The Jerk virtually defines the American character of the 21st century. Ask any foreigner, and he will tell you amazing tales of badly dressed, obnoxious Americans who treat restaurant owners as their personal servants, snap their fingers, screaming Garçon! Garçon! for service, and complain about everything they eat. Too many American travelers have seen too many Burger King commercials. If you really want to have everything your way, stay home.
Though they are one of America’s distinctive incarnations, Jerks have been observed throughout history. Meet one from 17th-century France, described by one of the most acute observers of human folly, Jean de La Bruyère:
Gnathon lives for no one but himself, and the rest of the world are to him as if they did not exist. He is not satisfied with occupying the best seat at table, but he must take the seats of two other guests, and forgets that the dinner was not provided for him alone, but for the company as well; he lays hold of every dish, and looks on each course as his own; he never sticks to one single dish until he has tried them all, and would like to enjoy them all at one and the same time. . . . [H]e makes every place his home, and will have as much elbow-room in church and in a theatre as if he were in his own room. When he rides in a coach, it must always be forward, for he says that any other seat will make him fall in a swoon, if we can believe him. When he travels he is always in advance of his companions, so as to get first to the inn, and choose the best room and the best bed for himself; he makes use of everybody, and his own and other people’s servants run about and do his errands; everything is his he lays his hands on, even clothes and luggage; he disturbs every one, but does not inconvenience himself for anybody; he pities no one, and knows no other indispositions but his own, his overfeeding and biliousness; he laments no person’s death, fears no one’s but his own, and to redeem his own life, would willingly consent to see the entire human race become extinct.
Gnathon’s complete indifference to other people’s happiness, and even to their existence, is the hallmark of the true Jerk, who should be distinguished from the fool or boor, who simply does not know to behave in public, though there may be something of the Jerk in many fools and boors. When we see a grown man making little sculptures out of his mashed potatoes or shouting out his boring work stories, we are tempted to say, “What a Jerk,” even though he may not realize how annoying his behavior is.
The 21st-century Jerk goes beyond the mere lout or loser. If you listen carefully to how most people speak of the species, the offensive character that most of us call the Jerk is not the unselfconscious fool immortalized by Steve Martin, but someone who may well know that he is offending people and simply does not care. The classic Jerk is someone who is forever saying, “I want what I want when and how I want it and I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks or feels. If I feel like playing the trumpet, it doesn’t matter whether I live in the desert or a downtown apartment building. I’m going to blow my own horn as loud as I want to, and if someone complains, I’ll tell him he’s a Jerk.”
To understand the inner nature of the Jerk, you have to spend a lot of time around children. As a father of four and the former principal of a small K-12 school, I consider myself an expert in all the little ways that children have of torturing each other and the grown-ups who are condemned to be with them. A five-year-old boy wants what he wants now, and there is no point in trying to tell him it is time for his nap, or that he had already promised not to ask for another cookie only five minutes ago when, against your better judgment, you gave him a third one. Conservatives may blame Dr. Spock and sigh for the good old days when children were well behaved and respectful, but listen to a description of children three centuries ago, again from La Bruyère:
Children are overbearing, supercilious, passionate, envious, inquisitive, egotistical, idle, fickle, timid, intemperate liars, and dissemblers; they laugh and weep easily, are excessive in their joys and sorrows, and that about the most trifling objects; they bear no pain but like to inflict it on others.
The exaggerated display of emotions is not limited to children. Adults who throw temper tantrums are no longer despised, as they once were. They are often celebrated for their spontaneity or, in the case of successful athletes, adored for getting away with doing as they please. There was a time when tennis was a gentleman’s game, when the loser congratulated his victorious opponent and did not blame the umpires. Even in the 1970’s, when crybabies like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were staging their amateur theatricals on the court, Arthur Ashe was still acting like a grown-up in public, on and off the court. In the flood of eulogies that poured in after his death, one of the words most often used to describe him was gentleman. Pete Sampras, who maintained this tradition, commented, “In our sport the best of players and fiercest competitors are often also gentlemen—good sports and role models. Just look at Rod Laver before my time, and Roger Federer after it.”
There was a time when college football was played by young gentlemen like Hobey Baker, idolized by Scott Fitzgerald. Professional football, however, was never really a gentleman’s game, but it was not until recent decades that NFL players competed not just to win games but to excel in childish displays of rage or exultation. The end-zone dance is now as much a part of the game as going for a field goal on fourth and ten. In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer achieves renown as a choreographer of extravagant victory performances for Warren Sapp and LeBron James (an NBA star). The episode failed to click with audiences that may have found it faintly blasphemous to ridicule an institution that so exemplifies the American character.
In any given week of the season, prominent NFL and NBA players can be seen acting like spoiled brats on the field and arrested as thugs off the field. From an endless list one could pick out such nuggets as the conviction of Michael Vick, one of the highest-paid performers in professional sports, for organizing and profiting from dog fighting, or Plaxico Burress, who accidentally shot himself in the thigh with an illegal firearm he had carried into a nightclub. As Bugs Bunny would say, “What a maroon!”
Once upon a time, in the bad old days we always call Victorian, it was thought unmanly to display too much emotion. Back then, educated people could recite Horace’s admonition to keep a level head in difficult times—and not in good times, indulge in insolent displays of joy.
