A MODERN AND WORLDLY PERSPECTIVE
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Capable Capable

Jerkitude

“Jerk self-knowledge is hard to come-by . . . yet maybe nothing is more central to your moral character than your degree of jerkitude,” says American philosopher and professor Eric Schwitzgebel in a piece titled “How to tell if you’re a jerk,” published in Nautilus magazine.

“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 . . . Jerks see the world through goggles that dim others’ humanity.”

Note: Because the two authors mentioned below use offensive-to-some language to make their points, I’m going to replace parts of the profanity so I can represent coarseness without actually printing the word.

Aaron James, also an American philosopher and author of Assh..es: a Theory, tells us of another sort of jerk, i.e., the assh..e. These are people who allow themselves to enjoy privileges over others out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. Though the ways of assh..es are not usually punished, their rudeness, disregard and indifference toward others trigger feelings of powerlessness, fear or rage in those who cross their paths.

Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Princeton, also addresses jerkitude in his book titled, On Bullsh.., published in 2005. He says that one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much b.s. and so many bullsh.. artists. “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullsh.. so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic examples of the concept.”

Bullsh..ters can be know-nothings who cover their ignorance with bluster, or they can be, for example, politicians, professors or talk show hosts and guests who do not necessarily reject the authority of the truth, but for egoistic, lazy or mood-of-the-times reasons don’t mind pretending that facts are other than they are. 

Of course, you know and I know that behaving badly didn’t begin a year ago or a decade ago or a century ago. Jerks have always existed. However, before the Internet and the ability of social media to mobilize a mob, the extent of the polluted environment wasn’t quite so obvious.

In my post dated 03.01.10, I addressed additional (desperate) signs of behaving badly. These include the currently popular tendency to romance the bully and the braggart and to characterize all sorts of indecent, bitter and confrontational language and behavior as fierce and gutsy achievements, expressions of “fighting the good fight.” But as I said then, “I think it’s a crock.”

This is not to say that I cannot understand the appeal of crassness and the pull of a mob mentality. We’re born of animals and reflexive antagonism and anger are inherent in animal DNA. Moreover, at all times and more so among the herd, reason, rationality and thinking for ourselves are hard work.

But we who study the art of autonomy and life have chosen to accept the demand for the transcendental authority of enlightened self-possession despite the presence of so much bad behavior. Not only do we find the lifelong work involved with fighting the good fight well worth the effort, we find the work itself rewarding.

Life is such that many of us just copy the mindset and pathway of those who preceded us. But actually, a life worth living requires the time and space to intelligently determine the authority by which we live, and then living by it, despite the provocations of our own temperament and a world often crass, cold and disappointing. The dedication and work enable us to create a life of our own design, a life built around civility, responsibility, utility and good will. I celebrate those committed to such effort and appreciate their company in and contribution to my classes.
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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. 

 
 
 

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