AM I the a*****e? Forgive the asterisks, but this is a family-friendly newspaper, and even mild cussing is verboten. I doubt, though, anyone is remotely confused about what hides behind those little stars of self-censorship, but, just in case, the best I can say is that the word has two syllables, the first rhymes with ‘pass’ and the second with ‘pole’.

Am I the a*****e? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot these last few weeks. It got stuck in my mind thanks to a little corner of the internet I stumbled upon. Over on the website Reddit, there’s a page called just that. It’s where citizens of the world come to ask if they’ve screwed up or done wrong, if they’ve been an idiot, a bully, a braggart, or fool. This morning the site had 2.5 million members. I reckon we should all sign up.

It’s part confessional, part crowdsourced agony aunt – and all life is here. One post which sticks in my mind went something like this: “My boyfriend’s family is really weird. About 20 years ago his mum travelled to Asia and secretly paid to adopt a baby girl. It nearly ended his parent’s marriage. My boyfriend, all his siblings, and even his dad, hated the baby and have picked on her ever since. They talk about her behind her back, exclude her when they can – and even laugh at her clothes and how she behaves. The only person who likes her is the mum and she spoils the girl rotten. However, the adopted baby – now an adult – is also a horrible person. She’s whiney, demanding and cruel. I had a row with her yesterday, and to get back at her told her everyone hates her and talks about her behind her back. Now everyone in the family – including my boyfriend – thinks I’m an a*****e. Am I?’

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If memory serves this was one of the many occasions when it was judged by an audience of millions that in this case everyone was in the wrong. The mum for basically carrying out an act of child trafficking and bringing a baby girl into a home which didn’t want her. The dad for being a jerk to a baby. The siblings for being bullies. Even the adopted child had become a horror as an adult, though given what she’d been through it was kind of understandable and most readers gave her a pass. Self-evidently, readers also judged the questioner herself harshly for snitching on everyone, being spiteful, and making a dysfunctional family even more dysfunctional.

That’s a fairly extreme example, though. If there was a stereotypical question it would go something like: “My dad/sister/auntie/brother is a creep/bigot/control freak/bully. We were on a zoom call last night and they started with their usual creepiness/bigotry/controlling/bullying and I told them I never wanted to see them again. Now everyone else in the family says I’m an a*****e for calling them out, but dad/sister/auntie/brother has been making my life hell for years and I’d just had enough.” In this case, the questioner would most likely be judged NTA – not the a*****e.

AITA – as regular readers call the page – is moderated so there’s no abuse, cruelty or mob humiliation. Trolls get banned. Readers reply with lengthy thoughts, advice, tips from their own lives, and while often there’s anger there’s mostly tough love and real kindness and consideration. It’s rare to find yourself in disagreement with the general consensus of members. It gives the lie to the notion that there’s no wisdom in crowds.

What’s fascinating about AITA is that questioners take the verdict on the chin. If they’re judged an a*****e, they accept it and promise to change. They listen and learn. The lesson is: we’re all flawed but essentially decent.

The longer you read AITA the more you find yourself stopping, in your own life, and thinking ‘am I the a*****e here?’. I was having a minor tiff with a relative the other day – nothing too heated but we were getting on each other’s nerves. I thought they were being a complete a*****e, if I’m honest. But a wee voice in the back of my mind said, ‘you know what, Neil, you’re probably being just as much an a*****e as they are”. And the wee voice was right. In most cases – when it comes to work or home – blame lies somewhere in the middle, doesn’t it?

Away from the personal day-to-day level, though, the people who’d benefit most from joining the AITA webpage are our politicians. Sadly – for me – I’ve come to know hundreds of politicians throughout my life. They all think they’re right. They seldom are. They are, in fact, often complete and utter a******s.

As the whole Brexit horrorshow unfolded over Christmas, I was struck by just how badly every politician involved had behaved. They were all unapologetically wrong. The Brexiteers promised a land of milk and honey – they got the equivalent of the Harthill services. Arch remainers told us the sky would fall on our heads – last time I looked it was still up there.

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The same goes for all the big issues politicians use to divide us. Look at how independence is discussed. Yes promises utopia, No foresees ruin. Most punters, no matter how they view Scotland’s future, know the truth, yet again, lies somewhere in the middle. We won’t get heaven or hell.

Or look at trans rights or Black Lives Matter. Politicians catastrophise these issues, exploit them and turn them into hateful culture wars, when the truth is most of us just want other people to be happy, for us all to rub along together.

We could all do with a dose of nuance, empathy, and humility this year. So I’ll be asking myself ‘am I an a*****e’ a lot in 2021. The question helps you walk in another’s shoes. The likes of Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson should do the same.

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