On Being Awesome: A Unified Theory of How Not to Suck, by Nick Riggle (Penguin, 2017), £14.99, $20
In this book Nick Riggle presents an accessible, entertaining introduction to the “ethics of awesome” – an ethical outlook which Riggle claims is latent in our culture, and can readily be understood if we reflect on our usage of the antonyms “awesome” and “sucks”. This outlook differs from more traditional ethical outlooks, which focus on rightness, fairness, or duty; instead, the ethics of awesome is fundamentally about cultivating and appreciating individuality. It’s an ethical system that emphasises expressing oneself as an individual in creative and novel ways while also learning to recognise and appreciate the individuality of others. Riggle’s book covers a great deal of ground: we find him developing a nuanced taxonomy of awesomeness and suckiness; presenting vivid examples of the awesome in art, sport, and civic life; mapping the cultural history of awesomeness; and arguing for the vital importance of not sucking.
Riggle explains what it means to be awesome in terms of a key notion: the “social opening”. Our lives are usually governed by social norms, more-or-less fixed modes of behaviour and standard ways of doing things. An awesome individual creates a “social opening” when they break out of these norms in ways that express their individuality. For example, you might offer a high-five when a handshake is expected, or break up the routine of the checkout line with a witty joke.
It’s important that social openings are always offered to others. The awesome person ultimately expresses themselves with the aim of building a community, one in which they’ll be appreciated as the distinctive, creative individual that they are. Sometimes this works out. Individuals who are “down” play along with the social opening, appreciating awesomeness by laughing at the joke or accepting the high-five. Individuals who suck, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge the social opening – they stick with routine and don’t appreciate the awesome person’s attempt to break free of it.
At this point, you might be worried that Riggle is developing an ethics for narcissistic millennials – the guiding ethos for fans of the selfie, individual branding, and personal entitlement. This concern wouldn’t be entirely ill-founded; Riggle’s ethics of awesome does focus on expressing and celebrating the individual self. But this worry also misunderstands awesomeness in two ways: First, awesomeness isn’t about mere difference or rule-breaking. Riggle emphasises that in order to be awesome, you must depart from social norms in ways that are creative, novel, and ultimately attractive to others. Second, the aim of awesomeness isn’t self-celebration for its own sake; instead, it’s community building. The goal of being awesome is to create a community in which we can appreciate each other as the unique and distinctive individuals that we are. Riggle calls this relationship of mutual appreciation “co-personhood” – and the point of being awesome is to help bring about the formation of a “squad” of such co-persons.
Even if, as Riggle argues, the ethics of awesome is latent in contemporary culture, should we buy into it and spend our time trying to generate and appreciate social openings? One of my major worries is that, in our society, much of the ethical work to be done involves bringing individuals on the margins into focus simply as persons with basic moral standing and political and legal rights. It would be wonderful if we could all appreciate the individual awesomeness of immigrants, black men and women, or trans people – but perhaps first we should focus on treating them fairly, with respect for their basic personhood.
Riggle is alive to this concern, and I think he has the beginnings of a response to it. He notes that awesome activity – including art, humour, and play – can be a powerful tool in reorienting our social arrangements and securing the basic goods of peace, justice, and equality. This may be true, but perhaps there are more direct (albeit less awesome) routes, such as activism, moral argument, or legislation. Riggle could say more about where the ethics of awesome fits in with these more traditional modes of moral conduct, and about whether and why considerations of cultivating and appreciating individuality ought to take precedence.
Riggle’s book is a welcome addition to the trend of philosophy pitched to the public. Like Aaron James’s Assholes: A Theory and Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, Riggle’s On Being Awesome shows the promise of employing the tools of analytic philosophy to address the nuances of contemporary culture. The book on the whole is written in a clear, vernacular style that’s accessible to a general audience, but at the same time it doesn’t pull its philosophical punches. It’s also loaded with thought-provoking examples drawn from pop culture, civic life, sports, and the arts.
More significantly, Riggle aims to craft the very sort of social opening that his book describes. In creating a rich theory of awesomeness, Riggle invites us to play along by adopting his lingo – “wack”, “chill”, and “squad” – but more importantly by looking at our lives as opportunities to do awesome things. The only question that remains is whether, you, the reader, are down. In short, it’s an awesome book – and, upon reading it, you’ll know exactly what that means.