News & Politics

With Trump on Your Mind, Explore What Makes a Jerk a Jerk

Ten trapdoors that prevent careful exploration of bad behavior.

Photo Credit: Michael Vadon / Flickr

Obsessed with some particularly obnoxious politician or just bothered by someone persistently awful in your life? If so, take the opportunity to do some exploring and learning, but beware. There are trapdoors awaiting you in your exploration, popular notions and habits that will stop you from really wondering.

Here’s a guide to the trapdoors to avoid, and sidestepping them, the places worth exploring.

First the trapdoors.

It's all you.

Trapdoor #1. Just change your attitude: Spiritual types will tell you that whenever someone bothers you, you need to just change your attitude and accept them. Sure, the problem might be your attitude, but really, assuming automatically it’s all you?! If so, then victims are always at fault. Don’t cut jerks that slack.

Trapdoor #2. You don’t like them because they remind you of you: There’s something to this variation on the first trapdoor. After all, the person who annoys you is endowed with human nature like you. Still, automatically assuming that jerks are just like you just enables them. Jerks respond to every challenge with variations on “I know you are but what am I?” You don’t want to feed that by saying, “yup, it’s all me.”

Trapdoor #3. Don’t be judgmental: “Judging is bad” is a judgment. Funny you never hear “don’t be judgmental” when people are complimented. There’s no escaping judgment. You just want to judge well and sometimes that means deciding someone is a jerk.

Trapdoor #4. Don’t be a name-caller: More hypocritical advice, since "name-caller" is name-calling. Funny too that you never hear “don’t name call,” when people say “you’re a wonderful person.” There’s no escaping name-calling. You just want to name-call accurately. Use difficult people as a chance to meditate on what it takes to name-call with precision.

Trapdoor #5. Blame the sin, not the sinner: A good place to start maybe, but a terrible place to stop, so no one does. If someone is routinely a jerk, you will generalize; not just the sin but the sinner.

Trapdoor #6. It takes two to tangle: No, sometimes there really are victims. “A pox on both your houses,” is a convenient way for people to dismiss other people’s conflicts: Just assume 50/50 blame. Call it a tie and ignore it. If you’re bothered by someone is it automatically half your fault? Is slavery half the slave’s fault?

Trapdoor #7. Always just walk away: You can’t always. Sure, it’s good to walk away or just ignore jerk when you can. Live and let live works great so long as you don’t have to live with them. Sometimes you do have to live with them.

It’s all them

Trapdoor #8. Just list their faults: “He’s a jerk because he did this, that and the other thing." Listing your litany of grievances is focused on symptoms. Do they add up to the person being a jerk? Maybe, but how? 

Trapdoor #9. 'Diagnose': A narcissist? A psychopath? Such terms are fun to wield. They have the sound of pseudo-objectivity, as though you’re neutrally diagnosing a medical condition. There really are narcissists and psychopaths but far fewer than get diagnosed. Narcissists care for no one but themselves. If they just don’t care about you as much as you’d like, that’s not narcissism. Indeed, people who are quick to diagnose people as narcissists for not giving them as much attention are as likely to be narcissists.   

Trapdoor #10. Just name-call: “He’s a jerk because he’s selfish, greedy, mean, uncaring, a hypocrite, etc.” That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw after listing faults but then on to the next question: What do these terms really mean? Some are circular. A jerk is mean and meanness makes someone a jerk. Exploration means going beyond that. 

Real exploration

What is selfishness? Caring most about oneself? Who doesn’t? We all feel our pleasure and pain more directly than other people’s.

What is greed? Wanting more for yourself? Again, who doesn’t?

Mean? Mean to you maybe, but we’re all mean to someone. We all disappoint.

Hypocrite? If we find people selfish even though we also prioritize our interests over other people's, are we being hypocrites about our own hypocrisy?

I write lots of articles about how to deal with jerks. This one is about how to wonder what a jerk is, or rather how not to get around to wondering. Where do you draw the line between selfishness, greed and hypocrisy and too much selfishness, greed and hypocrisy? How do you know whether someone has crossed the line?

These are questions very much on my mind these days, but then they’ve been on my mind for about 20 years, ever since I found my way around those trapdoors. 

Our survival as a nation and even as a species depends on finding our way around these trapdoors and getting serious about the question, what makes a jerk a jerk.

Our freedom too. In a free society, you don't get to tell people what to do, but you still have to constrain the jerks. Better get clear on what a jerk is. 

Jeremy Sherman is a decision theorist studying how life deals with dilemmas from the origins of life to everyday and political life. 

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