The deep and powerful reach of assholes in society

Exploration of documented idiocy ‘Assholes: A Theory’ screens at Cinematheque

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Do you have to be an asshole to get somewhere in life? Are there special advantages to being an asshole? Is there such a thing as “a proper asshole?”

These are all questions asked — and partially answered — in Canadian filmmaker John Walker’s documentary film Assholes: A Theory.

The partially Gimli-shot film came to Cinematheque Nov. 13 and is sure to amuse and dishearten audiences during its short run at the local cinema.

Based on the 2012 self-help book Assholes: A Theory by University of California, Irvine professor Aaron James, Walker’s film discusses what attributes make someone an asshole and how society is attempting to dismantle systems that breed “assholery.”

As per usual in the discussion of assholery, the film mentions notorious assholes Kanye West, Harvey Weinstein and Rob Ford.

Though U.S. President Donald Trump’s name is never explicitly mentioned on screen — there is a Trump Tower walk-by in New York City, N.Y., — he haunts the film as a he-who-must-not-be-named figure.

Walker’s interviewees — which include everyone from Cornell University professors to comedian John Cleese — grapple with how best to describe an asshole.

The consensus seems to be that an asshole is someone who doesn’t have morals.

Basically, real assholes don’t realize they are assholes, and if you feel bad after you’ve committed an episode of assholery, you are not an asshole.

The most poignant feature of the documentary is how assholery is intrinsically ingrained in our most powerful institutions.

First, Walker focuses on the story of former Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer Sherry Lee Benson-Podolchuk. Benson-Podolchuk stresses that asshole behaviour is part of RCMP culture, recounting that her day-to-day normalized harassment as a female RCMP officer consisted of being called “beaver” and “raisin tits.”

After Benson-Podolchuk refused to lie to help out a fellow officer — who she knew was intoxicated when he rammed a citizen’s car while on the job — she found a dead prairie chicken in her gym bag while at work.

Benson-Podolchuk said the RCMP turned a blind eye to the violence enacted against her.

After writing her book Women Not Wanted, she said she received a threat from a fellow RCMP officer that the RCMP would financially ruin her or drive her to suicide.

Benson-Podolchuk’s segment of the movie is powerful and leads to the documentary’s largest, unspoken theme: that assholery is a predominantly male-centric issue.

Though the film never outright states it, the documentary makes the case that assholery is the largest symptom of toxic masculinity.

After Benson-Podolchuk’s episode in the film, Walker interviews Johnathan Gilmore — an ex-U.S. marine who was shocked to find out the horrendous treatment he was receiving while in the military was also the motto of the frat house he was temporarily a member of when he was accepted into Cornell University.

Gilmore said his frat was “like the film Animal House.” Women were sexualized and objectified, and rape was a normalized conversation topic.

Gilmore’s segment shines the spotlight on the darkest personal harm assholery contributes to. Walker expands the frat boy concept further by focusing on the frat-like, “bro-gramming” atmosphere of the tech industry.

In the film, James argues that Facebook’s slogan was “move fast and break things,” and expresses fear that if tech giants break democracy, there could be “a resurgence of authoritarianism.”

“That’s not something that can be undone, that’s not something that further technological change is going to repair or fix,” he said.

Cornell law professor Robert Hockett explains in the film how democracy is also tied to the economy. He uses the example of how the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 was directly connected to the uprising of Nazism.

“If there hadn’t been the bubble and bust in this country in the ’20s, I don’t think the Nazi party ever would have become anything more than a fringe party,” he said.

“There was never any sign of its getting out of the fringes until the crash, and until the German economy plummeted too because it was so completely dependent upon the American economy.”

Walker’s documentary gets dark fast. He takes the localized toxicity of assholery and reveals how, if it is institutionally fostered, asshole culture is a threat to our global well-being.

However, not all hope is lost in Walker’s documentary.

Though James admits he is worried about our current “rising tide of assholery,” Walker features broker groups and universities that have established “no asshole” hiring policies.

The firm he features — Baird Wealth Management — survived the 2008 financial crisis without a single employee being fired and is currently thriving.

Baird chairman Paul Purcell claims this is because the company culture emphasizes that “every individual is important.”

Though the music in the documentary — particularly the morose cello at the end of the film — creates a sad atmosphere about how assholes are able to shit all over our society, Walker gives the hopeful last words of the documentary to Italian LGBTTQ* activist and politician Vladimir Luxuria.

“If you decide to react [and call out an asshole’s behaviour] then you are doing something really big,” Luxuria says.

“Like a little stone in a pool of indifference, little ring[s] that go wider and wider and wider can reach longer distances.”