Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 40: Investigating Asshole Culture — with John Walker

Speakers: Rachel Wong, Am Johal, John Walker, Scott Bernstein

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Rachel Wong  0:06 
Hello listeners. I'm Rachel Wong with Below the Radar. A knowledge mobilization podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. In this episode, we are joined by John Walker, Canadian filmmaker and cinematographer. He has won international acclaim for his films in the documentary genre, and is one of the co-founders of the documentary organization of Canada. An organization that advocates for independent documentary filmmakers. John sits down with our host Am Johal to discuss his latest film Assholes: A Theory.

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Am Johal  0:54 
Delighted that we could have John Walker with us, director of Assholes, or the proper name...

[both laugh]

John Walker  1:01 
Assholes: A Theory. 

Am Johal  1:02 
Assholes: A Theory, thank you. So this new documentary that's going to be screening at VIFF right now and also coming up on the documentary channel, early in the new year.

John Walker  1:11 

Am Johal  1:12 
Was based on a book by political theorist, philosopher Aaron James. So wondering if we can talk about how you conceived of the project? 

John Walker  1:20 
Yeah, so I sort of set this up in the beginning of the film that I was having a discussion with a female colleague, a filmmaker, you know, and she posed the question, do you have to be an asshole to be a great filmmaker? She was sort of frustrated, you know, that these male filmmakers that we had just seen a conference with somebody, was a bit of an asshole. Anyway, so it started this thought process, you know, and I think women often ask that question. My wife's an architect, you know, she thinks about these famous architects who are, you know, behave badly let's say. Without having to name them. But anyway, so I ended up going to my favorite bookstore in Toronto, the UFT bookstore, this huge, huge bookstore. And I always ask the Muses, is there something here that, I wasn't thinking specifically about assholes. But anyway, I found this book, Assholes: A Theory, there it was, so I read it. And I came into my office and Brené was with co-producers. I said, "This is my next project," and everybody else I looked at "Assholes? What are you thinking? What do you?" So yeah, the book really struck me. So the first thing I wanted to do when I read the book was I wanted to give my daughter a copy. She was 20 something, and I thought she had been bringing some of these types home.

[both laugh]

John Walker  2:27  
The father always thinks that their daughter's boyfriends are all assholes.You know? They may not be but you think they are. So I gave her a copy. She loved it. And then the second thought was, I think there's a film here, you know. The book is a, is kind of a warning about the rising tide, in my words, a rising tide of assholery, and it was kind of a warning, and I felt this was coming. And this was before Trump was elected, but I thought it was a very relevant, relevant book. 

Am Johal  2:51  
Absolutely, and in the book, you talk about it in the film, as well through the interviews, but there's different types of assholes. I'm wondering if you can characterize the kind of typology at least how Aaron James references it, but also in the people that you interview.

John Walker  3:04  
Yes, yes, he says there's many species of uh, called the uh, you know, the Facebook asshole, the smug, the self-aggrandizing asshole, there's the corporate asshole, there's the, you know, cable news, you know, asshole, and you know, there's various types. And so there's an interesting range. And one of the people in the film says, you know, we're blessed with the more descriptions of this type of behavior than any other human behavior. But uh, Aaron took this, you know, he's a moral philosopher, he took the subject seriously, but also, he's, he has a sense of humor, you know, and there is a certain amount of humor with, you know, with the word, it's a bit, you know, and we can, as we show in the film, you know, we can laugh about this type of character in the movies or theater, you know, there's a certain type that we can laugh at a bit, but it's not real, as John Cleese says, you know, that you could laugh at it, but not, try living with one or working for one, and that's a different story. So we look at the range of the different types of assholes, and you know, so it goes from, you know, the guy weaving through traffic in his BMW, you know, to, of course, somebody running a corporation or a country and creating a toxic environment that is destructive to people. So, there's a great, there's a wide range of this behavior. 

Am Johal  4:13  
Yeah. And I imagine with both the book and the film, because I think everyone's had some kind of an experience with assholes of various types and variants. So I think it's very easy to engage with the material, uh, in a sense. And in your research and discussions with people did you find different ways that people coped with encounters with assholes? 

John Walker  4:34  
Yeah, I mean, it's interesting, because a lot of people and I think, you know, maybe it's typically women will, you know, blame themselves and if you're being treated badly, like, what did I do wrong here? I think men do the same thing. But you know, typically, it's a male behavior, often directed towards women. But I think what was important to me about the book was because it names the behavior and describes it as a moral type. It allows you to say "this is unacceptable behavior". So it's empowering in that sense. But I think that if you're not aware that this is bad behavior, not aware of what an asshole is doing and being able to define it, you can take it on yourself thinking, "What's wrong with me? I'm not doing a good job" because you know, you're being yelled at, you're being shouted at, you know, you're not being respected, you're not being treated as a human being. And you think, “what have I done to deserve this kind of behavior?” and the sound of accepting and not realizing. So I think that, I mean, I chose some people in the film that did resist and push back. Sherry Benson-Podolchuk is a former RCMP officer, so we explore her relationship to the RCMP and that was an interesting case of resisting this, this behavior. Yeah. 

