The Problem with Assholes

Anthropology has an asshole problem. If the recent revelations about misconduct at the journal HAU have made one thing clear, it’s that there is a culture of mistreatment and bullying in the discipline. There is a pervasive elitism that enables some people – those at elite institutions or in structural positions of power – to act like assholes to people who are weaker, including students, junior faculty, and scholars who are deemed unworthy.

The asshole problem is far larger than one editor at one journal. It’s a problem that has haunted the discipline for decades, at least since I have been in anthropology. I remember being a first-year anthropology student at a Prestigious University in the Midwest, sobbing in the bathroom because a Big Famous Professor had stood up in front of the class and delivered a 15 minute lecture on how he was against my being admitted, how he’d seen nothing so far to change his opinion, and how I would never, ever make it as an anthropologist. I was eight weeks into graduate school, and I had had a cerebro-vascular accident on the first day. With one exception, every other woman in my first year class ended up crying that first year, having been keelhauled by a faculty member. It was a culture of brutality that, thanks to the spread of the department’s students to other departments, became a part of the norms of the discipline. We learned it was normal to see people treated this way; we learned to enact those forms of brutality in every day action and we replicated them.

The point here is that assholery is not antithetical to the discipline, despite our self-declared commitments to equality, decolonization, appreciation of the diversity of humankind, and other high-minded principles. Assholery structures the entire discipline from top to bottom, shaping the goals and dreams of graduate students, allowing faculty at every rank to sneer at those in lesser positions (or, God forbid, working outside academia), and determining our formal criteria for hiring, promotion and tenure. We are a discipline of assholes.

Why do I use the word “asshole,” a term so vulgar that it rarely appears in scholarly discourse? Think of it as a technical term. Aaron James is the author of Assholes: A Theory, a brilliant book that defines assholery in rigorous philosophical terms. James uses three criteria to identify an asshole:

  1. He allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systemically.
  2. He does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement.
  3. He is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

Assholes take advantage of other people because they feel that it is their natural right to do so.   They yell and berate other people because they think they are so brilliant or so busy or so moral that they have the right to do so, they deceive other people because they think it’s in the service of a higher good (usually their own), and they demean other people because they feel that they are already superior to them.

Assholes are, of course, the scourge of the modern era. Self-serving narcissists are in every walk of life, from the grocery store to the White House, and assholery has become not only the moral principle behind American life, but the driving force in contemporary capitalism. But assholery in anthropology takes on a special aroma, because of the formal and informal hierarchies that structure the discipline. So, to James’ three general criteria, we could add three special ones to define AnthroAssholes:

  1. They value theory, preferably pitched in impermeable language meant to scare away outsiders and addressed at issues only of interest to those in the In Crowd, at the expense of ethnographic inquiry into other people’s lives. (This, ironically, was the thing HAU was founded to move away from but ended up replicating).
  2. They judge the worth of an idea by the pedigree of the person advancing it, particularly by their past or present affiliations to prestigious institutions.
  3. They engage in what Carlota McAllister has called “bigtiming,” or the ritual enactment of their own status in relation to others both by belittling, ignoring, and excluding others and by ritually anointing those they deem worthy.

Notice that criticizing the ideas of others is not on the list of asshole behavior. That is both because it is a legitimate function of scholarly discourse, and because in the ritual dance that is bigtiming, criticism is a mark of honor and inclusion, not of dismissal. Assholes know that the real cut in anthropology is not to be criticized, but to be ignored.

One of the major reasons there is a disciplinary nomenklatura in the first place has to do with the way anthropology reproduces itself. More than 20% of the jobs are filled by graduates of the top five placing departments; more than 50% are filled by graduates of the top 15. This has led to incredible elitism, in which the worth of someone’s contribution is often judged by the place they got their PhD or the institution where they hold a job. Those anointed “superstars” have, by the virtue of their position and status, the privilege of anointing others by publishing their work or by naming them to huge and largely non-functional editorial boards whose rosters serve as lists of the nomenklatura. Those with the power to anoint generally anoint others who have the same PhD pedigree, who do work that agrees with theirs, and who circulate in their same networks, which leaves people with degrees from outside this small range of departments, who aren’t in the networks of people from elite institutions, with little chance to break in (see Kawa et. al. 2016, which offers startling statistics on this).

This has created a class system that incessantly reproduces intellectual and social elitism in which people with the social capital to get into a “prestigious” institution in the first place reap more social capital by virtue of their networks. Classism is thus a fundamental platform for assholery. Firing one editor won’t change the disciplinary class system, nor will reorganizing a journal that has the same editorial board, connected to the same networks. We have to break the star system by finding ways to let people who did not go to the top five institutions enter these networks. That means using a conscious strategy to publish scholars from outside elite networks, to invite them to conference panels, editorial boards and visible service positions, and to open the social world of the discipline (AAA parties, etc.) to them. Every Ph.D. producing department, every hiring committee, and every single journal in the discipline needs to make formal commitments for including scholars at community colleges and land-grant institutions.

