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. Imagine the nature-documentary voice-over: ‘Here we see the jerk in his natural environment. Notice how he subtly adjusts his dominance display to the Italian restaurant situation…’ 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 (I set aside sexual uses of the term, as well as more purely physical senses). The older use of ‘jerk’ designates a kind of chump or an ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one. When Weird Al Yankovic sang, in 2006, ‘I sued Fruit of the Loom ’cause when I wear their tightie-whities on my head I look like a jerk’, or when, on 1 March 1959, Willard Temple wrote in a short story in the Los Angeles Times: ‘He could have married the campus queen… Instead the poor jerk fell for a snub-nosed, skinny little broad’, it’s clear it’s the chump they have in mind.
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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 travelling 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. Such linguistic drift from class-based contempt to moral deprecation is a common pattern across languages, as observed by Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). (In English, consider ‘rude’, ‘villain’, ‘ignoble’.) And it is the immoral jerk who concerns me here.
Why, you might be wondering, should a philosopher make it his business to analyse colloquial terms of abuse? Doesn’t Urban Dictionary cover that kind of thing quite adequately? Shouldn’t I confine myself to truth, or beauty, or knowledge, or why there is something rather than nothing (to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser answered: ‘If there was nothing you’d still be complaining’)? I am, in fact, interested in all those topics. And yet I suspect there’s a folk wisdom in the term ‘jerk’ that points toward something morally important. I want to extract that morally important thing, to isolate the core phenomenon towards which I think the word is groping. Precedents for this type of work include the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit’(2005) and, closer to my target, the Irvine philosopher Aaron James’s book Assholes (2012). Our taste in vulgarity reveals our values.
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. The bumpkin ignorance captured in the earlier use of ‘jerk’ has changed into a type of moral ignorance.
Some related traits are already well-known in psychology and philosophy – the ‘dark triad’ of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, and James’s conception of the asshole, already mentioned. But my conception of the jerk differs from all of these. The asshole, 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. My conception of the ‘jerk’ also has a conceptual unity that is, I think, both theoretically appealing in the abstract and fruitful in helping explain some of the peculiar features of this type of animal, as we will see.
The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. The sweetheart 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, stops to help the person who dropped her papers, 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 behaviour – of course! – varies hugely with context. Different situations (sales-team meetings, travelling in close quarters) 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. Also, not all perspectives deserve equal treatment. Failure to appreciate the outlook of a neo-Nazi, for example, is not sign of jerkitude – though the true sweetheart might bend over backwards to try.
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.
I said that my theory might help us to tell whether we, ourselves, are jerks. But, in fact, this turns out to be a peculiarly difficult question. The Washington University psychologist Simine Vazire has argued that we tend to know our own characteristics quite well when the relevant traits are evaluatively neutral and straightforwardly observable, and badly when they are loaded with value judgments and not straightforwardly observable. If you ask someone how talkative she is, or whether she is relatively high-strung or relatively mellow, and then you ask her friends to rate her along the same dimensions, the self-rating and the peer ratings usually correlate quite well – and both sets of ratings also tend to line up with psychologists’ best attempts to measure such traits objectively.
Why? Presumably because it’s more or less fine to be talkative and more or less fine to be quiet; OK to be a bouncing bunny and OK instead to keep it low-key, and such traits are hard to miss in any case. But few of us want to be inflexible, stupid, unfair or low in creativity. And if you don’t want to see yourself that way, it’s easy enough to dismiss the signs. Such characteristics are, after all, connected to outward behaviour in somewhat complicated ways; we can always cling to the idea that we have been misunderstood. Thus we overlook our own faults.
it’s entirely possible for a picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. ‘So what, yeah, I’m a jerk,’ he might say
With Vazire’s model of self-knowledge in mind, I conjecture a correlation of approximately zero between how one would rate oneself in relative jerkitude and one’s actual true jerkitude. The term is morally loaded, and rationalisation is so tempting and easy! Why did you just treat that cashier so harshly? Well, she deserved it – and anyway, I’ve been having a rough day. Why did you just cut into that line of cars at the last minute, not waiting your turn to exit? Well, that’s just good tactical driving – and anyway, I’m in a hurry! Why did you seem to relish failing that student for submitting her essay an hour late? Well, the rules were clearly stated; it’s only fair to the students who worked hard to submit their essays on time – and that was a grimace not a smile.
