Why People Are Jerks

This week I’ve been reading a lot of analyses about race and political divisiveness in America — some insightful; much not — including this Salon piece, in which some More Liberal Than Thou white guy explains,

In “All Eyes Are Upon Us,” an important new book I’ve just reviewed for Bookforum, the historian Jason Sokol shows not just that whites have been two-faced about race but – counterintuitively to those who don’t know them – that both faces have often been quite sincere: They can cheer Tiger Woods or Colin Powell (or, until recently, Bill Cosby) unreservedly and insist that their daily discrimination in their neighborhoods and workplaces is driven only by hard market realities and real, undeniable dangers from blacks broken by richer whites who insulate themselves from the racially inflected consequences of economic policies they design and promote. Another of Sokol’s books, “There Goes My Everything,” showed that in the 1960s, even many die-hard Southern segregationists believed sincerely that the mores and protocols they were losing had done more for racial comity and mutual understanding than had activist lawyers’ impositions. No wonder that their children are trying now to re-segregate Southern politics via opportunistic racial districting and voter-identification laws.

IMO the author of the paragraph above must have a different definition of “sincere” than the one I go by. The online dictionary says “sincere” means “free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings.” And of course the Good Old Boys who persuaded themselves that Slavery Was Good and who are now trying to re-segregate Southern politics, etc., are anything but “free from pretense or deceit.” Rationalization is not “sincere.” Desperately lying to yourself to justify your own bigotry and cruelty is not “sincere.”

This is not to say the Salon author is completely wrong about everything, but I do find lectures about how liberals don’t “get” white men, even though many of them are white men as is, it appears, the lecturer himself, to be weirdly fascinating. What is it they aren’t “getting”? What is it we aren’t getting?

I want to go back to something I wrote a few days ago.

We are not only physically dependent on each other but psychologically dependent as well. There is all kinds of data and real-world experience showing that actual isolation is devastating to a human. Prolonged isolation from other humans literally drives us mad. Indeed, our personalities — the traits we think make us uniquely “me” — are (to the psychologist and sociologists who study these things) entirely about how we relate to other humans. If there are no other humans to relate to, personalities cannot be expressed and arguably don’t even exist.

One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.

So, in a sense, we cannot be “individuals” without society. Our social network defines our individuality and allows our individuality to express itself. We cannot be who we are without other people being who they are.

Another way to put this is that we can’t be who we think we are without everyone else being who we think they are. This is something we “know” intuitively but not consciously. We conceptualize ourselves as stand-alone, autonomous person-units. We assume Who We Are is intrinsic to our bodies somehow, and that we remain Who We Are no matter what else happens.

However — and yes, this is kind of a Buddhist view — if we fully appreciate that we take identity only in regard to our function and position in our larger social networks, and that in fact we cannot be who (we think) we are without other people being who (we think) they are, this tells us that on a subconscious level we may all have a very heavy vested interest in seeing to it that other people remain who we think they are. Too much social change is a genuine (we think) existential threat.

This explain why our attitudes about race are so weirdly inconsistent. It explains why some African-Americans are given the right-wing stamp of approval even by people who turn around and call Michael Brown a “thug” who deserved to be killed. In one way or another, someone like Ben Carson or Herman Cain is able to not pose a threat to the social order, and indeed, may enable white racists to deny their racism.

IMO if we understand social and cultural upheavals this way rather than assume it’s just about untethered hate for people who “look different,” many things make more sense. Whites who cling to a particular identity as whites have a vested interest in maintaining racial hierarchies; whites who have mostly let go of whiteness as defining themselves are less invested in racial hierarchies. Whites who cling to whiteness as an essential part of their self-identity assume that those other whites are “just being PC” or suffer from “white guilt,” but it’s more accurate to say that those other whites’ personal orientation toward racial issues is different because it’s less personal.

This is not necessarily the same thing as being wiser or more racially sensitive; basically, it just means racial privilege is no longer a central, personal concern. And, of course, in the real world it’s not an either/or thing but more of a sliding scale. Even a lot of self-identified liberals haven’t quite let go of the sense that white maleness is the default norm.

It is, apparently, still important to a lot of American whites to think that whiteness doesn’t just give them privileges but genuine superiority. Whiteness is identified with industriousness, morality, dignity, self-sufficiency, and respect for the rule of law, so that a white-identity-clinger sees those traits in himself even if they aren’t actually there. This explains the persistent white belief in the black welfare queen; the belief in lazy, dependent black people is necessary to reinforce an identity as an industrious and self-sufficient white person, especially if one isn’t particularly industrious and self-sufficient, but just white.

This is why poor whites dependent on government programs are so easily duped into voting for Republicans who vow to dismantle such programs.They hear about “takers” and see “lazy black people,” not themselves. This explains why so many whites eagerly anticipate black violent reactions to such events as the George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson verdict, because Those People Act That Way. Of course, when whites form violent mobs they think it’s justified, so it’s okay.

The persistence of aggressive hostility to women among a subset of males no doubt has to do with a confused “masculine mystique” that requires women to be submissive and completely nonthreatening so that a “man” can be a “man.” These males cannot be who they think they are with women going around being who they are and, just as bad, other men being okay with that. Feminism is the destroyer of worlds.

