When we interact with the physical world, the rules are predictable. Gravity, mass, elasticity, velocity—we build an intuitive sense for how these things work as small children, and that knowledge serves us for a lifetime.
When we interact with people, the rules are much stranger. We’re confronted with a vague and shifting landscape of informal norms. Many of the rules are implicit, change depending on the context.
The dynamics of social norms are wildly complicated, so let’s narrow the discussion by looking at it through a particular lens: the r/AmITheAsshole subreddit.
The rules of r/AmITheAsshole (AITA) are simple—anyone can create a new thread by describing an interpersonal conflict (we’ll call these folks OP, for “original poster”). Frequent topics include invites to social events, household chores, coparenting, and money.
Denizens of the subreddit will then pass judgement—typically declaring YTA (“you’re the asshole”) or NTA (“not the asshole”). Sometimes a rarer judgement of NAH (“no assholes here”) or ESH (“everybody sucks here”) will pop up.
In my estimation, there are three kinds of assholes:
The Narcissists—your traditional assholes
The Enablers—people who fail to recognize that their loved one is an asshole
The Confused—people who are struggling to cope with conflicting social norms
The narcissists are easy to spot. They take a self-righteous attitude despite being clearly in the wrong. They are literally blind to their own mistakes.
Here’s an example of a woman who did a terrible job parking, and proceeded to berate someone for getting too close to her car. Or another one from a high schooler unapologetically bullying another girl. Her defense is that the girl is “a little weird”.
Or this one from the husband of a food blogger. His wife has cooked a tremendous feast, and asks him to wait 10 minutes so she can take pictures. He decides this is unreasonable and deliberately destroys the meal. And now he wants to know if he was being an asshole.
What’s fascinating is that these folks have every opportunity to paint themselves in a good light—they are literally writing the narrative that will be presented to the jury. But they are so blind to their own assholeishness that they include every damning detail.
The enablers are a sadder lot. They’re often people in abusive or dysfunctional relationships—usually with a spouse or parent—and are completely unaware that their loved one is an asshole.
For example: this guy who fails to defend his wife when his mother repeatedly rejects her Christmas cookies. Or this woman who has completely misdiagnosed the asshole in the situation: her mother has been plainly bullying her husband, but she wants to know if she should make the husband apologize.
The most fascinating AITA posts involve people who are torn between two different sets of rules. Often they’ve been raised in a family with bizarre norms, and are trying to adjust to the real world—or vice versa.
Here’s a post from someone meeting their partner’s parents for the first time, and trying to navigate a weird family rule about never speaking at the dinner table. Another woman, apparently having joined a mini cult, is wondering if she’s the asshole for covering the cameras in her bedroom.
For a more mundane example, see this delightfully controversial thread, where OP finds herself celebrating Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s heavily gender-roled family. Tradition calls for the women to cook and watch Christmas movies, while the men drink and watch football. OP finds this misogynistic, but she’s the only one not having fun. The top four judgements are NTA, ESH, NAH, and YTA—an AITA quadfecta.
There are also a lot of threads that reflect a shifting moral landscape: many are unsure of how to treat their gay and trans family members.
One woman wonders if she should allow her FTM brother to join a girls-only outing. Another feels bad about enforcing the same rules on dating for her gay son that she does for her straight son. Several are wondering how strongly to stick up for themselves or their loved ones, others are unsure just how accommodating they should be.
This seems fairly predictable: society has only begun accepting gay and trans folks over the last generation or two, and in many cases they’re still fighting to be treated as human beings. There hasn’t been much time to establish social norms around trivial things like dating and social outings. AITA does a good job of drawing those lines sensibly and compassionately.
AITA serves a tremendous social benefit—it allows us to synchronize on social norms in a safe, consensual setting. It’s the positive version of an angry twitter mob: OP asks for feedback, and a mostly-representative sample of The Internet weighs in.
Well…the sample probably does lean young and liberal, like the rest of Reddit. This might partially explain why older men are the assholiest of the bunch—but that finding also gels with my own experience (as a not-entirely-liberal man on the right side of this graph).
Regardless, there is usually a strong consensus on who the asshole is—for most threads, you’ll have to scroll pretty far or “sort by controversial” to find a dissenting opinion. I’m not sure how much of this is a bandwagon effect, but I agree with the consensus about 80% of the time, and have never strongly disagreed.
What’s fascinating is how often the judgement seems obvious to everyone except OP. This holds true when OP is the asshole, and when they’re not. If anything, the victims (i.e. non-narcissists) are more likely to wonder if they’re actually in the wrong; the assholes are just looking for validation (see: r/AmITheAngel) and are shocked when they don’t get it.
This is the first wonderful contribution AITA makes to society: setting assholes straight, and giving victims a confidence boost. It regularly convinces people to leave toxic relationships, and has even converted a few assholes. I would love to know how many lives have been radically improved by an AITA thread—probably on par with r/Assistance.
But the bigger benefit is universal: AITA helps us set norms for how we treat each other.
Some rules are explicit and well-known: deliberately causing someone pain, using racial slurs, or being sexually exploitative are all clear-cut cases of assholeishness. You won’t find posts like this in AITA.
Other rules are implicit, and can change depending on context (even breastfeeding!). Complimenting someone’s clothing or looks is generally acceptable, but maybe not if you’re their boss. A dirty joke might get laughs from your friends, but horrified stares from your in-laws.
And the rules evolve over time! Attitudes can shift in a matter of months, especially if a new pattern of injustice enters the zeitgeist. Acceptable behavior last year could mark you as an asshole today. Most people figure out how to navigate the shifting moral landscape, but everyone slips up on occasion. AITA helps us refine the rules, the exceptions to the rules, and the exceptions to the exceptions.
If you spend enough time in AITA, you’ll even start to identify meta-rules that play out in a wide variety of contexts. Some tolerance for rule-breaking is an important one—you can’t get upset every time someone talks too much, is rude to you, or tells a crass joke. And it’s important to let someone know if they’re entering a situation with foreign rules, like introducing a new partner to your very religious parents.
Having spent far too much time perusing AITA posts, both before and during (and probably after) writing this post, my best advice is: stick up for yourself, but don’t be a dick about it—even if the other person is being an asshole.