Since the most effective way to learn about defects in one’s character is to listen to frank feedback from people whose opinions you respect, the jerk faces special obstacles on the road to self-knowledge, beyond even what Vazire’s model would lead us to expect. By definition, he fails to respect the perspectives of others around him. He’s much more likely to dismiss critics as fools – or as jerks themselves – than to take the criticism to heart.
Still, it’s entirely possible for a picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. ‘So what, yeah, I’m a jerk,’ he might say. Provided this label carries no real sting of self-disapprobation, the jerk’s moral self-ignorance remains. Part of what it is to fail to appreciate the perspectives of others is to fail to see your jerkishly dismissive attitude toward their ideas and concerns as inappropriate.
Ironically, it is the sweetheart who worries that he has just behaved inappropriately, that he might have acted too jerkishly, and who feels driven to make amends. Such distress is impossible if you don’t take others’ perspectives seriously into account. Indeed, the distress itself constitutes a deviation (in this one respect at least) from pure jerkitude: worrying about whether it might be so helps to make it less so. Then again, if you take comfort in that fact and cease worrying, you have undermined the very basis of your comfort.
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, recognises 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. He might freely reprimand other people, expecting them to take it with good grace, while any complaints directed against him earn his eternal enmity. Such failures of parity typify the jerk’s moral short-sightedness, flowing naturally from his disregard of others’ perspectives. These hypocrisies are immediately obvious if one genuinely imagines oneself in a subordinate’s shoes for anything other than selfish and self-rationalising ends, but this is exactly what the jerk habitually fails to do.
Thinking yourself important is a pleasantly self-gratifying excuse for disregarding the interests and desires of others
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). Also, flatterers will tend to squeeze out frank, authentic critics.
This isn’t the only possible explanation for the prevalence of powerful jerks, of course. Maybe jerks are actually more likely to rise in business and academia than non-jerks – the truest sweethearts often suffer from an inability to advance their own projects over the projects of others. But I suspect the causal path runs at least as much in the other direction. Success might or might not favour the existing jerks, but I’m pretty sure it nurtures new ones.
The moralistic jerk is an animal worth special remark. Charles Dickens was a master painter of the type: his teachers, his preachers, his petty bureaucrats and self-satisfied businessmen, Scrooge condemning the poor as lazy, Mr Bumble shocked that Oliver Twist dares to ask for more, each dismissive of the opinions and desires of their social inferiors, each inflated with a proud self-image and ignorant of how they are rightly seen by those around them, and each rationalising this picture with a web of moralising ‘should’s.
Scrooge and Bumble are cartoons, and we can be pretty sure we aren’t as bad as them. Yet I see in myself and all those who are not pure sweethearts a tendency to rationalise 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…
Whatever he’s into, the moralising jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else
Philosophers seem to have a special talent for this: we can concoct a moral rationalisation for anything, with enough work! (Such skill at rationalisation might explain why ethicist philosophers seem to behave no morally better, on average, than comparison groups of non-ethicists, as my collaborators and I have found in a series of empirical studies looking at a broad range of issues from library-book theft and courteous behaviour at professional conferences to rates of charitable donation and Nazi party membership in the 1930s.) The moralistic jerk’s rationalisations justify his disregard of others, and his disregard of others prevents him from accepting an outside corrective on his rationalisations, in a self-insulating cycle. Here’s why it’s fine for me to proposition my underlings and inflate my expense claims, you idiot critics. Coat the whole thing, if you like, in a patina of academic jargon.
The moralising 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 moralising 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 moralising principle therefore comes naturally to him. (Sympathetic mercy is natural to the sweetheart.) And on the rare occasions when the jerk is merciful, his indulgence is usually ill-tuned: the flaws he forgives are exactly the one he recognises in himself or has ulterior reasons to let slide. Consider another brilliant literary cartoon jerk: Severus Snape, the infuriating potions teacher in J K Rowling’s novels, always eager to drop the hammer on Harry Potter or anyone else who happens to annoy him, constantly bristling with indignation, but wildly off the mark – contrasted with the mercy and broad vision of Dumbledore.
