Did you read about the girl, a year or two after the Columbine tragedy, who overheard a boy at lunch talking about his plans to shoot certain teachers and students? She reported what she had heard to the principal. After an investigation, the principal suspended the boy who had made the terrorist threats.
The boy then hired a lawyer who sued the girl for defamation of character. The case was subsequently thrown out, but not before her family had to spend thousands defending themselves against a stupid and frivolous lawsuit. We read such things and perhaps our first reaction is to mutter darkly, “typical lawyer” or to tell the joke, “What are three thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”
It has been said that stress is the confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who richly deserves it. Unfortunately, the all more likely consequence of facing jerks is for us to take the experience and make some wrongheaded and overly generalized conclusions out of it.
If a person of an ethnicity, profession, political party, or religion we have learned to despise does something jerklike we gleefully notice and record it as one more example, and additional, incontrovertible proof, of how bad that ethnicity, profession, party, or religion is. But what if a person who does not belong to the group we hate does the same sort of jerklike thing? What if the person who did it is part of our group? We hardly notice it, then. It makes no lasting impression. That person was just a jerk, we comment. We won’t generalize it to cover all members of the species. We have explanations.
And what if a member of the hated group does something remarkably unjerklike? What if, in fact, they do something that’s actually noble? We don’t notice; it hardly registers. We shrug. We explain it away. We ignore it.
The only thing that we’ll notice is evidence that confirms our hatred. We will see what fits our mindset and miss what doesn’t. Every wrong done by the group we despise will enter our brains and take up permanent residence. (This is the same sort of thinking that leads to superstition. You tell me you know someone who broke a chain letter and they keeled over the next day Interesting, perhaps, but that someone died after breaking a chain letter does not prove any cause and effect relationship. It’s like the old joke about the guy wearing garlic to keep the vampires away. “How silly”, we say, but he points out that he hasn’t been bothered by vampires in years.)
If asked to justify our dislike of the group we despise, we’ll easily and cheerfully list all their sins, never considering the obvious fact that given human nature, we could find bad things perpetrated by any group’s collection of jerks that we’d care to name. Even ours. Likewise, we’ll choose not to consider all the good things we could list about a group we dislike.
This is simple human nature. We tend to only notice information that meshes with what we already believe to be so. We are quick to believe bad things about our opponents, and slow to believe it about those we love. We are skeptical of those we hate, credulous of those with whom we agree. We can call this the bigoted mindset.
So let’s consider a concrete example. How often does it happen that a religious person does something reprehensible and suddenly all the members of that religion are evil and perhaps religion itself is evil and responsible for all the suffering that Earth has ever endured? Doubtless we have heard coworkers, columnists, and letter writers espousing such opinions for years.
Instead, shouldn’t we simply label as “jerk” an individual who is one? Wouldn’t a jerk be someone who uses his religion to justify his despicable behavior? Why imagine that his religion was somehow guilty by association? I mean, how much bigger proof do we need of someone’s status as “jerk” than the simple fact that he tried to justify his actions by claiming he was only doing what God told him to do?
Worse, if we condemn a religion, then we’re taking the testimony of an obvious jerk that he is a legitimate spokesperson for that religion. Doesn’t this strike anyone else as screwy? I’m going to take the word of, say, a murderer that he can really give me profound insight into deep theological truth? Do I have “stupid” written on my forehead?
Do we really believe the assassin of Yitzak Rabin when he claims his murder of the Prime Minister of Israel was justified by the Torah? Do we actually agree with the suicide bomber who argues the Koran teaches that the killing of innocents serves God? Were the Crusades of the Middle Ages truly consistent with the teachings of Christ?
I don’t think so.
So let’s acknowledge that the world has jerks in it and that part of the definition of “jerk” is anyone who justifies his evil by daring to claim “God told me to do it; look, it’s right here in the book.”
Individuals can be jerks. And no group has a monopoly on jerks, nor is there any group that is a jerk-free zone.