My web browser recently suggested I read an article. That’s nice I thought, based on my browsing history Firefox does some internet scouring on my behalf and offers some recommended reading. The highlighted item was called “So you’re surrounded by idiots. Guess who the real jerk is?”
Hey Firefox, what are you trying to say? Is my web browser calling me a jerk? Isn’t this how Skynet started going rogue in the Terminator movies?
I’ve often heard variations on the theme that if you continuously find yourself surrounded by a-holes (Firefox is a little tamer than most people I run with), then you are probably the a-hole. I had the optimum amount of boredom at that moment and decided to read the piece. I’m glad I did as it introduced me to the Theory of Jerks, by Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at the University of California.
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.
Do you know where the term “jerk” comes from?
It began 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.” Fascinating! Over time it has become more of a singular put-down, ranging from a stooge or a doofus to an obnoxious person to a selfish, manipulative bastard.
We can all be jerks at times, and I most definitely have been a tremendous jerk at various points in my life. But in defense of jerks, my jerkishness was primarily unconscious; I didn’t realize I was a jerk until after the fact. Much like the idea of conscious and unconscious competence, we all deal with conscious and unconscious jerks.
The unconscious jerk has some hope and possibility of becoming conscious of their negative, manipulative ways and growing into a decent person. The unconscious jerk doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but he has the ability to learn, grow and expand his emotional and intellectual life.
The conscious jerk, those who choose to manipulate, ignore, belittle and put-down, well they are the real challenge. They reject empathy and have no interest in seeing an issue from another person’s perspective. A conscious jerk might embrace the label of being a jerk as a badge of honor. They would rather be right than happy. Those are the jerks I feel bad for.
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