- Problem: Everywhere I go, I run into a-holes.
I don’t know what it is, but lately, I keep running into a-holes. People cutting in line. People blocking up roads with their cars and grocery store aisles with their carts. People arguing with authority when they are 100% in the wrong (and usually they know it). For a while there, I was thinking I must just be an a-hole magnet: something about me, or my particular effect on my locality of the universe, causes people to act like a-holes when they’re in my orbit.
But I’m a skeptic, so I know that’s ridiculous. And because I’m a skeptic, I started digging into this weird thing I was noticing. And after months of study, I have a few conclusions to share with you.
- Theory: The dispersion rate of a-holes is high, while the concentration rate is low. Phrased another way: you can find an a-hole just about anywhere you look, but the actual number of a-holes in the population at large must remain a small, perhaps even minute percentage.
We need to define terms, here, or at the very least, define one term: the a-hole. The a-hole is a person (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and wager that they’re mostly men, though I don’t have statistics to back that up — or any other claim in this post for that matter) who routinely puts his or her own interests above the interests of the group in which he finds himself, to the extent that it causes those others pain, discomfort, or inconvenience.
To simplify, the a-hole could be characterized in a single thought: “what I’m doing right now is more important than anything that anybody in the vicinity has going on.”
To clarify, a few examples of a-hole behavior:
- committing just about any traffic offense
- blocking the aisle at a grocery store at full Saturday crowd
- being on his cellphone in the line at Starbucks who hasn’t decided yet what he’s ordering by the time he gets to the front
- doing the “nice guy” thing by letting you go first even though he’s blocking people behind him from going
- standing right behind you on the train or in line when there are literally dozens of other places he could be standing that wouldn’t involve invading your personal space
We could go on, and ladies in the audience could certainly give many more examples that I’m sure don’t even occur to me, but the point is, we recognize the a-hole when we see him. (I’m saying “him” from here on just for simplicity, but c’mon. You know.)
We don’t like a-holes in our societies. The non-a-holes dislike them for obvious reasons: they’re inconveniencing us, annoying us, or at worst, actively causing us pain. Other a-holes also dislike a-holes for the same reasons plus a few more: the other a-hole is stealing resources, or making the environment inhospitable for other a-holes, or is just straight-up getting in the way.
Luckily, there are self-correcting measures for the a-holes out there built into our evolution.
- Big Fishes, Small Ponds
Consider a pond. In this pond are several fish of varying sizes and temperaments. Every fish has to eat. Some fish eat plants, some fish eat bugs, some fish eat other fish. A simple study of the food web you know from third grade will tell you that a small pond can only sustain so many big fish. The big fish does what it wants because it’s the big fish; who’s going to stop it? The big fish gets what it wants by being an a-hole and just taking it. All well and good as long as the big fish is the only big fish.
But what happens when the big fish is not the only big fish?
The moment one big fish takes what another big fish wants, there’s trouble. Now, fish don’t have a lot of tools in their belt: these fish are either going to fight or one of them is going to have to move on. Either way, of the fish in the conflict, one will be forcibly removed from the picture.
One a-hole takes the other a-hole out. The problem rectifies itself; the pond is back to just one a-hole of a big fish.
- A Bug’s Life
A-holes self-regulate in another fascinating way. Consider the movie A Bug’s Life from the early days of Pixar. In this movie, there’s a colony of ants living together, working hard, storing up food for the winter. But every year, a roving band of grasshoppers demands a share of the food, else they’ll start squishing ants. You know; being a-holes. Now the grasshoppers are bigger and meaner than the ants, so there’s not a lot of point in fighting them; it wouldn’t work. Perhaps more to the point, the ants are generally peaceful and don’t want to fight, so they figure paying a bit of food is worth avoiding the conflict.
Until the grasshoppers make life so absolutely untenable for the ants that they can’t take anymore. The ants rise against the grasshoppers like a tsunami, risking life and limb to fight the injustice. While individual ants might get squished in the conflict, the grasshoppers are simply no match for the unified numbers suddenly coming their way with pitchforks and torches.
An a-hole (or group of a-holes) can push their luck past the point of reason, and the community casts them out.
- Extra-Strong Charmin
The last resort against a truly nasty a-hole is exactly what you’d expect: toilet paper. (Look, I’m sorry. The metaphor is disgusting. But hear me out. I’ll be discrete.) The toilet paper are those people who hold jobs — often menial, unglamorous, or practically invisible to the average person — that carry a surprising amount of power when it comes to cleaning up sh*t.
Make no mistake, it’s unpleasant being toilet paper. And not every a-hole you come across demands your full attention. But when the TP gets involved, it’s over for the a-hole.
An a-hole running into some toilet paper has options. He could attempt to make himself look small and unassuming and not worth the trouble of cleaning up — but let’s face it, the a-hole isn’t going to do that because, well, he’s an a-hole. No, he’s going to make the other choice: Inevitably, the a-hole is going to go to war with the toilet paper — but anybody who’s been there knows that this particular path isn’t going to go well for the a-hole. The toilet paper has reinforcements. The more the a-hole struggles at this point, the worse it gets.
These are your idiots arguing with cops, acting smug with judges, getting drunk and disorderly in public. And when they act out enough, well … they get forcibly cleaned up.
So: a-holes are everywhere. Or rather, there is a self-regulating number of a-holes regularly spaced such that it feels like a-holes everywhere.
But I feel like it didn’t used to be this way, so … why am I suddenly noticing a-holes everywhere?
I see two possible reasons.
- I’m a-hole-sensitive. I’m a dad, and I’m trying to keep my kids from growing up to be a-holes themselves, so I’m extra-finely-tuned to a-hole behavior to help me catch it and point it out as Things You Should Not Be Doing for my kids.
- I’m an a-hole myself, and I’m extremely conscious of other big fish swimming into my pond.
I guess there’s nothing saying both answers can’t be right.