Boots and Rallies
I’ve always illustrated my personal taxonomy of jerks with the example of the equestrian statue. The first tier of jerks — i.e. people who are not jerks at all — will simply holler, “Hey, look at that cool statue of a fellow riding a horse!” At this point there’s likely some dude who pipes up with the following factoid: “Did you guys know that if you look at an equestrian statue, you can tell how its rider died by looking at how many of its legs are raised in the air?”
This kind of jerk — the tier-two jerk — often overlaps with how I’d define a nerd. A nerd, especially a history nerd, is an odious sort of imp who does not look to the chronicles of human events in order to discern sublime truths of power, passion and political life. Rather, the history nerd views history as an endless series of interesting facts, details to be collected and presented in social contexts as a substitute for a personality. This nerd probably spent his or her youth doing things like “reading the dictionary” or wearing those glasses that turn dark automatically in the sunlight. On their own, none of these traits inherently breeds an individual who poses hazards to anyone but themselves. It is when they emerge in the world of human interactions that we find the Jerknerd, who peppers conversation with needless trivia in order to hook as much attention toward himself as possible. Tragically, since he is in possession of no original ideas, insights or anecdotes, he is unable to sustain any of this attention except with more trivia (“Hey, do you know what a ‘sesquipedalian’ is?”), leaving his audience feeling hungry and cheated.
There are plenty more subtypes of tier-two jerks beyond the Jerknerd, but I’m choosing to focus on him because it is with him that I have acquired the most experience. The essential characteristic — whether it is a matter of empty pretension in history, fashion, social justice or what-have-you — has to do with making a selfish grab for attention or respect without reciprocating in any way. The third and final tier of jerks, Hero-Jerks, are the jerks society needs but does not necessarily deserve. This is the guy, sensing the moment of his peers’ awe at the Jerknerd’s unveiling of the fascinating facts of horse-hooves encoding types of death, who is quick to shut it down by exclaiming “Actually, that thing about horse-hooves is a myth. And you’d know that, Jerry” — Jerry is our Jerknerd — “if you’d actually read a real book someday instead of getting all your knowledge from popsicle sticks.”
Brimming with smugness and righteous nimbus, the Hero-Jerk has in fact done a service to his friends by stoppering the flow of misinformation and, hopefully, discouraging the Jerknerd from ever again speaking of that which he knows not. Yet there is anyway a lingering feeling that the former has somehow done something mean or cruel.
This framework has structured my quest to become an Interesting Person with multiple dimensions of fear. I don’t want to be or be perceived as any of the types of jerk: the ignorant, the pretentious or the punisher of the pretentious. Frequently, though, the situation leaves one with little choice. All one can do is adapt one’s conduct in order to disguise what kind of jerk one happens to be at the moment.
Even this has its shortcomings. You can pretend to be knowledgeable if you’re afraid of being perceived as some ignorant jerk, but then you run the risk of transforming into a Jerknerd who doesn’t have any fundamental understanding of the topic at hand. You can try to avoid that snafu by being extra-cautious when it comes to asserting your intellectual prowess in social environments, but then you’re just whipping yourself in the form of a Hero-Jerk from the inside out. You will cringe under simultaneous feelings of anger, discomfort and sympathy when you see Jerknerds in action, spitting out dumb junk to a cluster of listeners, knowing that he or she is damaging people with bad thinking. Simultaneously you also worry that you are, have been or will be that person, such that calling them out would not just enact their humiliation but your own hypocrisy.
It is thus the case, in the event that you happen upon an equestrian statue or some other such large-scale curio, that one has any choice about leading an authentic existence or avoiding ethically problematic actions.
Therefore I conclude that we ought to collectively agree to limit our conversation exclusively to sports and the weather, and we may all sleep more easily.