After a recent moment of douchebag invasion into my otherwise serene life, I have again taken up the question of the social chances of douchebags. Do douchebags really succeed, or are they ultimately undermined by widespread agreement of their douchbagginess?
To be clear, douchebags are not just regular assholes, but that particular species of asshole who is actually successful by most measures—they are good students, group "leaders," widely known (if not universally loved), and often attractive. Their problem is a certain lack of humility and restraint, a certain tendency to rub their status and accomplishments in people's faces, or announce their ambitions too loudly. They are the stereotype of frat boy aspiring i-bankers. In a culture that was less in love with worldly achievement, or less encouraging of the fusion of work and social life, they might be rejected out of hand. But, because we* frequently have conflicting values about what constitutes success, we have more trouble with them.
Maybe they're just really good at life, and we're jealous because they excel in all the things at which we struggle? They network practically in their sleep, where we must continually work at maintaining our handful of friendships. They assert themselves boldly where we constantly question our own convictions. They find time to do everything where we can barely finish a book a month. So, when they do things bordering on the douchebaggy, like call up important people they barely know whose attention they don't warrant to "get career advice," we are torn between resenting their presumption and admiring their gumption. [I tried to find some non-rhyming replacement here, but failed.] Maybe that really is how to succeed? Maybe I should do that? we think. (Ok, obviously by calling them douchebags, I am killing any real ambiguity there might be about this. You will have to bear with my lame rhetorical skillz here.)
Last spring, my roommates and I discussed this question in light of my recurring fear that the various douchebags I meet might actually be modern incarnations of Ben Franklin. After all, Ben Franklin, who was chided for his conspicuous lack of humility, turned out to be not just a small-time success, but a Great Man. If you ever want to prove that some idea is American, all you need to do is find it in the Autobiography. Where do we draw the line between a hero and a douchebag, I asked. My roommates thought this was much less ambiguous than I was making it out to be, plus they were not obsessed with Franklin like I was at the time.
But if it were really so clear when a douchebag is a douchebag and not an admirable and enviable person, why would people unleash such fury on some petty douchie who has done absolutely nothing to harm anyone? Clearly, he is a laughable douchebag. Equally clearly, he does not deserve to have his character assassinated in a massive public forum like Gawker for it. I think the Cleveland school shooting may actually have generated less outrage than this guy's absurd email to some chick on Match.com. Why would this happen? (Aside from the obvious answer that Teh Internetz is a skewed world.)
I think people feel vindicated when they can clearly establish that one of these ambiguous creatures is actually a bona fide douchebag. The crux of the douchebag strategy is to appear to be a mensch when you're really a skeeze, and when we finally decide that a douchebag is a douchebag, we still have to debunk everyone else's belief in their greatness. This is no small task, especially since douchebags are not typically people who commit outright crimes or even actively offend us. They are just really irritating, and undermine our sense of appropriate humility and restraint. We need this sense of balance confirmed by agreement on who is a douchebag. Email guy is a douchebag. Aleksey Vayner is a douchebag. They totally overweaned their ambition. Score for the unprepossessing! (Also, we are horrible people and love to celebrate our collective ability to hate someone really a lot and in a snarky way, hence the popularity of Gawker in the first place.)
*And by we, I obviously mean me.
UPDATE: I was considering this further, and it occurred to me that it's not fair to assume that a douchebag is necessarily a male. Most of the douchies I've met are, but some are also douchebaguettes.