Am Johal  5:44 
Now, you mentioned and Aaron James does as well, that assholes tend to be disproportionately male. And there can be a racial component to it, assholes can come in all shapes and sizes and in different genders, but they happen to be disproportionately male, or at least in this North American context disproportionately white male? 

John Walker  6:03 

Am Johal  6:03  
What was that discovery that you made? 

John Walker  6:05 
Yeah. That was, that was interesting, exploring the gender issue. And Aaron has a chapter on that in the book, you know. So, what I discovered is when I went to Silicon Valley, you know because I found that particularly interesting, we can talk about that as we go forward. But you know, it's a very liberal left culture, we're changing the world making a better world and so I started talking to people there and some women that I talked to, there was actually an article in The Atlantic, why does Silicon Valley treat women so badly? So there was Kim Scott, who wrote, wrote a book Radical Candor which is a very interesting book about how not to be an asshole in the workplace. But anyway, she realized that she was acting the asshole, she was imitating her boss and following her boss's lead, that you have to be an asshole to be successful in this industry. And then she realized, no, this is wrong. This is you know, so I think, you know, women can, if they're in positions of power, feel that they have to act like that asshole, in that position in power and emulate their bosses. But that's more rare. And in Aaron's definition, its a sense of entitlement. That seems to be a very male, particularly these women, I mean, we have a culture, a male culture, of feeling superior to women, we pay them less, you know, they didn't have the vote, and so on. So there's a real cultural sense of men thinking that they're superior to women. So that's definitely, you know, well ingrained. 

Am Johal  7:25 
And then what you cover in the film around a certain type of Silicon Valley tech bro, the kind of combination of Silicon Valley and the tech industry that produces a certain, maybe a certain type of asshole. 

John Walker  7:38
Yeah, we sort of go back in terms of a trajectory of are you born or bred an asshole? So, you know. 


Am Johal  7:44 
It's an important question. 

John Walker  7:45 
Yeah, yeah. So we sort of go back. And, you know, Geoffrey Nunberg, who wrote [Ascent of] The A-Word or wrote a history of the use of the word, you know, says, Well, you know, we wouldn't call, you know, a five year old, you know, an asshole, we might call them a little shit, but not an asshole and old enough to be responsible with, you know, and teenagers are sort of playing with this, you know, this kind of behavior, and but they're not properly defined yet. But we look at the fraternity culture. You know, this toxic masculine fraternity culture at Cornell University, in particular, we just happened to be there. So we started look at this trajectory that, you know, hopefully your parents will teach you not to behave this way. And we have a scene of toddlers fighting and spitting at each other, trying to get access to a bicycle, you know, and so we tried to train people out of it. But if they get into a fraternity culture that supports this behavior and condones this behavior, and they come out of university and get into a services sector, financial services sector, Wall Street, where they you know, demand individualism and demand this kind of behavior, or in this case, Silicon Valley, then, then you're stuck. You're being supported, you're being celebrated for this behavior, you know. So we we look at who's celebrating this kind of behavior and the problem that that causes in society. 

Am Johal  8:59  
Mhmm, yeah, it's interesting. We’ve, the last few weeks, we've had a number of conversations with people on the podcast around nationalism and patriotism and the distinctions and this sort, of there is a kind of very strong relationship to asshole-ism, in a way and I know Aaron James has written a book about specifically Trump and his brand of asshole-ism in his new book. 

John Walker  9:19 
Yes, that's right. No, that's right. Yeah, Assholes: The Theory of Donald Trump. Yeah, the sequel. Yeah, I mean, you know, I've had these conversations with Aaron. I mean, imperialism. I mean, British imperialism, for example, is, that's assholery writ large. You know, this is a sense of superiority over others, you know, the way the British treated First Nations in this country or in India, you know, it's just the assumption that we are superior. So that's assholery. That's imperialism and so that, so the roots of assholery really are and apparently we just didn't have a word for it. But we would have called Napoleon an asshole if we had, we had the word you know. So.

Am Johal  9:54 
Now in terms of conceptualizing the film after you read the book, you've got a long history and record of producing work for many decades. But was there other work that you've done previously that you looked at in terms of approaching the work in terms of how to tell this story. 

John Walker  10:08 
Of my work? My own work? 

