Thursday, August 11, 2005

It’s Not a Crime to be a Jerk


It’s not a crime, but — if you’ll permit me to use heavy-handed terminology — it’s immoral.

I like the kind of literary and that judges a story according to its implications. The leading proponents of that approach are the literary critic Wayne and the philosopher Martha . (See her photo.) While they call it “ethical” criticism, I would rather call it “” criticism, since it often describes social situations that involve emotional incompetence more than actual wrong-doing.

The truth is, when we judge another person’s character, our verdict is always a moral opinion. But here morality has to be defined broadly as encompassing emotional conditions too. Even if the person is not violating any specific rule, we may consider her as seriously flawed if her emotional dispositions and sentiments are inappropriate. A “jerk” is socially off-putting just because her feelings simply don’t fit the situation. “Jerkhood” is a status. It’s low emotional , which disqualifies a person in many ways, whether or not she violates specific rules or laws.

There’s nothing illegal about any . And we cannot (and probably should not) control our emotions all the time instead letting them come and go spontaneously. However, our emotions are determined by our thoughts and beliefs. If our feelings seem inappropriate, it’s because our ideas are inappropriate — which will certainly influence the way others regard us and treat us. We may not get invited to certain parties. If we apply for a job, we may not be hired. If we run for office, we may not get elected. (George W. Bush is an exception.)

The wonderful thing about drama is that it poses interesting predicaments that we may never encounter personally. A play demonstrates one or more ways of responding to such a predicament, and in doing so, it us about how we too should respond, if the occasion ever arises. A tale depicts someone making a poor choice, and then we observe the unfavorable consequences and learn what to avoid doing. But if the writer uses bad judgment in the story-telling, she may give us poor advice by, for instance, depicting the protagonist as a genuine jerk — but one who attains great success in the end. Or he may be worse than a jerk; he may be a real criminal for whom pays handsomely. There have been several such movie plots lately. Personally, I long for more movies that show characters addressing difficult issues well, and inspiring me to take on equal challenges myself. I need a motivational boost sometimes.

is always more important than even entertainers like to suppose. Lots of screen writers say, “It’s just fiction. Don’t take it seriously.” But fiction can be immensely powerful — for good or ill. It’s a big factor in our social learning. We need to make better use of it.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Bob Spencer said...

After reading your blogs of the last month, I am greatly impressed with your erudition and very broad scope of knowledge. However, I find that about 95% is pure assertion not backed by any experimental evidence; perhaps your forthcoming book remedies this. I recall two studies--one on breastfeeding and one on movie stars--among many pages. I am somewhat of a cynic/scientist; I like to see solid scientific studies before I become very convinced of anything.
Bob Spencer

3:44 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

I don't think I'd have many readers if I put footnotes on my blogs. Fortunately, if I make a mistake, a reader can correct me with a comment, which is the beauty of the blog system. My book is full of hard evidence and it will be launched in February.

10:06 PM  
Blogger tednichols said...

Looking forward to your book Metta. I do take issue with calling Bush a jerk. I did not vote for him and I do not endorse all of his policies but to call him a jerk does not encourage constructive criticism. Unfortunately the far left has resorted to name calling and hatred to accomplish their goals, what ever they are.

5:33 AM  

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