Assholes and Idiots

The other day my wife and I took advantage of the lovely fall weather to cycle to the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn for dinner at a nice (outdoor) restaurant. 

We don’t get out much these days of course, so this was a big deal. We’d put on real clothes (not just sweats) and were riding at a leisurely pace on the bike path that runs around the Brooklyn Navy Yard and up Kent Avenue. 

This is a busy route that passes through diverse communities of hipsters, Hasids, immigrants, young families, and the elderly. The bike path is new and in good repair, but has only two lanes that must be shared by all sorts of people. Some are rushing somewhere, some are in spandex on training rides, some haul kids and groceries, or move slowly due to age, ability, or preference. 

During this ride I was reminded of an eternal truth of commuting: Anyone who moves more slowly than we do is an idiot, and anyone who moves faster is an asshole. 

What I mean is that there is an instant and involuntary assumption that arises when someone is in my way: “Why the hell are they slowing down? Can’t they see the coast is clear?!” These people, if they had any sense at all, would be moving — so clearly they are idiots. 

For folks who fly past me, or ring their goddamn bell behind me and shout, “On your right!” well they obviously don’t care about the well-being of people around them and are therefore assholes. 

This got me thinking about the various ways the idiot/asshole judgements show up in collaboration, discourse and debate. 

If someone seems not to care about the things I care about I judge them as an asshole, and if someone doesn’t understand the points I’m trying to make, I think they’re an idiot. 

And anyone who would dare disagree with me — well they are both an idiot and an asshole. 

I know I sound lovely and like someone you’d love to work with, right? But I also know I’m not alone. Political debate and social media discourse is riddled with idiot/asshole accusations, and I’ve been in enough team meetings and boardrooms to know this is also a common experience at work. 

But what are we really saying when we use these words? And what is the impact of using them (or more polite synonyms)?  

Technically, “idiot” means someone with impaired or limited cognitive capacity, while “asshole” implies sociopathy. When we make these judgments we are evaluating people on the twin components of trust: care and capability. 

Assholes don’t care and idiots aren’t capable. So we don’t trust either of them, want to cancel them, and certainly won’t listen to them. 

We may of course be correct, but I’ve found more often than not that these initial, gut-level judgments are at least somewhat inaccurate. 

By dismissing people who disagree with us or who haven’t reached the same conclusions as we have (yet), we miss out on essential clarifying challenges to our thinking. I was never more judgmental than when I was a newspaper design director in the late ’90s. I thought I knew all the answers — or at least should have them. But often it was junior designers, editors or writers who would come up with the perfect design solution. 

I learned the need to be humble and flexible. Not only did this help the team create the best work, it also helped us feel more like a team and we could depend on each other. Avoiding the asshole/idiot accusation helped us do better work and become a better team. 

Debate and discourse are essential and inevitable. I’m doing my best to short-circuit these judgments and remember that some people just want or need to move faster or slower than me — variety is a wonderful thing.

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