My only real quibble with Eric Schwitzgebel’s article (at Nautilus) about “How to Tell If You’re a Jerk” is this opening sentence:
Here’s something you probably didn’t do this morning: Look in the mirror and ask, am I a jerk?
Professor Schwitzgebel obviously doesn’t know me. I begin every day not by simply asking myself the “jerk” question; I begin by telling myself, almost from the moment I wake up, that I am indeed a jerk. Of course, if I occasionally forget that important bit of self-knowledge, I’m lucky to have friends willing to remind me.
That bit of self-reference aside, I found Schwitzgebel’s article thoroughly useful, starting with his defense of “jerk” and “jerkitude” as serious and viable terms:
I submit that jerkitude should be accepted as a category worthy of scientific study in its own right. The word “jerk” is apt and useful. It captures a very real phenomenon that no other concept in psychology quite does. Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers. To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a certain way—ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority. The nugget of folk wisdom in calling certain people jerks is to highlight this particular species of deficiency. 1
We talk much these days of “epistemic lenses” that affect how we see the world; Schwitzgebel identifies “jerk goggles” as a particular subset of such lenses:
Jerks see the world through goggles that dim others’ humanity. The server at the restaurant is not a potentially interesting person with a distinctive personality, life story, and set of goals to which you might possibly relate. Instead, he is merely a tool by which to secure a meal or a fool on which you can vent your anger. The people ahead of you at Starbucks are faceless and of no account. Those beneath you in the social hierarchy lack your talents and deserve to get the scut work.
According to Schwitzgebel, just as terms like “light” and “dark” or “good” and “evil” are best defined in contrast with each other, so too “jerk” can be better understood when contrasted with its opposite: “sweetheart”. Schwitzgebel explains the difference:
To sharpen our conception of jerkitude, it’s helpful also to consider the jerk’s opposite: the sweetheart. Maybe you know one or two of these people—habitually alert to the needs and interests of others, solicitous of others’ thoughts and preferences, liable in cases of conflict to suspect that the fault might lie with them rather than with the other party. Imagine flipping our jerk goggles inside out, converting them into sweetheart goggles—goggles that make especially vivid the value, interest, importance, and specialness of the people around you.
Human beings, of course, are complicated:
Probably no one is pure jerk or pure sweetheart. Several decades of psychological research confirm that, when it comes to big, broad personality traits, pretty much everyone is mixed and complex and subject to a variety of shifting influences. But where specifically are you on the spectrum from jerk to sweetheart, and in what respects, in what situations, toward which people? Maybe nothing is more central to your moral character than your degree of jerkitude. It is your basic moral comportment toward the people around you.
To the extent one genuinely worries about being a jerk, one’s jerkitude momentarily vanishes. If you prickle with fear and shame at your possibly shabby behavior to someone, in that moment, by virtue of that very prickling, you are recognizing the legitimacy of that person’s interests and values, seeing that person as an individual with moral claims upon you, rather than as a tool or fool. You have, at least for a moment, taken your jerk goggles off.
Professor Schwitzgebel thinks we should cultivate self-awareness in hopes that we might recognize, and do something about, our tendency to be jerks:
If the essence of jerkitude is a failure to appreciate the perspectives of others around you, this suggests what might be a non-obvious path to self-knowledge: looking not at yourself but at other people. Instead of gazing into the mirror, turn away from the mirror and notice the colors in which the world seems to be painted. Are you surrounded by fools and non-entities, by people with bad taste and silly desires, by boring people undeserving of your attention, by people who can be understood quickly by applying a broad and negative brush—creeps, stuck-up snobs, bubbleheaded party kids, smug assholes, and, indeed, jerks?
If this is how the world regularly looks to you, then I have bad news.
Likely, you are the jerk. This is not how the world looks to most people, and it is not how the world actually is. You have a distorted vision. You are not seeing the individuality and potential of the people around you.
Not to be a jerk about it, but I submit, from my own experience, that self-awareness of one’s jerkitude does not automatically improve one’s character. It does, however, lead inevitably to an inner life of constant self-recrimination, self-deprecation, and self-denigration: to recognize one’s jerkitude but to be powerless to change it is a horrible fate. Perhaps there needs to be a "Jerks Anonymous"?
In any case, Eric Schwitzgebel is more optimistic, probably because he’s not a jerk:
Think about this article sometime later today, sometime when you are surrounded by other people—maybe in the lunch line, or at a department meeting, or at a party, or in a crowded plaza. Notice the people around you. Are they fools and tools, or do they sparkle with interesting individuality? Notice, in other words, if you are wearing your jerk goggles.
We all look through jerk goggles sometimes. But we are not stuck with this vision of the world. Merely by reflecting on it a bit, we can, I think—most of us, at least momentarily—see what is deficient in that vision.
And that is the way to take those jerk goggles off.
We have a choice, Schwitzgebel insists, as to how we approach the world: jerk on or jerk off? Knowing full well the extent of my jerkitude, I hereby pledge to make 2017 my own personal “jerk off” year.
1 For those interested in a non-scientific approach to this topic, I recommend the classic Steve Martin film, The Jerk. Mr. Martin's "Navin Johnson" was more hapless than malevolent, but his inability to properly understand the world around him frequently led him to act like a jerk despite the fact that he was, by nature, a sweetheart. The Jerk is a great film on many levels; there are few moments in cinema history more poignant than the scene in which Navin Johnson discovers his special purpose.