exercise, but once in a while, I do it anyway. I indulge in a little nostalgia for things that used to be. New York Seltzer. Grunge fashion. The theme to The Larry Sanders Show. These things made me genuinely, stupidly happy until, like gnat carcasses, they were wiped clean from the windshield of our whizzing culture.
But when I take my deliberately slow and doubtlessly ill-advised stroll down Reminisce Road, there’s something I find I miss more than anything else, something I never truly appreciated until it was gone—the asshole.
Have you noticed it doesn’t exist anymore? In bygone eras, they were everywhere you looked. The guy who refused to leave a tip, the boss who dumped work on your desk at 5:15, the driver who pulled in front of you and slammed on her brakes.
Different generations had different names for these loathsome blights on common courtesy. Shakespeare called them knaves, pignuts, clotpoles. Early Americans denounced them as scalawags and reprobates. Your grandpa may have cursed the neighborhood lout, heel, or cad.
Me, I’ve always just called them jerks. Until now, that is. Enlightenment, it seems, has purged the planet of jackasses. Obliterated all the SOBs. Annihilated the bastards. Because the more we learn about human psychology, the more we find that people have legitimate—and even, sigh, excusable—reasons for behaving inconsiderately.
Remember, for example, the neighbor who berated you for playing your music too loud at 9 p.m. on a Friday night? Turns out she’s not a malevolent shrew; she’s just going through a bad divorce. You know that guy who insults you every time you run into him around town? He’s not actually an arrogant turd; he’s just insecure from a childhood trauma. Even the client who hired you and then wouldn’t return your calls after you completed the job is not the vicious tool you thought he was. He simply suffers from Integrity Deficit Disorder or some such forgivable malady.
Current compassion asks us to absolve all tyrants, pardon all villains, and accept that even Darth Vader had fair cause to be cranky from time to time. It’s true: No one wants to be mislabeled by a sanctimonious observer who lacks the crucial backstory to judge us fairly.
But doing away with the “dirtbag” designation carries its own risk. Back when the classification really meant something, it was a decent deterrent to tactless behavior. Now that the label won’t stick, we’re giving genuine sleazebags license to abuse us at will: “Don’t bother scooping up the dog poop, Darling. They’ll just assume we were molested by priests in our youth and that’ll be that.” Thus the ultimate irony: By stifling our instinct to identify meanie-weenies, we may, in fact, be creating them.
More importantly and less profoundly, though, I just miss screaming “Flickwad!” out the car window. I pine for the days when I could sweep strangers into sordid but simple little slots without pausing to consider the psychological roots of their abominable actions and atrocious attitudes. When someone sends a bitchy email to a teacher and then carbon copies all the other class parents just because she can, I resent having to invest the time to ponder whether she’s had a hug today.
Empathy, feh. It’s exhausting being sensitive. And while I realize that saying so makes me precisely the sort of you-know-what that I’ve been castigating all along, I think I’m ready to wear the word with pride. Somebody’s got to.
I’m bringing asshole back.