The Origins of the Jerk

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(Inspired by Clyde Wilson)

Every human society has had its share of offensive or annoying people: busybodies and bores, poseurs and bullies, cheapskates and  check-grabbers, hypocrites and egomaniacs.  You might even be able to define some societies by the offensive characters they tend to produce or by the qualities they find most offensive.

Southerners used to regard Yankees as psalm-singing hypocrites who whined through the nose about Christian virtue while buying and selling slaves, while Yankees found Southerners overbearing, self-important, and bullying hypocrites who pretended to be friendly and courteous while nourishing arrogance and hatred in their hearts.   And, although there are plenty of northern braggarts and Southern hypocrites, the arrogant man was a typically southern product and the moralizing hypocrite a Yankee specialty.

Someone will say, immediately, that these are just stereotypes, and we have all been taught since kindergarten to reject stereotyping.  Ethnic stereotypes are represent an attempt to make sense of human life by reducing complex characters to the simplistic level of cartoon figures.  Scots are cheap, Germans are domineering, and Jews are pushy.  Anyone who has been to Scotland, Germany, or New York City knows two things:  first, that the stereotypes are inaccurate and second, that there is more than a grain of truth in them.  As psychologist Steven Goldberg has explained, stereotypes would not exist if they did not reflect reality, but what outsiders see as a vice, members of the group regard as a virtue.  Scots regard themselves as thrifty, Germans think of themselves as masterful, and what non-Jews describe as pushy behavior can also be viewed as enterprising.

Of course, some stereotypes are silly, offensive and inaccurate: As anyone knows who has worked with them, Mexicans in the United States are not lazy—quite the contrary.  They don’t enjoy working and will evade it if they can, but in this they are like Italians, Greeks and other civilized people.  Who but a Puritan finds virtue in doing something tedious except out of necessity?  Other stereotypes are outmoded.  For centuries the French were famous for their reckless gallantry in battle, but since their premature surrender in World War II, they have acquired the reputation for being cowards–”cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” as they were described on an episode of The Simpsons.  In fact, the cowardly Frenchman is not really a stereotype; it is the product of political propaganda ginned up by American Republicans who were annoyed at France’s refusal to join the US in its invasion of Iraq.

The French stereotype is among the more complex.  The French are typically portrayed as gourmets and wine connoisseurs; they are philandering husbands,[i] and irrationally rational and argumentative.  Thus a stereotypical French Jerk would be a food-and-wine snob who tried to seduce your wife and then prove on the principles of Jean Paul Sartre that she will be better off with him than she was with you.

The stereotypical French Jerk is in a good company that includes the John Bull Englishman, Ivan the drunken Russian bear, and Guido the Neapolitan who divides his time between singing O Sole Mio, eating tons of spaghetti, and carrying out little jobs that require a stiletto deftly used.   By looking at the ethnic stereotypes encountered around the world, we can begin to gain some understanding of the phenomenon we are seeking to understand.  Here, the American is clearly king.  Our stereotype is the Jerk incarnate.  What the hypocrite was to Puritan New England, the braggart to 16th century Spain, and the pretentious fop to 18th century France, the Jerk is to America today.

We could almost say that the Jerk defines the American character.  Ask any foreigner, and he will tell you amazing tales of badly dressed obnoxious Americans who treat restaurant owners as slaves, snap their fingers, screaming GarconGarcon!  for service, and complain about everything they eat.  I was once staying in a nice hotel on Lake Como.  A very rich friend of mine who should know better, complained every morning: “Why can’t I have bacon with my eggs.  No, I don’t want prosciutto or pancetta.  I just want BACON.”  The waiters had no idea of what he was talking about.  If he had bothered to learn a little Italian, he might have discovered the closest thing to bacon is the fatty salted pork called guanciale, but guanciale is not typical of northern Italy, and it is not typically served as a breakfast food.  Too many Americans 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 creations, 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…. he 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. [ii]

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 is something of the Jerk in many fools and boors. When we see a grown man making little sculptures out of his  mashed potatoes or drinking his champagne with a straw, we are tempted to say, “What a Jerk,” even though he may not realize how annoying his behavior is.  This concept of the Jerk as fool corresponds pretty well to original usage. If scholars are correct in relating the word to masturbation, the original Jerk was the loser who could not get girls and had to play with himself.  Before 1900 “Jerk” had come to be used as an adjective with the meaning “ineffectual.”

