A Theory of Jerks

Linas Vepstas
2 min readJan 12, 2022


An acquaintance wrote:

don’t be an asshole
I am thinking through a “don’t be an asshole” theory of public behavior. It seems to me that problems of social interaction don’t arise from opinions (or guns or drugs or …) but from people having some idea of entitlement to expressing the asshole in their nature.

Maybe. I’m pretty sure that in 90% of the time, people who are behaving like assholes are not aware of it. And even if you draw it to their attention, they won’t grasp what it is that was ass-o-holic about what they said/did. (Common excuse: “I was just telling it like it is.” … and sometimes, they really are.)

Communications is subtle. There’s a big gap between the vague, general idea of what the speaker hoped to express, and the words that actually came out. Then there’s another huge gap between what the listener heard, and the “surface” or “most-likely” or “common-sense” interpretation of the words. And then a third gap: what feelings did the listener develop, upon processing what they thought they heard?

Many assholes have a strong idea of what the world should be like, but a poor conception of the listener. (And so they ride roughshod over the listeners emotions.)

Other kinds of (completely different) assholes have tremendous empathy for the listeners, and can provoke exactly the kinds of emotions they want in the listener. They play the listener’s heart-strings like a harp. But they ride rough-shod over common-sense and rationality.

Trump was this second kind. He’d blather on incoherently, spouting non-sense and non-sequiters, and his audiences loved it, because it was not about whether it “made sense”, but about how it made them feel (It made them feel good).

Most of us, as listeners, are on the spectrum. We want things to mostly make sense, and mostly make us feel good. The assholes lie at the two ends of the spectrum. Type (a) insist on perfect “rationality” above all else and screw you if you don’t agree. Type (b) need total and complete emotional harmony, and you are a horrible person that I will never talk to again if you continue to hurt my feelings.

A lot of software programmers, and the high-IQ conservatives are type (a) and a lot of lefties, esp. the save-the-whales kind are type (b).

A lot of right-wing extremists have managed to combine (a) and (b) into one uncompromising package.