In the tradition of things like the Marvel Universe that continue to build on an immature piece of fluff (in their case, comics where every sentence ends with an exclamation point), here are some more thoughts on philosophical issues involved in my silly and offensive-to-many post on "that asshole." I will likely churn out at least one more of these if the muse continues to sing into my ear (or other orifices).
I'm interested here in trying to spell out some relevant issues in the philosophy of language.
Standardization and Evolution of Meanings
Language is clearly an emergent phenomenon: a bottom-up, gradual creation rather than something determined by enforced standards. Of course, we have dictionaries, and normative grammar, which attempt to improve communication by standardizing expression, but really, those resources are beholden to this natural, organic thing, and must be periodically updated to reflect continued usage. Moreover, learning a word from a dictionary does not necessarily convey most of the nuances and associations it will have for a native speaker of the language. I think this is especially true for slang terms and insults, which in their use are often interchangeable, because their use is primarily to insult and only secondarily to describe. You can even invent a term by combining existing slurs and random words ("you shit-nugget puke-intensive fucktopus!") and people will still get the gist that you're trying to insult someone. Merriam-Webster defines "asshole" in the insulting sense as "a stupid, annoying, or detestable person," but if this is one of the terms you use to think about people on occasion, I'm sure you have something more specific in mind. And what's with that "or" between words that are already pretty generic? The dictionary writers are not even trying to capture the nuances of the slur and how it differs from other slurs.
Per our Darwin episode, I'm sure we get variations regarding these associations for the meaning of a term, which may or may not eventually "speciate" into distinct dictionary meanings. Many of these advances in the meaning of a slur originate from some one individual and are propagated through some piece of mass media. The film Revenge of the Nerds drew on existing stereotypes but then gave us some new associations, and asked questions like "Are all outcasts nerds?" (since some characters defied the stereotype) and "Is being a nerd actually bad?"
I recall at that at age 11 or so I made a list of definitions of slurs like "jerk," dickhead," and "asshole." Each of these seemed to me to embody some distinct type of objectionable person that I didn't like. As someone who was often picked on, this kind of taxonomic thinking was (slightly) useful to me in much the manner of the famed Eskimo with his many different words for snow. In our snarky, status-obsessed culture, it's only natural that my tendency should be shared, and it awaits only a concerted effort by Curb Your Enthusiasm or something similar before we all compare notes regarding our insult categorizations and formalize this thing for the foreseeable future.
But even without the dictionary or Larry David telling us the precise meaning of "asshole," there's a surprising amount of consensus, and that surprise constitutes much of the humor in the Jordan Klepper Daily Show piece embedded in my #thatasshole blog post.
Descriptive and Normative Components of Slurs
I mentioned trying to come up with a slur that could not be "reclaimed" or otherwise made non-insulting, but I don't think this is actually possible. Just as with Revenge of the Nerds, someone could put out a film called Plight of the Assholes in which boorish, rude people were shown sympathetically as having insufficient empathy due to poor bonding with early caregivers, and as ultimately admirable not even just despite, but because of their assholish qualities, which bring with them assertiveness and the unwillingness to bend to the demands of others.
In that case, the descriptive components of "asshole" would remain, or perhaps be even further specified so that we could all agree that that asshole (or some other asshole; pick your favorite) is in fact an asshole, but the stigma would be lessened or even removed.
The history of words in this area is fun. This article about the origins of slurs defines "jerk" as “a tedious and ineffectual person" and gives this interesting origin:
Steam engines were awesome—way better than sailing around Cape Horn if you needed to get from New York to California. But, since they ran on steam, they needed to be refilled with water ridiculously often. “Water-stops” were built all along the railroad lines. These were just water towers, with hanging chains that the boiler man would “jerk” to start the water flowing. Towns sprang up around many of these water-stops. Some thrived, and some were just jerk-water towns, populated with “jerks.”
So I had assumed that this term was just short for "jerk-off," i.e., a play on the trope that masturbation is unproductive and selfish. Having just rewatched the Steve Martin film The Jerk, I've never understood given the current connotations of that term why it was supposed to apply to that character, who would perhaps better be called "The Loveable Moron." I'm guessing that if the film was released now, it'd just be called Navin Johnson, like Forrest Gump. Because there was only one "jerk" in the film, and little exploration of the sense in which he was a jerk and related problems in the jerk community, the film did little to reclaim the word for and establish a jerk-positive environment for rude people.
