You seem to be asking for a pass to be a childish asshole due to a complete failure of imagination and a supposed respect for limitless and consequence-free assholery.

The answer is no. You don’t get that.

-my friend on Facebook

This came during a prickly conversation about misogyny and humor on my FB feed this week. It included arguments about the “Culture of the Offended” and how oversensitivity is killing humor. And while the oversensitivity thing is a discussion of its own, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Asshole Pass.


For me, The Asshole Pass swims in the waters of “I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” “That wasn’t my intention at all,” “It’s just a joke,” “Everyone is overly sensitive these days,” “I’m not talking about you, but you know them.” “You know, they’re horrible, so they deserve it.” The standard-bearers of The Asshole Pass have long been the traditionally privileged — straight white guys have used it for a long time — but these days, as some marginalized groups move up the Ladder of Marginalization (the hierarchy that ranks how shitty it is out there for any given group in relation to another), The Asshole Pass is taking hold.

And it’s there — gay men being casually misogynistic or casually racist, women making shitty YouTube videos about fat people, feminists excluding trans women from events because they “aren’t real women” — that The Asshole Pass really bugs me.

The Asshole Pass  undercuts a truly intersectional fight for equality. The Asshole Pass assumes that a marginalized experience builds up Oppression Karma Points that can be cashed it at the expense of others later, when its funny or when you’re careless or when you’re angry or when you’re just not wanting to be diligent. The Asshole Pass is a way to deconstruct our shared Otherness into a binary of “Us” and “Them,” which is a modern problem we’re not good at solving. Joshua Greene explores it in his terrific book Moral Tribes, which he discusses in this interview here:

These are two different ways of being cooperative—cooperation on different terms. A lot of our political disputes are about individualism versus collectivism: To what extent are we each responsible for ourselves, and to what extent are we all in this together? We see this, for example, in issues such as the health care debate and climate change. The modern moral tragedy is not a simple problem of selfishness versus morality—Me versus Us. It’s different tribes with different moral ideals occupying the same space. It’s Us versus Them—their values versus our values, or their interests versus our interests.

The problem is even more complicated because groups not only have different ideas about how to cooperate; they have different histories, religions, leaders, heroes, and holy books that tell them what’s right. This exacerbates the problem of Us versus Them. Different groups rally around different moral authorities, different “proper nouns” such as the Christian Bible versus the Koran.

So one of the main ideas of the book is that when it comes to everyday morality—being selfish versus being good to other people—your moral intuitions are likely to serve you well. Our moral emotions evolved to solve the Me versus Us problem, the tragedy of the commons. But when it comes to Us versus Them, what I call the “tragedy of the commonsense morality,” then our gut reactions are the problem. And that’s when we need to stop and think and be more reflective.

Basically: The Asshole Pass is privilege in action.

You can be gay and and a misogynist. You can be black and a homophobe. You can be transgender and xenophobic. You can even be those things only some of the time or just one time. You can be things you hate without even knowing it. Identity isn’t a zero-sum game. Whitman called it: “I contain multitudes.”

And it’s hard. It’s hard, because in those multitudes we contain are things we don’t like, things that cause harm. Even against the best of our intentions. We are the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves at once, and that superposition is a cause of discomfort, because we sometimes get called out for the worst parts and don’t like the way it feels when we’re told we’re an asshole.

Just don’t take the Pass.

Because everyone’s an asshole.  We’re all programmed for bias. I will be insensitive. I will fuck it up. I will not see how my words or my actions hurt someone else. I’ll behave like some privileged white guy. I’ll be an asshole.

But I’ll do my best to own it. And I’ll do my best to fix it.

And (hopefully) in doing so, I’ll make things suck a little bit less.

– Cody Daigle-Orians




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