Trump-era takeaways for the hard art of naming and taming total jerks.
Posted Nov 01, 2018
We watch him go, some of us with admiration, some of us in disgust.
He can’t be cornered. Never backing down; he always doubles down. If he’s caught lying, he tells a bigger lie. If he’s called on his hypocrisy, he’ll outmaneuver through more audacious hypocrisy. If he’s attacked, he counter-attacks tenfold.
Some people love the way he's putting total jerk liberals in their place to make America great. Some people just think he's a total jerk. Either way, his behavior is a golden opportunity for us all to attend to the most fundamental moral challenge ever: how to identify and thwart total jerks.
In a free society, you don't get to tell people how they must live. Still, you have to put a leash on total jerks or it won’t remain a free society.
This framing corners us with morality’s two core questions:
1. How can you tell who’s a total jerk since it can’t just be anyone who jerks you around?
2: How can you thwart a total jerk without becoming one?
Answering these without prejudice would provide an alternative to two common, unworkable approaches:
1. Deadlocks, with each party confident that the other is the total jerk.
2. People, disdainful of such negativity, pretending they’re above the fray, thereby putting free society at risk. (If you’re offended by the idea of calling anyone a total jerk, you might be employing this unworkable approach, putting free society at risk.)
1. What defines a total jerk since it can’t just be anyone who jerks you around?
Total jerks cannot be distinguished by their histories or motivations, their tactics or their ideological objectives but rather by the personal advantage they gain by being total jerks.
They get to play God. They enjoy a false sense of godlike eternal invincibility, unassailability and, above all, infallibility. In a word, they are infallibilists. They’ll stop at nothing to claim victory in any debate.
One can be a total jerk for any cause. There are left-wing, right-wing, spiritual, atheistic, new-age, religious, philosophical and non-ideological total jerks. It’s not what they stand for but how they strut it – as though they’re infallible.
Now, who among us wouldn’t like to be infallible? Life is stressful, uncertain. Doubt is annoying, paralyzing, discouraging. We’d all welcome guarantees that we’re on the right track, making the right moves, bound for glory. We all dream of being able to finesse the stress once and for all. You can see it in the way we embrace pat answers, the way we get defensive, dismissing challenges, deflecting criticism. You can see it in the way we identify with heroes and superheroes, revel in our team’s victories, fantasize about becoming famous, wealthy, wise, adored and free enough that we can do no wrong. The name Jesus means salvation, rescue, deliverance. No wonder so many pray to him.
We all fantasize about infallibility, and that’s the point. Total jerks aren’t just fantasizing. They take their dreams of infallibility out into the real world.
The rest of us are adults about it. We fantasize and then we get back to our fallible lives, trying to guess what best to do in our circumstances. We recognize that we don’t know it all. No matter how confident we are about a guess, we’re still more confident that it is a guess.
In a pinch, we all use the same tricks that total jerks use, so forget about defining total jerks by their lying, hypocritical, egomaniacal, greedy, selfish or delusional behaviors. We all indulge in such behaviors occasionally, even appropriately – lying to be tactful, being delusional to remain hopeful, looking out for number one because somebody has to do it.
We often hear that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the original quote, it was power tends to corrupt. “Tends to” makes a difference and not just with power, but with every rhetorical power-grab technique that generates it. Total jerks use power grabs absolutely. Their feigned infallibility knows no bounds.
2. How can we constrain total jerks without becoming one?
Stop trying to beat them at their own game. We have to fight infallibility with fallibility. When they go god, we go human.
Consider two overarching strategies.
1. Make inescapable accusations: You can’t out-infallible an infallibilist, but you can out them as infallibilists. Accuse them of stopping at nothing to feign infallibility. They're one-trick phonies – just non-stop wall-to-wall feigned infallibility. They will defend themselves with further feigned infallibility which only confirms your accusation.
Total Jerk: I’m right about this!
You: There he goes again. He likes to pretend he’s right about everything.
TJ: That’s not my strategy!
You: Always defensive.
TJ: I am not!
You: Not defensive, he says defensively.
TJ: You’re the one who thinks you're always right.
You: He’s only got one trick. Just lots of ways of saying “I know you are but what am I?”
TJ: No, it’s you who does that.
You: Like I said, “I know you are but what am I?” That’s his only answer ever. He’s a know-it-all. He likes to pretend he’s infallible.
TJ: No, you do!
You: There he goes again.
2. Fight infallibilism with fallibilism: Total jerks will retaliate with accusations that you’re a jerk. Rather than denying it, embrace it. The question is not whether, but when to use rhetorical tricks.
You: You’re an infallibilist. You like to pretend that you’re infallible.
TJ: Well, you’re a name-caller!
You: Of course I am, like you, like everyone. You just called me a name-caller! I don’t want to just name call. I want to call names with careful precision.
TJ: See, you’re a hypocrite!
You: Of course I am, like you, like everyone. We’re all hypocrites sometimes. But not all of us pretend that we’re pure the way you do. You avoid introspection by drowning out the sound of your own doubts with the sound of your siren as you go around policing others on their hypocrisy.
TJ: Whoa. You sound like you’re angry!
You: And that’s a crime under your dictatorship? Of course, I get angry, like you, like everyone. I try to get angry about the right things, not the wrong ones. You just get angry at everything that challenges your infallibility and then you turn a blind eye to it. Your anger is justified. Everyone else’s anger is immoral.
Such verbal confrontation isn’t for everyone. Still, somebody’s got to do it or we’ll lose our free society as total jerk infallibilists from all sides try to lay down their absolute authority.
Self-love is great. But like they say to lovers, get a room. Be an infallibilist in your fantasies and fight for fallibility in reality. Combating total jerks is our patriotic duty. It’s our nation’s first line of civil defense, even if it doesn’t always feel civilized.