Many surfers treat the lineup like a lawless territory. Those are the assholes. Photo: Noyle
Many surfers treat the lineup like a lawless territory. According to James, those ones are the assholes. Photo: Noyle
Before acquiring his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University, lifelong surfer Aaron James found inspiration for his New York Times bestselling book, Assholes: A Theory, not from his Ivy League colleagues, but from the many insufferable surfers he’s encountered in lineups around the world. We all know the type: the aggro local bent on ruining your session, the bratty grom who scoffs at etiquette, the standup paddleboarder who literally takes every wave. But James goes beyond identification. He explains why these assholes are the way they are. We asked James to employ his asshole-management theory and discuss how to deal with these people both in and out of the water.
First off, can you tell us a little about your background in academia and surfing?
I grew up surfing in San Diego until Rincon drew me north to Santa Barbara, where I studied at Westmont College. From there, I got my PhD in philosophy at Harvard, trying to fit a year’s worth of surfing into the four months I didn’t have to be in Boston. I hoped to find a research-oriented “surfing job” at a university near good waves. Luckily, it all worked out. I got a job as a philosophy professor at UC Irvine right out of graduate school with Lower Trestles as my main break and have been happily there ever since.
So how does the premise of your book relate to surfers? 
I first got the idea of defining the term “asshole” in the water while watching a guy blatantly burn someone and then get angry at the victim when he complained. We grow up dealing with this a lot, but this was the first time I had a philosophical moment with it. I thought, “Wait, to claim he’s an asshole is classifying a person as of a certain moral type.” Then I thought it would be fun to try to define what the moral type is, because a philosopher is supposed to define what is otherwise obscure.
In the first few chapters, you define an asshole as “a person that allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” Who fits into that mold?
That’s the definition I came up with based on the surfer who repeatedly snakes people and then yells at them when they reasonably complain. But the definition also seemed to work for the asshole who cuts in line at the post office, swerves through three lanes of traffic, parks in handicapped places, or talks too loud on his cell phone in a public space. It also fit a bunch of celebrities and political figures, which was all very fortunate, since I was initially just thinking of certain surfers and academic types.
Why do some surfers act like this, and why do they seem to be growing in number?
Most commonly, the asshole surfer makes up some entitlement to right of way in the lineup rather than relying on talent, wave knowledge, and hustle like everyone else. Maybe he’s the older guy, or a supposed local, or a washed-up pro. I suppose it feels like there are more assholes in the water than before just because lineups are more crowded, and assholes convince themselves of their entitlements to cope with the frustration of not getting enough waves. I’m not sure whether there is a higher percentage of assholes than in earlier decades or if it’s just the same proportion of a larger surfing population. You’d need a social scientific study to find out, but there are probably better questions for social scientists to work on.
You touch on gender differences in your book. Why don’t we often see women being assholes in the lineup?
Assholes are usually men in the general population, so it’s no surprise that extends into the lineup. In the case of surfing, I think it’s due to nurture rather than nature: Young girls are usually subjected to higher expectations to cooperate with rules. Boys are often permitted or even encouraged to act out, to push boundaries, and to compete, because “boys will be boys,” while girls are often sharply sanctioned for acting in similar ways. For similar reasons, we see fewer women in the water. Historically, girls and young women haven’t been pushed into sports to the same degree as boys. That started to change partly because of Title IX laws in the 1970s, which gave young women and girls better athletic opportunities, and now there’s a surge of interest in female surfing. But the young women that do become surfers are a lot less likely to be assholes, just because they are generally less likely to engage in male styles of confrontation, such as yelling or making threats of violence, etc. Even the women who are exceptions to the rule will tend to pull asshole moves in their own, less brazenly male, fashion.
Part of your book is devoted to “asshole management,” showing readers how to deal with assholes. How do we deal with assholes in the lineup?
The asshole problem is basically intractable, in which case you shouldn’t expect a true asshole to listen or change regardless of what you say or do. Accepting that should help keep you from becoming frustrated or enraged when he doesn’t. So you have to find other ways of upholding your rights to better treatment. Principled silence is one way. There’s always the quick, cutting remark in hopes of embarrassing the guy and getting a laugh from others. And of course you could threaten to take it to the beach, which might work if he doesn’t call your bluff, but may be dangerous otherwise. I think escalating isn’t generally advisable. The quiet approach of principled silence saves you a lot of trouble, and can still be done in self-respect: In refusing to acknowledge the guy, you make clear that he’s lost his right to speak to you. I’ve done this a lot, and most assholes don’t know how to handle it. They get flummoxed.
Have you ever felt like the asshole in the lineup?
Ah yes, the inner asshole we all have. Sometimes you let yourself start thinking, “This is my spot and that other guy can’t surf anyway, so I can back-paddle him, or not give him the benefit of the doubt when he’s behind a makeable section.” Maybe he’s also ugly, or seems full of himself. Then, of course, non-assholes have that moment of self-awareness when you tell yourself, “Jeez, get over yourself. Just be cool. Don’t be an asshole.”
Bestselling author Aaron James, getting burned by some asshole.
Bestselling author Aaron James, getting burned by some asshole.