Am Johal  10:09 

John Walker  10:10  
Not really this is a sort of a departure. I mean, I've done essays. This is an essay film, and I've done my previous film Quebec My Country Mon Pays, was an essay about growing up in Quebec. During the Quiet Revolution, in which 500,000, Anglophones left the province uh, due to the issues that you were talking about, ethnic nationalism and cultural nationalism, and so on and so forth. So that's an essay form. And I've also, what made this unique in a way was it was adapting a book, being inspired by a book. So you've got a certain, you know, foundation of a book, and I've, I adapted one other book before called Fatal Passage. About the Northwest Passage. The film was called Passage so, so I had worked with books before and turning them into a screenplay. But this was very different because this was not a story. As such, it was not a narrative. It was, you know, dealing with a subject matter of human behavior, and how do you shape it into an essay form and have something to say about it? So, so, it was, it was very different for me, and it was was more challenging. Also, because it's wasn't as visual as I like to be. 

Am Johal  11:09 
Right, it's interesting. It's a work of philosophy that you're adapting on to the film. We had a chance to interview Astra Taylor about her book, What is Democracy? A few months back. 

John Walker  11:19 

Am Johal  11:19
Similarly she's working with a philosophical concept.

John Walker  11:22 
Yes, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I veered from the philosophy. You know, I mean, the book is called Assholes: A Theory, and the theory part is Aaron's philosophical musings on the subject. And philosophy doesn't really fit filmmaking that well, particularly if you're referencing philosophers that your audience is not aware of. And even myself, I mean I'm looking at who was so-and-so, and who is so-and-so? And I'm trying to, you know, and we sort of open the film where I meet some people on the street, I said, I'm making this film about assholes, a theory and this African American is standing there "Oh, it's not a theory, you know, it's a reality, you know, what are you talking about?" So I kind of, the film is more about the reality, you know, Aaron's book was the theory and I'm looking at the reality of it. So that was kind of where I was going. So it's less on the theory and more on the, you know, what's the practical reality of Aaron's theory? So that's how I shifted it. 

Am Johal  12:10 
In terms of assholes you've encountered in your own life, is it other filmmakers? Is it a workplace setting, or all over the map? 

John Walker  12:18 
Interestingly, I mean, interestingly, one thing I found in the book, when I first opened it up, I always, when I find a new book I open at randomly to a page and see if there's some connection to me.  So, I go open it up at page 101. And Aaron had written “if a young boy had been born in the United States, Italy, or Israel, he is far more likely to live the life of an asshole than if he had been born in Norway, Japan or Canada.” So I say, "Oh, interesting. It's, maybe it's cultural." And that's what made me interested in the book. So certain cultures produce this kind of behavior more than others. And so that interested me. So you know, Cleese says in the film, "we don't think of Canadians as producing assholes, you know, you're much more balanced and reasonable and less aggressive than the American." So it is partly a cultural thing. So that was interesting to explore. You know, what kind of cultures and when I talk about culture, we're talking about corporate culture. Asshole capitalism, there's a chapter on asshole capitalism. There's corporate culture that produces assholery. And then there's a national culture and what I found in my research is that countries like Norway and Canada have a safety network, you know, a social safety network of medicare and so on, are less aggressive in terms of having to survive. They're less individualistic and more collective in their culture of helping people you know? So, all cultures do have assholes but some cultures produce, condone it more than others. 

Am Johal  13:43 
I like that term asshole capitalism because it's not just in the capitalist world. It's it signifies a kind of culture because I run into assholes in the university for example, 

John Walker  13:52 

Am Johal  13:52 
but they are functioning within perhaps a culture of Asshole capitalism.

John Walker  13:55 
Yeah. Yeah, I mean universities certainly universities, academics, you know I talked to a lot of academics that are "Oh yes, yes there's a lot of assholery" and in fact that's why I found Cornell University interesting the Cornell law school and you know, lawyers have a reputation of this behavior right? And they have adopted a no asshole rule hiring policy at Cornell law school for their own staff. And they're very concerned about asshole behavior with their students so I thought that was interesting because there's a solution to this and that's this no asshole rule. 

Am Johal  14:24 
Yeah, I had a friend of mine who ran the Purple Thistle for years which was an anarchist youth center and they came up with their own rules for the place. I mean it was very you know, anarchist it wasn't official rules or whatever but one of the main rules was no asshole-ism.

John Walker  14:38 

Am Johal  14:39 
It was like there's only two or three things you know, clean up after yourself and no asshole-ism. 

John Walker  14:42  

Am Johal  14:43 
like a very basic kind of. 

