Jerks and Demagogues

Eric Schwitzgebel writes:

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….

[N]ormal 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….

[T]he 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” shoulds….

[T]he moralising jerk can sometimes happen to be right about some specific important issue … 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…. (“A Theory of Jerks,” Aeon, June 2014.)

Jerks, in other words, are cynical users of their fellow men. As are demagogues:

The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people…. The true theater of a demagogue is a democracy….

The demagogue is usually sly, a detractor of others, a professor of humility and disinterestedness, a great stickler for equality as respects all above him, a man who acts in corners, and avoids open and manly expositions of his course, calls blackguards gentlemen and gentlemen folks, appeals to passions and prejudices rather than to reason, and is in all aspects a man of intrigue and deception, of sly cunning and management, instead of manifesting the frank, fearless qualities of the democracy he so prodigally professes. (James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat, quoted in The Great Quotations, pp. 258-9)

Conserve a bit of breath the next time you hear a demagogue. Just call him a jerk and be done with it.

My list of jerks begins with Barack Obama and extends through the length and breadth of the land — wherever politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests conspire to deprive “folks” of liberty and prosperity.