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Is It Ever Moral to Declare Someone a Total Jerk?

Blame the sin and not the sinner?

Key points

  • If one gaslights all challenges to one's authority, one becomes what can be called a "trumpbot."
  • A trumpbot has no interest in changing. Not having to change is the point of being a trumpbot.
  • Calling out trumpbots is necessary.

I’m a psychoproctologist. I pursue careful non-partisan diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of what, in folk psychology are commonly described as a-holes. I chose a light name for a very serious subject because it’s dangerous to claim to be a specialist on who is and isn’t one. Tyrants and their mobs are certain they know who the a-holes are. I’m not certain. I have to hold myself lightly. Despite a quarter-century of research, I'm a specialist, not an expert.

More fundamentally, psychoproctology burdens me with a big moral question. Are there a-holes or do people just do a-hole things? Is it ever OK to decide that someone is just an a-hole or should we blame the sin but not the sinner?

One can sidestep this question a few ways:

  • Use clinical terms loosely. Call people you don’t like psychopaths, narcissists, gaslighters, or sociopaths. That way, you can call them a-holes while sounding clinical.
  • Insist that one should never name-call but do it under your breath and make exceptions.
  • Claim that no one is an a-hole or that everyone is.
  • Act like they’re a different species but don’t call them names. Be mystified by their behavior but not curious about it.

I believe that we’re all human but that doesn’t make me charitable to everyone. Being charitable with psychopaths is deadly. Being charitable to a-holes is dangerous too.

Still, total jerks are human. Nothing human is foreign to any of us. As a psychoproctologist, I recognize every a-hole impulse in my natural-born repertoire too.

There’s an argument that name-calling is dehumanizing – but it’s a weak one. If we call someone a talent, doctor, lawyer, alcoholic or criminal, we don’t forget that they’re also human. We might forget that a hottie is a human but that’s a different matter.

Here’s where I’ve come so far on the question of whether there are a-holes or just a-holery. Sinners or merely sins.

I start with the original quote, often misquoted: Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

We all employ power plays. Take gaslighting – we all do it. When we want our interpretation to prevail, our impulse will be to discount alternative interpretations, even just with a raised eyebrow at other people’s “misreading” of the situation. That’s us putting our thumb on the scale in our favor. It’s a power move. It tends to corrupt. It doesn’t always. Sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered, and yes the doctor is human too – I haven’t forgotten. Still, absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s the fist of self-deification on the scale.

If one gaslights all challenges to one's authority, one becomes what I term a trumpbot – a more accurate, descriptive term than a-hole. A trumpbot robotically plays trumped-up (fake) trump cards which enables them to dismiss any challenge to their fake authority.

Being a trumpbot has nothing to do with what one claims to believe. It’s easy to become a trumpbot for any cause or no cause at all. All it takes is not caring about what’s true. In BS they trust. A trumpbot is a human playing god which is easy for a human to do. Let impulse be your guide. Say anything that makes you feel heroically invincible in the moment.

Being a trumpbot is absolute and in the original sense of the term: dissolved away from reality. This is the current technical meaning of BS as distinct from lying. A lie is a known untruth. BS is not caring what’s true. We can fall into an addiction to BS. If we keep failing in reality but have to stay positive about ourselves, we can just shed all concern about reality and by BS-ing claim a superhuman eternal winning streak. It’s easy to pretend once you’re addicted to BS. You can say anything. Life becomes a shell game: Heads I win, tails you lose and if that’s unconvincing, then tails I win, heads you lose.

This is the paradox of psychoproctology. Trumpbots want to forget that they’re human. We diagnose them in our effort to get them to admit they’re humans. We must diagnose trumpbots in our effort to change them, but they have no interest in changing. Not having to change is the whole point of being a trumpbot. We aim to demote them to the elevated status of merely human.

Prominent anthropologists have been arguing of late that humans are a self-domesticating species. We have been breeding violence out of ourselves for 300,000 years. Anthropologists cite evidence from cultures large and small that the arrogant and violent have long been systematically ostracized and executed. Paradoxically, becoming an uncommonly tolerant species may have required millennia of intolerance toward trumpbots.

The US has undergone a rapid transition away from such ostracizing. Post-WWII, life here became so tame that some of us began to believe that the path to collective kindness was universal kindness and that the secret to greater tolerance was universal tolerance. Hence, they wince at name-calling.

There’s something to it. When trying to overcome a problem, we can either fake it or face it ’til we make it. Faking it til you make it, we can act like unbridled arrogance is on its way out and maybe it will be. But sometimes it’s wiser to face it ’til we make it: Remain vigilant as our ancestors were, ostracizing the arrogant.

I think of trumpbots as humans flailing away with double-edged swords. I don’t try to grab their blade. No matter how you grab it, they’ll cut you. Heads or tails they win; heads or tails you lose.

Nor do I attack the flailing human who, like me, is just human.

Rather I grab the sword’s hilt, the point of connection between their humanity and their double-edged sword. I expose them as saying anything to feel invincible. And I don’t let go. They keep flailing and I keep exposing that they’ll say anything to pretend they're invincible. They’re one-trick phonies. Everything they do affirms the diagnosis.

And if they leak even the slightest hint of their humanness, I’m right there to embrace them, adult-to-adult: Welcome home!


Sherman, Jeremy (2021). What's Up With A**holes? Spotting and stopping them without becoming one. Berkeley, CA: Evolving Press.

Wrangham, Richard (2019). The Goodness Paradox: The strange relationship between peace and violence in human evolution. NYC: Penguin Randomhouse.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow D. (2021) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. NYC: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Frankfurt, Harry (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.