Despite the jerk’s almost inevitable flaws in moral vision, the moralising jerk can sometimes happen to be right about some specific important issue (as Snape proved to be) – especially if he adopts a big social cause. He needn’t care only about money and prestige. Indeed, sometimes an abstract and general concern for moral or political principles serves as a kind of substitute for genuine concern about the people in his immediate field of view, possibly leading to substantial self-sacrifice. And in social battles, the sweetheart will always have some disadvantages: the sweetheart’s talent for seeing things from his opponent’s perspective deprives him of bold self-certainty, and he is less willing to trample others for his ends. Social movements sometimes do well when led by a moralising jerk. I will not mention specific examples, lest I err and offend.
How can you know your own moral character? You can try a label on for size: ‘lazy’, ‘jerk’, ‘unreliable’ – is that really me? As the work of Vazire and other personality psychologists suggests, this might not be a very illuminating approach. 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? In other words, how familiar was the vision of the world I described at the beginning of this essay?
If your self-rationalising defences 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 recognisable. It’s our own vision. But, thankfully, only sometimes.
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is professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside. He blogs at The Splintered Mind and his latest book is Perplexities of Consciousness (2011).
Manners and courtesy are an aspect of modern societies that are experiencing serious deterioration and we are doing nothing to remedy this problem; traditional values in social relations are being erased by new and so-called “modern” behaviors that are in reality inconsiderate and often coarse. Bad manners have thus been converted into a growing problem that affects all levels of society: family, work, friendships, business, and politics, not to mention their negative effect on romantic and personal relationships in general.
Bad manners and discourteousness increase when we leave behind basic standards of polite behavior in favor of incorrect, rude and disrespectful treatment. These bad habits that result in rude conduct tend to be worse in areas with socialist tendencies, but are not limited to such environments, and represent a worrisome societal model devalues all of us: the elderly, women, as well as those who are considered different because of race or physical aspects, etc. The absence of courtesy and good manners creates societies where individuals lack personal dignity and subjects them to an environment where rude behavior and inappropriate conduct are considered “normal”.
In today’s societies it’s common for people to regard courtesy as old-fashioned and out-of-date, so that increasingly more individuals behave rudely, making interaction difficult and creating an unpleasant social environment that makes people want to run and hide.
In today’s society, bad manners can be observed anytime, anywhere. This sort of discourtesy is ever present and examples are too numerous to count or even mention: the disrespectful treatment of elderly people; invitations that aren’t responded to in any way; the lack of commitment to any event, job, or person; confirming attendance with no intention of attending; the strange disappearance of “please” and “thank you” from most people’s vocabulary; line-jumping; serial texters and cell-phone addicts who talk on the phone, as well as read and send text messages instead of paying attention to physically present persons; the friend or colleague who never offers to pick up the bill at lunch, or even pay their own way; repulsive children (the spitting image of their parents) who think that the world rotates around them and behave obnoxiously because of it, etc, etc.
We tend to blame the younger generation for these rude behaviors, but the truth is that the situation is degrading all ages and levels of society. So much that now it is commonplace to see couples openly insulting each other in public and treating each other with absolutely no common courtesy (a sliding scale which leads directly to physical and verbal abuse). Just as unfortunate, and equally common is disrespectful and dishonest treatment between colleagues in the business world, who fall back on tricks, half-truths and crude vocabulary to make ends meet. And then, to add insult to injury, these issues are left to be resolved by enormous and costly governmental programs, that can do nothing when facing this irreversible deterioration of personal relationships without the involvement and commitment of everyday people in their everyday lives.
The lessons of courtesy and good manners taught to us by our parents at home, or perhaps by teachers at school, too often forgotten, are increasingly absent in the mainstream education of children. This phenomenon is a byproduct of an absurd social model that certain politicians attempt to impose where manners must be re-taught to adults by companies that offer courses in protocol and courtesy to professionals in business environments. But we mustn’t be fooled, to triumph in this world, we have to make good use of good manners and courtesy from the beginning, it won’t do to call a possible partner “dude,” and say “Hey, babe” to the future mother of your children or “No way will I take that, you jerk” to your friend.
