Few of us like to believe anything negative about ourselves.
Do you think it’s possible you might be a jerk?
It’s a rude question, I know, but not a totally absurd one. After all, we’re surrounded by jerks – if you don’t believe me, glance at the headlines, drive home during rush hour, or check Twitter – so, statistically, it’s entirely plausible that one of them is you. I’m sure you don’t feel like a jerk, of course. But nobody does. Partly that’s because few of us like to believe anything negative about ourselves.
But, as the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has argued in several essays, it’s also because the essence of jerkitude (which, he argues, is distinct from other forms of obnoxiousness) is “to see the world through goggles that dim others’ humanity”. Jerks view other people “as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers”.
So if you’re a jerk to people, and they respond in predictable ways – with anger, irritation or, if you’re lucky, friendly criticism – you won’t take their reactions seriously, assuming you’re even listening at all. Why? Because you’re a jerk.
It gets worse, as Schwitzgebel explains. If you sincerely aspire to figure out whether or not you’re a jerk, you’ll probably begin by asking yourself if you regularly treat others high-handedly, regarding their desires and ideas as inferior, valuable only in so far as they serve your ends.
Yet the very act of asking that question means you can’t, in that instant, be a jerk. “To the extent one genuinely worries about being a jerk, one’s jerkitude momentarily vanishes,” Schwitzgebel writes. “If you prickle with fear and shame at your possibly shabby behaviour to someone, in that moment, by virtue of that very prickling, you are… seeing that person as an individual with moral claims upon you.”
But don’t get too comfortable: if you take this to mean that you couldn’t possibly be a jerk, since you’re the kind of person sensitive enough to wonder if you might be, then you’ll lapse back into complacency, which is fertile soil for becoming a jerk.
This, then, is your awkward predicament: you don’t feel like a jerk, but this might just be because you’re such a jerk. And if you introspect honestly, asking yourself if you’re a jerk, you’ll find you aren’t, even if you usually are. So is there any way to determine, objectively, if you’re a jerk? Schwitzgebel thinks there is: stop looking inside yourself, and look at how you view other people instead.
Do you find yourself often feeling besieged by idiots? Since jerks take such a dim view of others, that’s a red flag. “Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found?”
If so, bad news: you’re probably a jerk, at least sometimes. On those days when you seem to have an issue with virtually everyone you meet, it’s a good bet the cause is whatever all those encounters have in common. And, not to be a jerk about it… that’s you.