John Walker  14:44 
No, exactly. It is, it is kind of a basic, you know, principle in terms of, I mean, one thing that I liked about Aaron's approach is that it's non-partisan. You know, you can be an asshole on the left or the right. And, and I think that's important, you know, but the warning about this thing increasing, particularly in America, that he was seeing, this increasing potential. There's factors there of this increase and social media is one major factor that seems to be allowing this behavior to, it's hard to push back against social media haters, and trolls, and so on. So social media is having a big impact. And Silicon Valley is the center of this culture, producing the products that are allowing this kind of behavior to take place, hate language, and so on, so forth. So that's, I think that's important but I guess what Aaron is talking about in the book is that, let's face it, we're not naive enough to think we're going to get rid of all the assholes in the world. But it's a matter of equilibrium. And what happens is, if that equilibrium, if that balance is out of balance, and assholes are in charge, then we're in trouble. And that's the example of the 2008 crisis, financial crisis, when the, the capital was, it was assholes were in charge and led to a complete disaster and a global crisis. 

Am Johal  15:15 
I'm going to run a few names by you to see if they hit the asshole test. Kanye West. 

John Walker  16:03 

Well, he we referenced Kanye in the film, because we talked to a lot of young people I was asking who they admire? You know, they're a favorite assholes, but he certainly came up as one. Yeah. 

Am Johal  16:12 
Boris Johnson.

John Walker  16:14 
Yes. I mean, in my opinion, I mean, you know, I have to say, as a Canadian, I'm very shy to start naming names, you know, right. Because we don't come from a culture like a pointing finger.

Am Johal  16:26 
Maybe that's why there is a culture of sort of passive aggressiveness in Canada. 

John Walker  16:30 
It could be. 

Am Johal  16:30 
So asshole-ism maybe gets presented in different a way. 


John Walker  16:33 
Yes, I think you're right. No, I think you're right there. Yes, yes, it's under the surface our assholery. You know, and in fact, that's what Aaron brought up in this book about Trump. He said, you know, that can be a positive reaction when this kind of assholery surfaces, and the truth comes out of what your underlying racism is, the underlying, you know, disturbing asshole attitudes. When they come to the surface, then it can be a reaction. And it can actually be a healthy reaction and to deal with this stuff that's hidden below the surface. And I think there's some truth to that. 

Am Johal  17:04 
To some extent, there's some there's a kind of strange relationship to it as well, because when especially when you throw it into the toxic cocktail of politics and populism, that asshole-ism can actually be a kind of mobilizing and in a way that it has been for Trump, let's say or Berlusconi in Italy.

John Walker  17:23 
Yeah, very much so.

Am Johal  17:24 
In other places. And so there is sort of this relationship to nationalism and populism that the asshole can invoke in a way that produces effects that can be really negative for a lot of other people. 

John Walker  17:35 

Am Johal  17:36 
Particularly minorities and other people. 

John Walker  17:38 
Yes, absolutely. You know, Leslie Miley, the African American that we interview in Silicon Valley, you know, points out how the social media is supporting those silos, that people who are constantly hearing information about from their point of view, whether they're, you know, white supremacists, or you name it, and becoming radicalized, because they're not hearing any kind of balance, you know, so again, looking back at social media it is really enhancing the ability for this kind of hate. 

Am Johal  18:04 
I imagine it's gonna be really popular in Alberta and Ontario, given their political leadership right now, 

John Walker  18:09 

Am Johal  18:10 

[both laugh]

John Walker  18:10 
Hopefully, hopefully. 

Am Johal  18:12 
Thank you so much for joining us. 

John Walker  18:13 
Thanks for having me.

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Rachel Wong  18:19  
Thank you again to John Walker for joining us on this week's episode of Below the Radar. His documentary Assholes: A Theory continues to screen around the world. During the month of March 2020 the film will be screening in Duncan, Vancouver Island at the traveling world community Film Festival in Ontario at the Belleville Downtown Dock Fest, and in California at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. We've linked to all of these screenings and more in the episode description. In our next episode, we are joined by Scott Bernstein, the Director of Policy at Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Scott's work centers around the developments of drug policy for Canada. 

Scott Bernstein  19:02 
Decriminalization also is a policy change that's a band aid that helps a lot but it's, it's a response to a broken system and so what we are doing now is we've been funded through some different funders. Health Canada has funded us through the substance use and addiction program to do a set of national dialogues across Canada. To talk to people about what is a public health response to drugs.

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Rachel Wong  19:32 
Join us on March 17 to hear more from our interview with Scott Bernstein. stay in the loop with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter and Facebook. And be sure to subscribe wherever you find your podcasts including SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, Overcast and Player FM and many more. As always, thank you to the team that puts this podcast together, including myself, Rachel Wong, Paige Smith, Fiorella Pinillos and Kathy Feng. David Steele is the composer of our theme music and thank you for listening. Tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
March 03, 2020

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