PICTURE THE WORLD through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it's a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.
We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. And second — well, I don't want to say what the second reason is quite yet.
As it happens, I do have such a theory. But before we get into it, I should clarify some terminology. The word "jerk" can refer to two different types of person. The older use designates a kind of chump or an ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one.
The jerk-as-fool usage seems to have begun as a derisive reference to the unsophisticated people of a "jerkwater town," that is, a town not rating a full-scale train station, requiring the boiler man to pull on a chain to water his engine. The term expresses the traveling troupe's disdain. Over time, however, "jerk" shifted from being primarily a class-based insult to its second, now dominant, sense as a term of moral condemnation. It is the immoral jerk who concerns me here.
I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: The jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can't appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn't register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests.
SOME RELATED TRAITS are already well-known in psychology and philosophy — the "dark triad" of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. But my conception of the jerk differs from all of these. The a--hole, the philosopher Aaron James says, is someone who allows himself to enjoy special advantages out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. That is one important dimension of jerkitude, but not the whole story. The callous psychopath, though cousin to the jerk, has an impulsivity and love of risk-taking that need be no part of the jerk's character. Neither does the jerk have to be as thoroughly self-involved as the narcissist or as self-consciously cynical as the Machiavellian, though narcissism and Machiavellianism are common enough jerkish attributes.
The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart, who sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals are worthy of attention and respect. The sweetheart yields his place in line to the hurried shopper, calls an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, the sweetheart sees how he might be wrong and the other person right.
The moral and emotional failure of the jerk is obvious. The intellectual failure is obvious, too: No one is as right about everything as the jerk thinks he is. He would learn by listening. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his jerkitude — a fact about which, as I will explain shortly, the all-out jerk is inevitably ignorant. Which brings me to the other great benefit of a theory of jerks: It might help you figure out if you yourself are one.
Some clarifications and caveats. First, no one is a perfect jerk or a perfect sweetheart. Human behavior varies hugely with context. Different situations (sales-team meetings, traveling) might bring out the jerk in some and the sweetie in others.
Second, the jerk is someone who culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him. Young children and people with severe mental disabilities aren't capable of appreciating others' perspectives, so they can't be blamed for their failure and aren't jerks.
Third, I've called the jerk "he," for reasons you might guess. But then it seems too gendered to call the sweetheart "she," so I've made the sweetheart a "he" too.
All normal jerks distribute their jerkishness mostly down the social hierarchy, and to anonymous strangers. Waitresses, students, clerks, strangers on the road — these are the unfortunates who bear the brunt of it. With a modicum of self-control, the jerk, though he implicitly or explicitly regards himself as more important than most of the people around him, recognizes that the perspectives of those above him in the hierarchy also deserve some consideration.
Often, indeed, he feels sincere respect for his higher-ups. Perhaps respectful feelings are too deeply written in our natures to disappear entirely. Perhaps the jerk retains a vestigial kind of concern specifically for those whom it would benefit him, directly or indirectly, to win over. He is at least concerned enough about their opinion of him to display tactical respect while in their field of view. However it comes about, the classic jerk kisses up and kicks down. The company CEO rarely knows who the jerks are, though it's no great mystery among the secretaries.
BECAUSE THE JERK tends to disregard the perspectives of those below him in the hierarchy, he often has little idea how he appears to them. This leads to hypocrisies. He might rage against the smallest typo in a student's or secretary's document, while producing a torrent of errors himself; it just wouldn't occur to him to apply the same standards to himself. He might insist on promptness, while always running late.
Embarrassment, too, becomes practically impossible for the jerk, at least in front of his underlings. Embarrassment requires us to imagine being viewed negatively by people whose perspectives we care about. As the circle of people whom the jerk is willing to regard as true peers and superiors shrinks, so does his capacity for shame — and with it a crucial entry point for moral self-knowledge.
As one climbs the social hierarchy it is also easier to become a jerk. Here's a characteristically jerkish thought: "I'm important, and I'm surrounded by idiots!" Both halves of this proposition serve to conceal the jerk's jerkitude from himself. Thinking yourself important is a pleasantly self--gratifying excuse for disregarding the interests and desires of others. Thinking that the people around you are idiots seems like a good reason to disregard their intellectual perspectives. As you ascend the hierarchy, you will find it easier to discover evidence of your relative importance (your big salary, your first-class seat) and of the relative idiocy of others (who have failed to ascend as high as you).
The moralistic jerk is an animal worth special remark. I see in myself and all those who are not pure sweethearts a tendency to rationalize my privilege with moralistic sham justifications. Here's my reason for trying to dishonestly wheedle my daughter into the best school; my reason why the session chair should call on me rather than on the grad student who got her hand up earlier; my reason why it's fine that I have 400 library books in my office....
The moralizing jerk is apt to go badly wrong in his moral opinions. Partly this is because his morality tends to be self-serving, and partly it's because his disrespect for others' perspectives puts him at a general epistemic disadvantage. But there's more to it than that. In failing to appreciate others' perspectives, the jerk almost inevitably fails to appreciate the full range of human goods — the value of dancing, say, or of sports, nature, pets, local cultural rituals, and indeed anything that he doesn't care for himself. Think of the aggressively rumpled scholar who can't bear the thought that someone would waste her time getting a manicure. Or think of the manicured socialite who can't see the value of dedicating one's life to dusty Latin manuscripts. Whatever he's into, the moralizing jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else.
Furthermore, mercy is near the heart of practical, lived morality. Virtually everything that everyone does falls short of perfection: One's turn of phrase is less than perfect, one arrives a bit late, one's clothes are tacky, one's gesture irritable, one's choice somewhat selfish, one's coffee less than frugal, one's melody trite. Practical mercy involves letting these imperfections pass forgiven or, better yet, entirely unnoticed. In contrast, the jerk appreciates neither others' difficulties in attaining all the perfections that he attributes to himself, nor the possibility that some portion of what he regards as flawed is in fact blameless. Hard moralizing principle therefore comes naturally to him.
HOW CAN YOU know your own moral character? You can try a label on for size: "lazy," "unreliable" — is that really me? More effective, I suspect, is to shift from first-person reflection (what am I like?) to second-person description (tell me, what am I like?). Instead of introspection, try listening. Ideally, you will have a few people in your life who know you intimately, have integrity, and are concerned about your character. They can frankly and lovingly hold your flaws up to the light and insist that you look at them. Give them the space to do this, and prepare to be disappointed in yourself.
Done well enough, this second-person approach could work fairly well for traits such as laziness and unreliability, especially if their scope is restricted: laziness-about-X, unreliability-about-Y. But as I suggested above, jerkitude is not so tractable, since if one is far enough gone, one can't listen in the right way. Your critics are fools, at least on this particular topic (their critique of you). They can't appreciate your perspective, you think — though really it's that you can't appreciate theirs.
To discover one's degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found?
If your self-rationalizing defenses are low enough to feel a little pang of shame at the familiarity of that vision of the world, then you probably aren't pure diamond-grade jerk. But who is? We're all somewhere in the middle. That's what makes the jerk's vision of the world so instantly recognizable. It's our own vision. But, thankfully, only sometimes.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
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- Don't argue about politics this Thanksgiving. Just don't.
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