In the wake of the HAU debacle, many anthropologists have suggested that AnthroAssholery is a manifestation of the discipline’s perennial racism, coloniality, and misogyny. This may well be true. There have been long and very credible explorations of the discipline’s racist history and the ways that has affected its canon and hierarchy. Likewise, there have been significant revelations about the discipline’s enduring sexism. But assholery is not limited to white men, even though they certainly make up a good portion of the assholes. Assholes can be women (I know because I have been one, frequently) and people of color. Some women of color even have a term for white women’s assholery: “Beckyism,” or the crying of crocodile tears after they throw somebody else under the bus to advance their own cause (I thank Kaifa Roland for this information). Assholery is contagious. Once people see an asshole being an asshole and winning, actually gaining power and prestige by being an obnoxious self-interested bully, it creates a huge incentive for other people to emulate that behavior. Assholery has ripple effects as it spreads in the form of disciplinary norms that not only enable, but hyper-value nasty, elitist, demeaning behavior.

To say this a different way: Racism, colonialism and sexism are like the congestive heart failure of the discipline, long-standing but slow-moving problems that will eventually kill it, that we have all known about for decades but have been unwilling or unable to change our habits to address. Assholery is more like a heart attack, an emergency caused by the deeper underlying problem. When an emergency caused by assholes hits, it’s immediate and throws everyone into crisis mode. Limiting assholery does not invalidate the deeper critique of the discipline’s racism or sexism. It’s emergency medicine, meant to stop more damage from occurring while the underlying etiology of the problem can be solved. Thus the immediate question then isn’t why people are assholes (although that’s a problem that has to be understood in the longer term), but how to limit the assholes in the short term, so that we can gain the space to deal with the fundamental problem.

Luckily, there are steps that can be taken immediately. Aaron James suggests that the flourishing of assholery in the general culture is due in part to the weakening of what he calls “asshole dampening systems.” He mentions family, religion, and the regulatory state as three systems that put limits on how much an asshole could do before he was sanctioned. What are potential asshole dampening systems that we could enact as a discipline? This is the conversation we need to engage in now. I propose six, as a starting point:

  1. Creating a Disciplinary Code of Conduct: The AAA has a code of conduct for protecting human subjects, meaning the people we work with in the field. But we have no code for protecting students, contingent faculty, and colleagues. We need a code of conduct that spells out in detail what kind of behavior is beyond the pale and that sets a tone for disciplinary interactions. AAA’s new sexual harassment policy is a start, but we need a policy for harassment that isn’t overtly sexual but is nonetheless harassment. Moreover, we need mechanisms to enforce this code in ways that do not unduly burden the aggrieved party.
  2. Treating Graduate Students as Employees: In some European countries, graduate students are not students, but employees of the university. They get a modest but livable wage, full benefits, and access to all the structures that ensure (or at least attempt to ensure) the fair treatment of workers. It is true that making graduate students into employees would be costly, and would dramatically reduce the number of PhDs granted. Given the state of the job market, wouldn’t contracting the labor supply while treating that labor more equitably and humanely be a good idea.
  3.  Practice Amplification: “Amplification” was the name given to a strategy used by women in the Obama Administration. When a remark made by a woman was passed over, her female colleagues would repeat the comment and give credit to the person who first said it. It worked: Obama noticed and began taking the ideas of women more seriously.   Anthropologists can practice amplification by placing a special premium on publishing the work of people from outside the usual networks and by making special efforts to cite underrepresented scholars and people from outside the top 15 institutions. This not coincidentally tends to also valorize work by women, people of color, and members of other marginalized groups, as the #citeblackwomen campaign has shown.
  4. Creating a Metric for Hiring Beyond the Top Five Departments: In 2016, the top ten Ph.D. granting departments filled 43% of jobs. AAA and EASA should publish this statistic annually, and we should set a target that reduces this number substantially. Members of hiring committees can contribute to this effort by not using Ph.D. granting department as a proxy for the worth of candidates’ work, and by devaluing letters of recommendation from high-profile scholars.
  5. Issuing a Disciplinary Standard for Tenure and Promotion that Valorizes Work Beyond Journal Articles and Monographs: One of the problems that the HAU scandal brought to light was how much young scholars are dependent on editors of the top five journals for progress in their careers. Because departments often demand that junior scholars publish single-authored articles in a top five journal, the editors of these journals have enormous power. If the discipline devalues these journal articles and valorizes other forms of scholarly activity, the oligopoly that runs the discipline will be broken. The AAA Guidelines for Tenure and Promotion Review go in this direction.  We should value work published in wide-circulation media more highly, not less highly, than scholarly journal articles. We should value work in new digital media, including scholarly blog posts.
  6. Change Editorial Practices: HAU had a whopping 61 people on its editorial board, few if any did any actual work for the journal. The editor was editor-for-life. Editorial boards should be small and term-limited, and should have real oversight of the practices of the journal and its editors. Either the editorial board or the board of parent institution should regularly review the financial reports of the journal and provide an ombudsman to deal with complaints of misconduct. Editors in chief, too, should be term limited.

Anthropology has always seen itself as a profession that roots for the little guy. We pride ourselves on our commitments to equality and fairness. In an era of unrestrained social assholery, in which the rich and powerful have come to feel their wealth and power is their natural right, anthropology has the power to throw those assumptions into question. But to do so, we have to save our own discipline from the assholes. This will require some steep uphill battles – but it is well worth the fight.


* Many thanks to Kaifa Roland, Jason Cons, Martin Demant Frederikson, Antonio De Lauri, and Tom Widger for their thoughts on an early draft of this piece.

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