Zi Lu said: ‘The ruler of Wei is anticipating your assistance in the administration of his state. What will be your top priority?’
Confucius said, ‘There must be a correction of terminology.’
Zi Lu said, ‘Are you serious? Why is this so important?’
Confucius said, ‘You are really simple, aren’t you? A noble man is cautious about jumping to conclusions about that which he does not know.
‘If terminology is not corrected, then what is said cannot be followed. If what is said cannot be followed, then work cannot be accomplished. If work cannot be accomplished, then ritual and music cannot be developed. If ritual and music cannot be developed, then criminal punishments will not be appropriate. If criminal punishments are not appropriate, the people cannot make a move. Therefore, the noble man needs to have his terminology applicable to real language, and his speech must accord with his actions. The speech of the noble man cannot be indefinite.’
I am no political leader, in any sense. I fear the wrath that my words may elicit. It is not in my interest to alienate a section of our listenership. But I can no longer remain silent. With heavy heart, I call on each and every one of you who feels the truth of what I have to say here to obey Confucius’s directive and call a spade a spade, or rather an asshole “that asshole.”
My thought here is far from original. Among the many attempts to comedically take down that asshole during the campaign season, the one that most inspired me was this July 2015 clip from Jordan Klepper on The Daily Show where he identified that asshole as potentially “our first openly Asshole-American President”:
While I have found it dismaying that I haven’t been hearing this formulation continually as that asshole became a more serious candidate and then was actually elected, I see there’s a book by Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, that there are plenty of images (both photoshopped and not) supporting this image visually, the term seems to be gaining momentum among the commentariat, and even Republican congressmen have explicitly acknowledged that asshole’s assholery.
Look, every casual conversation nowadays sooner or later wanders onto the topic of our president. And every time you use his name, it contributes to his power. Even if you’re calling him out for his unfitness for his office, you are engaging in cultural and sonic pollution just by saying that asshole’s name. Now, an obvious substitute is “He Who Must Not Be Named,” but do we really want to imply that we fear that asshole? Contempt and dismissal is a much more appropriate attitude. Yes, we fear what his election says about our culture. We fear for our democracy. We fear that that asshole’s actions could lead to nuclear war. And yes, I do slightly fear that anyone who speaks too loudly against that asshole could be subject to an angry tweet that could then bring death threats or worse. In theory, that asshole could sick an FBI detail on a critic, but really, there are just too many of us, so the odds of being the one who might be made an example of are very low.
So there’s little need to fear that asshole himself. But wouldn’t calling him “that asshole” in every appropriate circumstance (e.g., maybe not around children, though doing so might engender a good civics lesson, so I’ll leave the circumstances up to you) further lower our political discourse? I reply: sorry, it’s a bit too fucking late for that.
But maybe more importantly, isn’t calling him “that asshole” sinking to his level? Interestingly, the fact that that asshole doesn’t regularly in his tweets and speeches use terms like “asshole” points out the fact that there are (for the moment at least) actual limits on what that asshole will say. So in calling him “that asshole,” I’m actually sinking below his level, or rather I’m using a discourse that he is in effect not allowed to use. Perhaps if enough people call him “that asshole” enough times, then he will be baited to open himself up publicly to using that vocabulary, and we’ll be able to quote him and further demoralize his supporters until we can finally join together as a society—right wing and left—to reject this kind of discourse. Cognitive dissonance and the realities of the struggle for power may prevent many right-wingers from actually joining in the effort to eject him from office, but at least after he has become a lame duck in around three (or seven!) years, they will join us in proclaiming, “Never again!”
I don’t want to overstate the political power of this small act of nomenclature. Reversal of names is a small act of petty revenge on a system out of our control. Mostly I’m recommending that you call him “that asshole” (without capitalization wherever possible–it’s not supposed to be his wrestler name) and use the hashtag #thatasshole as a matter of liberating mental hygiene. Yes, of course we need to acknowledge that he’s our president, but we need not glorify him by calling him “The President” or “Mr. President,” and we needn’t keep supporting his brand by using his name.
There are many alternative name choices, and other strong epithets that have with more or less accuracy been used to describe the man. “That asshole” is one that isn’t cute, that his supporters won’t be able to turn around and use as a term of praise à la “deplorables” or “nasty woman,” and it tastes much the same in the mouth as the man himself. It skates the fine line between swear and not swear, and you’ll get a little burst of naughty glee every time you use it not just as an exclamation (“He said that to the grieving widow? What an asshole!”) but simply as the dude’s name.
Remember: Hashtag #thatasshole. Help our language use become more accurate today!
10/31 addendum: This article has inspired a lot of discussion of the both fun/enlightening and tedious/stomach-churning varieties on our Facebook group. As a result of that, I’ve started writing some articles on the philosophical issues related to humor, neologisms, etc. Here’s the first one.