Magazine | November 21, 2016, Issue

Jerk Logic

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work — which, broadly speaking, is called punditry — complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

Since these drooling halfwits have been impugning my magnanimous disposition for years, I finally decided to investigate the matter. Self-examination, as Socrates might have said, is the hallmark of an enlightened man.

The first step is defining your terms. A “jerk,” according to the dictionary, is a contemptibly obnoxious person. But, as anyone smart enough to write for a political magazine can tell you, the only way to properly evaluate any moral failing is to turn to the social sciences.

As luck would have it, the scientific periodical Nautilus recently featured a deep dive on the topic of jerks. Written by Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at the Uni­versity of California, it informs us that jerky characteristics are driven by broader psychological groupings such as “narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathic personality” — though pinpointing the exact parameters is both complex and relativistic. And isn’t that always the case?

Schwitzgebel also contends that there’s likely no correlation between a person’s self-opinion about his obnoxiousness and his actual “jerkitude.” In fact, if you believe everyone around you is terrible person, “the joke may be on you.”

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inven­tory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Most humans are multifaceted beings with an array of personality traits that can be triggered by various environmental factors. In everyday life, I’m sure, most of us succumb to obnoxiousness on occasion.

Well, that’s not my problem. I face another dilemma: People just don’t get me.

It begins with my New York upbringing, which has en­dowed me with an endearing coarseness that many of you provincials find grating for some reason. When you add to that a dry sense of humor and a standoffish personality, my attitude can sometimes be misinterpreted as holier-than-thou — which, I assure you, is true maybe only 80 percent of the time.

Not long ago, I took one of those “freakishly accurate” Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests to help discern how anyone could find me off-putting. As it turns out, I belong to a subset of humans called the “Logicians” — which, let’s face it, already sounds pretty insufferable. Others who fall under this category are the noted philosopher and mathematician René Descartes and the fresh-faced actress Ellen Page. Individual personality traits are measured on a spectrum. I am, for instance: Intro­verted, 70 percent; Intuitive, 60 percent; Thinking, 60 percent; Prospecting, 54 percent; Assertive, 62 percent.

Role: Analyst. Strategy: Confident Individualism.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

A Logician sounds like the sort of guy who would be pondering the Julio-Claudian dynastic succession or the latest episode of Westworld while nodding and looking straight into his wife’s eyes as she earnestly asked him questions about the family’s upcoming Thanksgiving plans.

This set-up works fine until we are impelled to speak. Family members assure me that I inadvertently insult our friends and neighbors quite often when my mouth does open. So advice to fellow Logicians: Never mock the immaturity of middle-aged men who get tattoos before you’ve seen everyone at the barbecue shirtless. And never belittle ostentatious baby names floated by guests until you’re absolutely certain no one at dinner is pregnant.

Since my emotional IQ might be 10, a friend of mine helpfully suggested that I begin affixing smiley faces and exclamation points to my correspondence as a way to telegraph good intentions. So these days, I write things like, “Boy, you really embarrassed yourself on TV the other day! 🙂 🙂 :)” because I’m trying to be more cognizant of people’s feelings.

So how am I a jerk? Well, most of us live two existences. We can broadly divide our time into the professional and the home life.

It’s incumbent on me as a writer to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat. Does that mean I should be weaponizing Twitter as a means of hurling gratuitous insults at civilians in 140-character projectiles? No, that’s not an appropriate way to displace your anger. And I realize that now.

 – Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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