And then there’s fundamentalist Christians, who insist that their “faith” requires them to be allowed to discriminate at will and use public schools to proselytize. Christian triumphalism will not abide being told it is not privileged among all other religions. The believer in Christian triumphalism, like the believer in American exceptionalism, must have the triumph of Christianity acknowledged because his ego is attached to the specialness of Christianity (or the USA), which makes him special, too. If Christianity is just one religion among many, what’s the point? (To his credit, last year Pope Francis criticized Christian triumphalism in a homily.)

Anyway, this is my Grand Theory as to why people are jerks.

15 thoughts on “Why People Are Jerks

  1. Man. I wish I had your mind.

    I took a break from trimming the Christmas tree and read this article, which deserves another reading. There are so many insights. But, duty calls…

  2. About 8 years ago, the company I work for won a contract in Miami. A large portion of the work was in over town which is basically a black area infested with violent crime and drug dealing. Our company policy allowed bs to hire a cop to escort us, which I did several times. One day, my work partner and I went for lunch, asked the cop if he wanted to join us. He brought his lunch and stayed at the job. We returned an hour later, and the area was crawling with cops. Two pimps got into a turf battle, and both hit their marks. They shot each other dead.
    Another time, there was a 30 something woman, obviously messed up big time on something wandering the streets and falling down. I called 911, she was tripping out on something she bought there. Over town is about 10 minutes from downtown Miami ( on foot). It is not uncommon to see people taking a crap against a bridge column, wacked out on drugs or booze, having a psychotic episode, or some other crazy behavior. The common denominator is grinding poverty and desperation.
    Another team went to the same area without a police escort. Both guys are right wingers, carried weapons, and were freaked out the entire time. They were so worried about the environment, they couldn’t focus on the job.

  3. An issue I have not seen addressed is the fact that, deep down, many people are racist because, although they have been brought up in white privilege (though they do not consciously realize it), they know, in some deep recess, that with a level playing field they would come out as losers and failures when competing against “them.”

    Thus, poor whites cling to the racist message of the GOP, hoping for leftover scraps, ignoring the “we’re going to fleece you for all you have” message that is out in the open if one has the capacity to understand the entire public platform of the Party.

    • //Thus, poor whites cling to the racist message of the GOP, hoping for leftover scraps, ignoring the “we’re going to fleece you for all you have” message that is out in the open if one has the capacity to understand the entire public platform of the Party.// Coming from a poor white background myself, I’m not sure they think they’re being promised “leftover scraps” by the GOP. But yes, I do think they’re partly afraid of the “level playing field,” not noticing they’ve been knocked down to the low end already.

  4. Said Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk:
    “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

    • Said Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk:
      “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

      The Buddha: “Yes, exactly. We are all each other.”

  5. To this he added (according to Wikiquotes):
    “But if I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you, and we can talk.”

  6. “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

    That sounds like the next line should be… “and I am the walrus”

  7. Excellent analysis and post, maha!

    And – imo – minority conservatives, like Cain and Carson, and women like Schlafly, are acceptable because they come supporting the Christian white male position, and repeating their meme’s.
    They also agree to various degrees (either in reality, or cynically) about the majorities views of people like them.

    In some senses, they are America’s version of Vidkun Quisling, or France’s Vichy government.
    The difference is that in Norway and France, they were succumbing to superior Nazi forces who had quickly invaded and then occupied their countries.

    Here, they take positions above the rabble of their like members, by being compliant and complicit with the long-held occupying force – European Christian White males.
    They move up, by putting people like themselves, down.

    Plus, if they play the right identity politics, they move up the ladder within the power structure.
    Women and minority politicians and leaders who are conservative, have a quicker fast-track to power and money, because they can be used as examples of how non-prejudiced conservatives are.
    “See! We’re not like people say we are!!!”
    They move to the front of the photo-up, because amongst liberals, they’re common – among conservatives, they hold special stature and privileges, because these relatively rare individual agree with and accept the conservative white Christian males claims of superiority. And then join them in criticizing women and minority members like them.

    Them’s my $0.02 worth.

  8. The sight and sound of Chris Matthews and his “American exceptionalism” mantra is about all that is missing here. Except for a “like” button.

  9. The Buddha: ” We are all each other”. Are we all jerks then? Or are we all Buddhas or Christs? Scary thought.

  10. There’s a scene in ‘Mississippi Burning’ where Gene Hackman plays a federal cop born in the South teamed up with a Northern FBI agent who asks, rhetorically, “Where does it come from, all this hatred.” I link to the scene here – it’s three minutes worth watching.


    I think it’s the same message that Barbara expressed, but Barbara is appealing to my intellect making a convincing logical argument about the defining yourself according to your perceived place relative to others. For some the relation is racial and/or ‘American Exceptionalism’ or for some it’s religious which can be healthy or it can be a religious expression of superiority via gender and/or sexual preference bigotry.

    But Gene Hackman gives an outstanding performance, and in the scene I suggest, his explanation hits you at the gut level, where you are most vulnerable to accepting new ideas.

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