Apr 24, 2019

A Conversation with Geoff Nunberg on The Hidden Consequences of Being a Jerk Online

From GQ

The Hidden Consequences of Being a Jerk Online

By Clay Skipper

Geoff Nunberg thinks deeply about words: the way they're used, the information they convey, and the impact they have on our ability to connect and communicate. If that sounds dry or ponderous, let the profane teenager trapped deep inside you be delighted by the fact that he wrote an entire book on the word "asshole..."

I was watching a segment you did on The Colbert Report, in 2006, and you were detailing how what once would have been a civil politics conversation about, say, what role government should play in the economy had basically turned into a shouting match. That seems very prescient. I’m curious what signs you were seeing then that made you maybe think it would lead to the moment we’re at now.

I wrote a book called Ascent of the A Word in 2013. “Assholes” is an interesting category, because it's an intimate category. An asshole is the neighbor who's playing music at 3:00 in the morning, right? Saddam Hussein was not someone you’d call an asshole. He’s a bad person, but “asshole” suggests a intimate relationship. It engenders the kind of anger you feel towards your intimates within the family. That's the particular tone of indignation that I hear on Fox, I see in the comment threads on Twitter—people are angry at each other in the way they're angry at the asshole neighbor. And there's a sense in which, yeah, the internet makes that possible...


Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist, researcher, and adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

Last updated: September 27, 2019