The 21st century Jerk, however, goes beyond the mere loser.  If you listen carefully to how most people speak of the species, the offensive characters that most of us call Jerks are 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 a 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 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 grownups 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.  The source is again 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 player 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 grownup, on and off the court.  In the flood of eulogies that poured in after his death, one of the most 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.”[iii]

Tennis has always been, ideally, a gentleman’s game, and 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 display 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 felt to be unmanly to display too much emotion.  In those days educated people could recite Horace’s lines

Aequam memento rebus in arduis

Servare mentem non secus in bonis

Ab insolenti temperatam

Laetitia morituri Delli…

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 at 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 puzzling if not degrading, but the proper self-respect that encourages to do the right thing and not make fools of ourselves.  Not believing, for the most part, in an afterlife, ancient women believed they had only once lifetime in which to play their part well.  As Horace reminded his readers, a grave has lessons to teach: Eram quod es, eris quod sum.   His advice to maintain the golden mean (aurea mediocritas) goes back to Aristotle Quote

But Aristotle himself drew from a vast body of ancient folk wisdom handed down by the poets.  If people today know anything about ancient Greek thought, the Greek word they are most likely to know may be hubris (more properly hybris).   Here is an attempt by Plato to grapple with the meaning of this word.  For convenience’s sake, I am quoting from Jowett’s translation of the Phaedrus, though he uses “excess” to translate hybris.

“When opinion by the help of reason leads us to the best, the conquering principle is called temperance (sophrosyne), but when desire, which is devoid of reason, rules in us and drags us to pleasure, that power of misrule is called excess (hybris). Now excess has many names, and many members, and many forms, and any of these forms when very marked gives a name, neither honorable nor creditable, to the bearer of the name.” [Plato is talking about drunkenness, gluttony, lechery, etc,)

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 formula is used many times:  Success(koros, which means having enough) engenders pride, which leads to a destructive folly (ata, which means both foolishness and its consequences).

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, hybris, if stuffed pointlessly with many things that are beyond what is deserved and proper, mounting to the top of the building is forced to leap to a doom from which there is no escape.”[iv] The reference is to a king who has come to power by his own wits and proceeded to treat everyone and everything, including his own brother-in-law and the local religious establishment, with contempt. Oedipus thought of himself as self-reliant and enterprising—”a child of fortune,” as he calls himself—but, in the end, like most of us who think we have made it on our own, he lost almost everything he loved: the people he ruled, the wife he loved, and the very pride that led to his downfall.

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, the great statesman 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 hubris, which in this context means something like “having energy or power and misusing it self-indulgently.”[v] 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 could be mistreated, 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.[Example from Harrison]  The key element was the desire to humiliate the victim by showing one’s own superiority.

Our own barbarian ancestors were cut from a different cloth.  Celts, Germans, and Slaves were boasters who gloried in victory and were disconsolate in defeat.  For them, self-restraint meant passing 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 made spectacles of themselves in public places.  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. [Interview John Howard].  Younger Americans unfamiliar with this strange old world can get a good idea from reading older fiction, not just writers like Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald, who describe the upper classes, but Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, and even William Faulkner, who depict the lives of middling and working class people who keep their private lives private, especially in public places.

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.”[vi] 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.  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 undisturbed as they pursue their own interests.  But, etiquette is not geometry, and disciplined manners cannot be reduced down 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 there also the rule that a flyball hit into the infield is an automatic out, but 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 going on on the field until he has witnessed several matches—and a match can last several days!

[i] Opinion polls, however, seem to indicate that  American husbands are at least as likely to cheat.  Cf. Fleming, “Why America is Not a Christian Nation,”  Spectator

[ii] La Bruyère , Les Caractères, “De l’homme,” 121.

[iii]  Pete Sampras, Peter Bodo, A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis, p. xi.

[iv] A somewhat free translation of OT 874-79

[v]  Douglas Mac Dowell, The Law in Ancient Athens p.129

[vi] P.G. Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress, chapter 17.

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