A classical education had its advantages. It meant that most people who had finished high school had read many of the same books, which they could use as points of reference in a general conversation. A girl who was loyal to her family was another Antigone, a loyal wife was an Alcestis, and a strong but boastful man could be described as a modern Hercules. Sometimes the examples were negative. Some of Homer’s heroes are paragons of pride and selfishness who threaten death to anyone who thwarts their will. Achilles, who wants both Greeks and Trojans to exterminate each other so that he and his friend can have all the glory and booty for themselves, is perhaps the greatest Jerk in the history of literature.
More often, Greek and Roman writers extolled self-control and moderation as civilized virtues. “Nothing in excess,” “Know thyself,” and “Measure [or self-restraint] is best” were inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where people went frequently to attend festivals or seek advice. The ideal was not Christian humility, which pagans found to be a puzzling if not degrading ideal, but the proper self-respect that encourages us to do the right thing and not make fools of ourselves. Not believing, for the most part, in an afterlife, ancient men and women believed they had only one lifetime in which to play their part well.
If people today know anything about ancient Greek thought, the Greek word they are most likely to know may be hubris (more properly hybris). In Greek tragedies, we are often presented with a hero who has gained great success only to be tripped up by his own arrogance that leads him to ruin. The same formula is used repeatedly by chorus after chorus: Success engenders pride, which leads to a destructive folly. This wisdom is not peculiar to the Greeks: We say in English “pride goeth before a fall,” but the Greeks worked out the pattern in greater detail and with greater depth. “Hybris gives birth to the tyrant,” sings the chorus in Sophocles’ Oedipus. The ancient tyrant was not necessarily a bad person or, typically, an evil dictator, but a man who during a crisis rises on popular acclaim to a position above the law. Ensconced in the arrogance of power, he almost inevitably proceeds to alienate the people who once supported him but now conspire to overthrow him. The wisdom does not apply just to dictators but to Hollywood stars, celebrity athletes, and successful CEOs—to anyone who thinks that he really deserves his good fortune.
Hybris was not one of those high-toned words reserved for tragedies and other formal occasions. It was also an everyday term in the law courts. When, as a young man, Demosthenes was walking down the street, he met Midias, the guardian who had defrauded him of his inheritance. Words were exchanged, and Midias slapped his former ward, who promptly sued him for hybris, which in this context means something like “having energy or power and misusing it self-indulgently.” Acts of hybris, which are typical of rich young men, include ostentatious displays of wealth, eating and drinking too much, jeering at authority and figures deserving respect. But even slaves or dependent children might be mistreated by overgrown adolescents, in which case their guardian could sue on their behalf. These cases did not necessarily involve physical assault, and a physical assault did not necessarily constitute hybris. The key element was the desire to humiliate the victim by showing one’s own superiority. In one famous legal case, a tormentor capered about his fallen victim, crowing like a rooster.
If Greeks and Romans, at least on principle, disapproved of immoderate behavior, our barbarian ancestors were cut from a different cloth. Celts, Germans, and Slavs were boasters who gloried in victory and were disconsolate in defeat. For them, it was an act of heroic self-restraint to pass up an opportunity to get drunk or have a good time pillaging and raping. But under the influences exerted by Roman law, the Church, and Latin literature, the upper classes developed rules of conduct that forbade mistreatment of women, children, and the poor, that encouraged an air of self-possession. As time went on the long-forgotten code of the gentleman made its way to the middle and working classes, and there was nothing really strange or comical in the way that most respectable men were called gentlemen, and their wives ladies.
In the first half of the 20th century, a poor farmer, when he came to town, put on his suit and minded his manners. It was only the worst people, criminals, hooligans, and wasters, who went out in public dressed like slobs, to make spectacles of themselves. That, at least, is what my middle-middle-class family taught me when I was growing up, and that perception has been confirmed by virtually everyone, my age or older, with whom I have spoken about the decline of manners.
In one of his novels, P.G. Wodehouse fancifully supposed that “the gift of hiding private emotion and keeping up appearances before strangers” is not just our most civilized quality, but a mark of being human: “Of all the qualities which belong exclusively to Man and are not shared by the lower animals, this surely is the one which marks him off most sharply from the beasts in the field.” The stiff upper lip is not, however, innate but acquired only through the discipline imposed by demanding parents, who are themselves a vanishing species. It is too much to expect of the human animal that he will do the right thing without proper instruction.
Humanity, in the fullest sense of the word, is not innate. It must be acquired. Children cannot know how to behave in public if they have never been taught, and it is not enough to teach them to be “nice,” if they don’t know what that word means to other people.
The basic principle of good manners is human decency—that is, an acknowledgment that other people have their own lives and feelings and should not be unnecessarily disturbed as they pursue their own interests. Etiquette is not geometry, and disciplined manners cannot be reduced to a few basic postulates from which a system of polite behavior can be deduced. Think of manners as a game. We know that the object in baseball is to get more runs than the other team, but there are rules, some of them simple, like three strikes and you’re out, but also the rule that, with runners on first and second, and with fewer than two outs, a playable fly ball that drops into the infield is an automatic out, if one of the umpires has said “in-field fly.”
The rules governing good manners are infinitely more complex than in baseball. It is more like cricket—a game I do not profess to understand. In cricket, the size and shape of the field may vary from place to place, and the rules are so complicated that a neophyte cannot begin to understand what is happening on the field until he has witnessed several matches—and one match can last several days!
Recovering from jerkitude is a lengthy and difficult process, perhaps more difficult than recovering from alcoholism. Dejerkification requires more than 12 steps, but for the Jerk, as for the drunk, the first step is to look into the mirror and acknowledge the ugly reality you see in your own reflection.
“Hi, my name is Thomas, and I am a Jerk.”
It may not seem like much, but it’s a start.