"Common Opinion," Aesthetics, and Linguistic Attribution
I've tried to suggest so far that identifying that asshole as in fact an asshole is a function in part of the degree to which we do have a common definition of "asshole." If I have to spell this out, I'll say that it involves rudeness (as with "jerk"), arrogance, and obnoxiousness, which in terms means not just rude behavior but negative aesthetic qualities: someone's expression, the way he moves, his style.
So the second part of the identification would be the degree to which people agree that that asshole's actions actually are rude or arrogant, and even these terms can be analyzed into normative and descriptive components, so many of that asshole's supporters would characterize him as "brusque" instead of "rude," when the descriptive character of those terms is the same. "Arrogant" could perhaps be similarly reinterpreted. "Obnoxious" is the most purely value-laden; I don't see a good way to extract a merely descriptive component when the word (like the clearer case, "repulsive") seems to refer to the effect that the person is having on the spectator, or is likely to have on a typical or impartial spectator.
So the "common opinion" here will be restricted to those who agree with a certain aesthetic judgment at least. Per my part 1 of this series, we should all be a little ashamed of having such a judgment. It's always nicer (for the spectator, and not just the target) to appreciate someone's charms than to be repulsed.
However, the entire point of my suggestion that we no longer call that asshole by his given name is that, per my warning in the aesthetics discussion, we've all overdosed on the fellow, big time. Most of my joke is about the fact that he's so culturally pervasive that if you say "that asshole" in an even remotely political context (including nearly any casual conversation with someone you've talked about politics with in the past, or here in Madison at least, casual conversation even with strangers), people will immediately know who you're talking about, even if they disagree with your politics.
Not just his name but his face, with those expressions, has just been too constantly imposed on us for people to simply find him entertaining, funny, maybe someone that you "love to hate." It is this intense, visceral reaction many of us now have to him that deserves the term "derangement," not the rational objection to his policies and temperament. But how do aesthetics and ideology interact here? What exactly is the relationship between finding the dude personally obnoxious on the one hand and being fearful about his policies on the other?
It's been my claim (influenced most directly, if I must confess, by episodes on Sam Harris's Waking Up podcast featuring anti-asshole Republicans) that we should be able to rationally distinguish our judgments regarding the kind of political policies we want enacted from judgments about the rudeness, baseness, and the venality of this individual. I don't think it's at all strange for someone to agree with the characterization of the man as an asshole even if you largely agree with his political goals. Maybe you approve of him and his actions despite his being an asshole.
If asshole attribution inevitably involves an aesthetic attribution which is in turn tied to an ideological attribution, then my claim would be wrong. No one could achieve the kind of disgust that we in my tribe feel about the man's very face and voice and name unless he or she also felt that the asshole's policies were objectionable. But the tie between the ideological and the aesthetic is not actually that tight. Ideology may lead to the suppression of normal disgust, or to the establishment of disgust where there was none before, but this causal connection is not a necessary one, and one might well be able to have the negative aesthetic reaction without having the ideological objection, and vice versa.
Neologisms and Activism
Again, since language is emergent, the individual's power is limited, so I can't just start calling dogs "cat" and expect to start a trend. Still, I posited above that especially with the use of mass media, an elaboration or customary codification of a term can be achieved by one individual, and this was achieved successfully by columnist Dan Savage in coining the term "santorum" in reaction to the anti-gay rhetoric of Rick Santorum.
I think establishing widespread use for a neologism like that (giving a name to something that didn't have a name), though still pretty remarkable, is much easier to pull off than encouraging that people stop using one term and use another instead, especially in the face of all linguistic convention (i.e. stop using the man's customary proper name, without and contrary to his consent). My #thatasshole suggestion is quixotic at best. But by tapping into the power of a group already predisposed to use the term in the way I've suggested, who thinks "that's so true" when they see the Klepper piece, then this is not just a matter of one individual suggesting some change in linguistic usage, but a group dynamic.
Moreover, the power of mischievous humor tends to be especially effective in getting a nonstandard practice to spread. Recall the Jedi consensus phenomenon. A closer comparison to the current suggestion is John Oliver's "Donald Drumpf" suggestion, which he did not find motivating enough to institute going forward on his show. I suggest that while viewers who hadn't seen his original segment explaining the origin of that name would be confused, no one would be confused as to his meaning if he simply, without even an announcement moved to adopt the #thatasshole nomenclature on his show. Of course, it would be much better if he did this with a great deal of to-do, and so referred folks to this site where there would then be a mass influx of new people listening to 2-hr+ conversations about Adam Smith, Guy Debord, and Confucius, which constitutes much of the purpose of an attempted publicity stunt like my post. But would the PEL community be enriched by people attracted to it through such means? Maybe. If they then get through the entire 4 hrs. of Spinoza, then definitely yes!