Wednesday, June 04, 2014

A Theory of Jerks

My theory of the jerk is out in Aeon.

From the intro:

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 a dunce* 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.



* Instead of "dunce" the original piece uses "idiot". In light of Shelley Tremain's remarks to me about the history of that word, I'm wondering whether I should have avoided it. In my mind, it is exactly the sort of word the jerk is prone to use, and how he is prone to think of people, so there's a conflict here between my desire to capture the worldview of the jerk with phenomenological accuracy and my newly heightened sensitivity to the historical associations of that particular word.

[illustration by Paul Blow]


Howie Berman said...

Your portrait of the jerk, like the portrait of the asshole, sounds so clinical.
I can't imagine DMS 6 employing that terminology.
Also, I think these traits can be expressed with other conditions in novel ways.

mtraven said...

So, to combine this with the idea that collective entities can be conscious -- can nations or companies also be jerks and/or sweethearts?

Unknown said...

Arts & Letters Daily directed me to your article, which I thoroughly enjoyed. With regard to the jerk's respectful attitude toward superiors, I prefer your explanation that the jerk is aware of the potential benefits of kissing up.

Now, I'm off to explore more of The Splintered Mind.

Callan S. said...

Hmm, it almost seems to enable a jerkitude itself - the leverage jerk. Sure, maybe the guy pushed for reform (bluntly!), but he's, like, a jerk!

A sort of tall poppy syndrome, because it's useful to undermine such a person and have a derogitory moniker to dismantle their accomplishment and take away pieces of it for ones own asset pile (if one can - only needs a chance of being able to do that for it to be worth it).

I mean those suffragettes getting in the way of that horse race! The jerks!

Or alternatively, what is the redemption protocol for a suffragette causing upset? Was it perhaps warranted in the end?

Check all the jerks one has encountered and see if they all ended up somehow undermining ones own assets?

One might argue they were undermining the communities system of equality, not just ones personal assets. But did it feel like that at the time - or did it feel personal?

Yet another of my posts I make at various forums, disrupting the general comraderie and agreement and...bein' a jerk! I wonder if I'll get a redemption protocol?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

mtraven: Sure, why not? I can think of a candidate or two....

Callan: I agree, and I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the topic for those reasons. The term "jerk" is pretty regularly deployed in ways that are morally counterproductive -- as a jerk move itself, or to condemn people who are rightly being disruptive. So I fear that I'm feeding that. An earlier version of the piece had a stronger "bite-its-own-tail" conclusion -- that attraction to the term "jerk", and writing and reading pieces about it, was itself somewhat problematic. But I decided that was probably wasn't quite right either.

Callan S. said...

Aww, you're not supposed to agree, Eric! Where's the argument in that!? ;)

Anyway, to me it seems that sans any boardgame like structure to manage actions, there's always some ambiguity involved with the accuser that they could use to manouver their own position to an advantage. It's very much a position of power with no check (and all too easy to either declare anyone else inquiring into it a jerk OR the inquirer becomes the new accuser and aquires that power, which solves nothing about the problem)

Fiddley problem! And meanwhile people dart ahead of a pregnant woman to get the free sample off the table she was clearly headed for...the jerks! (still feels good to say!)

Jordan said...

Re: paragraphs 3-4, I would have thought that the obvious example for differentiating the older use of "jerk" to mean "fool" would be the title character in Steve Martin's The Jerk (1979). Whatever failings the character might have, he doesn't fall into the new category of "jerk" as you've described it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jordan: Yes, I'm inclined to agree. In retrospect, perhaps I should have used that example. I wasn't sure how much of the readership would be familiar enough with the movie to see that feature of it.