Regarding jerks, here’s Eric Schwitzgebel, writing in “How to Tell if You’re a Jerk” (Nautilus, November 16, 2017):
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….
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.
Why is it jerky to view a
server waiter as a “tool” (loaded word) by which to secure a meal? That’s his job, just as it’s the job of a clerk to ring up your order, the job of a service advisor to see that your car is serviced, etc. Pleasantness and politeness are called for in dealings with people in service occupations — as in dealings with everyone — though it may be necessary to abandon them in the face of incompetence or rudeness.
What’s not called for is a haughty or dismissive air, as if the waiter, clerk, etc., were a lesser being. I finally drew a line (mentally) through a long-time friendship when the friend — a staunch “liberal” who, by definition, doesn’t view people as mere tools — was haughty and dismissive toward a waiter, and a black one at that. His behavior exemplified jerkiness. Whatever he thought about the waiter as a human being (and I have no way of knowing that), he acted the way he did because he sees himself as a superior being — an attitude to which I can attest by virtue of long acquaintance. (When haughtiness wasn’t called for, condescension was. Here‘s a perfect example of it.)
That’s what makes a jerk a jerk: an overt attitude of superiority. It usually comes out as rudeness, pushiness, or loudness — in short, dominating a situation by assertive behavior rather than on merit. The merit is all in the mind of the jerk.
Does the jerk have an inferiority complex for which he is compensating? Was he a spoiled child? Is he a neurotic who tries to conquer his insecurity by behaving more assertively than necessary? Does he fail to appreciate the perspectives of other people, as Schwitzgebel puts it?
Who knows? And why does it matter? When confronted with a jerk, I deal with the behavior — or avoid it. The cause would matter only if I could do something about it. Jerks (like the relatively poor) are always with us.
So are psychopaths, though they must be dealt with differently.
Schwitzgebel addresses the connection between jerkiness and psychopathy, but gets it wrong:
People with psychopathic personalities are selfish and callous, as is the jerk, but they also incline toward impulsive risk-taking, while jerks can be calculating and risk-averse.
Note the weasel-wording: “can be”. Schwitzgebel is trying too hard to distinguish jerkiness from psychopathy.
The jerk who doesn’t care (or think) about his treatment of other people in mundane settings is just getting away with what he can get away with at the moment; that is, he is being impulsive. Nor is jerky behavior necessarily risk-averse; it often invites a punch in the mouth. By contrast, a criminal psychopath who seeks to avoid detection, and carefully plans his foul deeds, is calculating and risk averse.
characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits.
Which could be thought of as extreme, sustained jerkiness.
If there is a distinction between a jerk and a psychopath, it is in the extremity of the psychopath’s acts. He doesn’t just do irritating or insulting things. He takes people’s lives, liberty, and property.
But, contrary to definition quoted above, a psychopath doesn’t do such things because he is devoid of empathy. A successful criminal psychopath is skilled at “reading” his victims — empathizing with them — in order to entice them into a situation where he gets what he wants from them. Moreover, his “bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits” may surface only when he has sprung his trap and no longer needs to gull his victim.
In evidence, I turn to Paul Bloom’s “The Root of All Cruelty?” (The New Yorker, November 27, 2017):
The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.
At some European soccer games, fans make monkey noises at African players and throw bananas at them. Describing Africans as monkeys is a common racist trope, and might seem like yet another example of dehumanization. But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all.
Consider what happened after Hitler annexed Austria, in 1938. Timothy Snyder offers a haunting description in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning:
The next morning the “scrubbing parties” began. Members of the Austrian SA, working from lists, from personal knowledge, and from the knowledge of passersby, identified Jews and forced them to kneel and clean the streets with brushes. This was a ritual humiliation. Jews, often doctors and lawyers or other professionals, were suddenly on their knees performing menial labor in front of jeering crowds. Ernest P. remembered the spectacle of the “scrubbing parties” as “amusement for the Austrian population.” A journalist described “the fluffy Viennese blondes, fighting one another to get closer to the elevating spectacle of the ashen-faced Jewish surgeon on hands and knees before a half-dozen young hooligans with Swastika armlets and dog-whips.” Meanwhile, Jewish girls were sexually abused, and older Jewish men were forced to perform public physical exercise.
The Jews who were forced to scrub the streets—not to mention those subjected to far worse degradations—were not thought of as lacking human emotions. Indeed, if the Jews had been thought to be indifferent to their treatment, there would have been nothing to watch here; the crowd had gathered because it wanted to see them suffer. The logic of such brutality is the logic of metaphor: to assert a likeness between two different things holds power only in the light of that difference. The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not.
As with jerkiness, I don’t care what motivates psychopathy. If jerks are to be avoided, psychopaths are to be punished — good and hard.
Come to think of it, if jerks were punched in the mouth more often, perhaps there would be less jerky behavior. And, for most of us, it is jerks — not psychopaths — who make life less pleasant than it could be.
Related guest post by LP: Getting Real about Empathy — Part 2 of 5: Critical Roles and Contributions of the Less Empathetic