The deterioration of verbal communication is an evident and alarming symptom of the absence of good manners. The most elemental level of any society is personal relationships. Positive relationships are built on courtesy and a society that has no regard for polite speech is on the path to swift decline. Our tolerance for rude and discourteous behavior seems to infinite and no relationship is immune to the effects of disrespectful conduct and coarse treatment in today’s society. Whether we’re dealing with insults from other drivers, curt and disagreeable treatment customer service or the rude and aggressive attitudes of people on the street or at work. All of these behaviors contribute to the lowering of our standards for polite behavior, standards that concern and affect all of us, and we tolerate or justify this inappropriate and unacceptable behavior because we’re lazy and apathetic and used to a general dynamic of bad manners.
So while manners may seem unimportant, they’re really vital, because discourteous and vulgar conduct only tarnish the dignity of people and the society that allow them. Good manners, like any learned behavior, require practice and effort. Certain social and governmental models that some central powers favor would have people believe that effort and hard work aren’t necessary for success and material comforts. A clear example of this kind of political culture and its negative effect on common courtesy and personal relationships is Spain, where the socialist government does nothing to foment respect, courtesy or good manners, strengthening models that promote a system of entitlement. This kind of government promises certain citizens the world for their votes, and create generations of citizens that think they have a right to “free” healthcare, a certain type of housing, and no obligation to work or make any effort for any of these things without any consideration for the citizens that work and pay for these “free” programs. In this type of system overachievers are sometimes looked down upon as show-offs and formal manners and courteous treatment are often considered unnecessary artifices.
Modern society, or those societies that really want to be modern, must promote and practice good manners, in such a way that these things become the norm, and not isolated cases of exemplary citizens, the way they are now.
Furthermore, courtesy, respect and manners are essential for success in the workplace. In times of economic crisis, this is an indispensable requirement for obtaining and maintaining employment. It’s time for a return to common courtesy and polite speech; time for the reappearance of “good morning” , “how are you?” and “please” and “thank you.” Giving up your seat to an older person or a pregnant women shouldn’t be the exception, but should be the rule. Modern tendencies towards friendlier business relationships, as well as increased openness, and warmth in relationships in general are fine and good, but these new tendencies shouldn’t supersede, but rather should accompany traditions of courtesy and good manners in all interactions be they at work or at home.
Certain bad-mannered and ungrateful citizens, are walking advertisements for the failings of society in this area. In a digitalized society, rude behavior is sometimes facilitated by new technologies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the inappropriate use of cell phones by individuals who pay more attention to text messages and phone calls than the person or task at hand.
The unpopular truth is that some basic rules of social and familial behavior are essential, trying to get rid of them, or avoid them could convert current societies into a veritable social jungle. Or worse. Because even animals seem to have certain standards for adequate behavior and conduct.
Very often we focus on world issues and so-called “bigger” problems as if other, “smaller” concerns make no difference, when in fact, important change can begin with something as simple as being friendly and showing off good manners. All of us can contribute to the improvement of society. But good intentions aren’t enough, action is required. Educating and training children in manners and protocol promises improvement in today’s society as well as in the future. Educating isn’t just the job of teachers, but of each and every one of us; by becoming positive examples for others, we show children how to live together, how to be courteous and how to conduct themselves in their daily lives. Vulgarity and rudeness must be pulled out at their roots, lest we fall victim to the inappropriate conduct in speech and dress that has become prevalent in other countries.
The United States has always been an exceptional society, even when it comes to good manners and we mustn’t permit other societies’ bad examples (like that of Spain, where bad habits and discourtesy seem to have extended to all social sectors) influence the long-lived model of courteous behavior and conduct in America. A long tradition of authority and discipline, in society and family in American culture permits the strengthening of good manners without the use of force, with firmness, always favoring respect, dignity, and the integrity of its people. Good manners and courtesy are keys to not only to successful interactions with our fellow human beings, but to economic and political success as well for America, Americans, and the rest of the world.
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