Nora Bateson: An Ecology of Assholes

Credit: Indiana Vatikiotis-Bateson

The world is a beautiful place, full of souls that want only to be loved. Humanity has achieved wondrous feats of elegance, humor, grace and poetic creativity… but there is also the asshole factor.

By asshole I mean jerk, I don’t mean murderer. Certainly murderers are assholes, but not all assholes are murderers. With all the name calling and finger pointing right now why not take a minute to apply the axioms of systems thinking and ecological patterning to something closer to home than saving the world. We all know a few assholes, and those that can admit it might confess to having even occasionally joined in on the assholery. That much is given.

Commonly, and paradoxically… assholes are thought of as individuals. This is a mistake that should be untangled. For that reason this piece is a short exploration in to the way in which assholes coexist within frames that are larger than their own sphincters, even though they may not realize it. This is a moment perhaps to look at an ecology of assholes.

It is all very well to say we are all interconnected, but what about the implication of being interconnected to all the assholes? And what does that say about the non-assholes? Are we all in the oneness? Oh no.

An “ecology” has a couple of important characteristics that we would do well to keep in mind for our analysis. First as Webster says ecologies are found in:

“The totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment.”/

Is the asshole really an isolated island of their own dickwadery? Or is their relational interaction taking place within the larger context of communication that the asshole is responding to? Is the asshole-ness within them? Or is it in their relationship with either you or the world.

Interacting with someone who is prone to: humiliation of others, to lying, or displaying the arrogance that comes when they believe their own life to be more valuable than that of other people… can cause one’s faith in humanity to falter. They cannot be trusted, they judge others, they are blamers, they hold them selves to be “right” and clever while others are stupid, they boast about the way they’ve shamed someone else, or made them suffer, — they go on and on about how others are jerks.

Ummm wait a minute… am I an asshole for making this list?. Judging, blaming, etc.?

No. Self-reflection is not a quality of an asshole so I am ok. (Or maybe it takes one to know one?)

In other words, you ask, “Who do those assholes think they are?” You might confirm your suspicions by making a list of their characteristics: of personality, politics, profession, family, nationality and so on. You can then point to them, personally, and individually and say with some evidence in hand, “That asshole is an asshole”. In that sense the asshole is indeed an individual with their own cluster of personal choices that have resulted in their being a douchebag. Part one of the paradox is that in this way, the assessment is correct. The way that person makes sense of their world is uniquely their own. Their family, their culture their job, their friends and acquaintances their sleep habits, their micro biome, their …holistically speaking all of those things come together to form the filters through which that person experiences the world are uniquely theirs and no one will ever be exactly the same as they are. No one will experience the color blue like they do, or see the same meaning in a poem. (Maybe assholes don’t read a lot of poetry… I don’t know.) They are their own lens, and no one else has the same one.

/ «Perhaps we all even need a little assholeness to keep from being pushovers?»

But how did they get that way? Part two of the paradox is asking if there is any aspect of them that is not influenced by their family, their culture, language, food, etc.? Is there a definable part of them that is outside of the great interconnectedness? In this sense they are a combining of all that they embody. Ask, what learning took place in their world that contributed to their assholing? Is it really a choice to be an asshole?

I am not suggesting solving this paradox. Living within the interconnectedness of assholes is not something we can opt out of. To be an asshole is both a choice and it is not. Even as non-assholes (or so we might hope) we are all caught in a web of deplorables, and in that sense, we are part of the systemic ass-hating of our world.

The next ecological characteristic is interdependency. Ecologies are relational and interdependent contexts. There is nothing outside of the processes that are continually forming and informing the ecology. Assholes are not stand-alone entities.

So, maybe the nice people are really the assholes because they go around pointing out assholes to make themselves look good? Ever wonder? Is every asshole so wrong when they are asking, “ how is this person trying to screw me over?” Perhaps we all even need a little assholeness to keep from being pushovers?

Or is the asshole identifiable as the one who is constantly pulling things out of context and dissing them? It is the ultimate violence to take one tiny piece of information out of a larger set of conditions and circumstances, decontextualize it — cast it as the TRUTH, and then disavow all other contextual input as “beside the point”… That is certainly what assholes do. And they do it to people in disrespect, but also to other living systems, and to art, ideas, other peoples’ projects and so on.

Assholes don’t get interdependency.

They don’t get that they are in interdependency.

But then I find that I don’t get how it is that they don’t get the interdependent consequences… and in that swift move I become the asshole.

Within this dreaded reflection I see it is me then that does not ask about the ecology we share. It is me that cut the picture and cleaved the context.

The real problem with assholes is that humiliation, disrespect and decontextualized judgmental arrogance contaminate the ecology of our communities. The overtones of life in general can go sour when vile exploitative attitudes abound. Assholes underestimate the profound awe of each remarkable living being. In doing so they escalate trouble untold. Fair enough, you may say, life is a bitch… but just keep in mind that it takes a great deal of collective tenderness to heal ecologies, asshole.



Nora Bateson (born April 13, 1968) is an American born research designer, independent film-maker, writer, and lecturer. She is the daughter of Gregory Batesonsister of Mary Catherine Bateson and granddaughter of William Bateson and is president of the International Bateson Institute (IBI). The IBI is a research group specializing in the development of a methodology for transcontextual research of living systems.









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