The asshole problem

Did you hear? That creep that everyone knew about, now, like, everyone everyone knows about! 

In the aftermath of these “revelations,” in all industries, it has become customary for the organization that hired and retained the individual in question to adopt a kind of collective wide-eyed expression, a shocked and innocent “oh goodness, I had no idea!” kind of passive horror. The first irritating thing about this is how calculated and transparent it is. The second irritating thing is that it’s difficult to prove it actually untrue. Did the CEO or the Board of Directors of an organization know that they were hiring and/or retaining a rapist, a child pornographer, a perpetrator of violent assault— in short, a criminal? Maybe they didn’t. (Maybe they didn’t look all that hard.) In some cases— USA Gymnastics, looking at you— they demonstrably did know, and just cared more about their own paycheques than about the well-being of the members of their organization. However, in some cases, as unlikely as it seems, one has to admit the possibility that they didn’t know. 

There’s a slim possibility that the bigwigs may not have known they were employing a criminal. But there’s an easier question to ask these people, and a more difficult one to wiggle out of: did you know he was an asshole? 

Come on now. Really. Look me in the eye and tell me you had no idea he was an asshole. I double-dog dare you. 

This isn’t a spurious question. There is a strong correlation, it seems, between a powerful individual being an asshole, and a powerful individual being a criminal asshole. It makes sense that someone who treats people around them with casual disrespect is also likely to show disrespect in more serious ways. 

This is bad news for the orchestra business. The cult of personality surrounding the idea of the conductor is almost exclusively based on the difficult-to-define but immediately recognizable suite of traits broadly described as assholeishness. It’s such a ubiquitous trait on the podium— even in the leadership styles of people who are not assholes off the podium, and seemed to have specifically acquired the trait as a career-development move—that it’s actually somewhat jarring, as a musician, to encounter a kind, skilled and respectful human who also behaves that way while conducting. (Which jarring feeling, luckily for me, is fresh in my mind from my current gig.)

And look. There are asshole conductors that I like. There are asshole conductors who helped my career, or withheld their wrath from me individually in ways that were confidence-building. (Can anyone who exited the music education system with a modicum of confidence deny that at least some of it was built on a foundation of schadenfreude?) Do I think that everyone who’s rude on the podium is also a criminal? No. I don’t think so. Or at least, I hope not. 

I just wouldn’t be surprised, is all. It would be disingenuous to act surprised when someone who built their careers publicly terrorizing subordinates turns out to have also been terrorizing subordinates in private. 

So what does this mean for musical organizations going forward? Can managers and board members evaluating potential hires start actually prioritizing hiring people who aren’t assholes? Are we finally going to stop saying things like, “yeah, he’s kind of an asshole, but he’s a good conductor...” for that matter, can we retire the term “brasshole” and the indulgent smiles that go with it? 

Being an asshole isn’t a criminal act. And despite what some suspiciously defensive dudes seem to think, nobody is trying to make it one. It’s just something which will—hopefully, in the future— mean that nobody wants to hire you. 

So they won’t have to pretend to be surprised by you later.