Not the Same as a Rapist

Posted on 2018 March 18


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I have been sexually harassed, I have been sexually abused, and I have been date-raped. And, don’t tell me they are all the same, because they are not. They are not the same. . . . And, I don’t want to throw everybody on the same manure pile. Being a jerk is not the same as being a rapist. It just isn’t. — Kathy Lee Gifford

Most people, if they step on your toe and you say, “Ouch, hey!” they’ll quickly apologize: “Oh, sorry!” Most people don’t mean any harm. It’s an accident, and we forgive them.

A jerk will say, “Get your foot out of the way.”

Basically, there are three types of jerks: defensives, narcissists, and sociopaths. And, now and then, the rest of us. Okay, that’s four types. Let’s look at each and decide how to punish them.

First, we normal people. (I’m using the term loosely, especially with regard to myself.) On occasion we do or say something jerky, but usually it’s because we’re focused on a stress in our lives, and we end up being rude without meaning to. If we only do it once in a while, others will cut us some slack — mainly because they need the same from us, from time to time. No punishment needed.

Second, defensives — people who feel threatened in social situations, who think they’ll be rejected or left out if they don’t somehow take control of a conversation. A defensive just has to get in the last word in an argument, or just has to top somebody’s joke, or someone says something off-color and the defensive person goes up like a firework. Defensives get punished naturally because people learn to avoid them. Loneliness hurts, so eventually they wise up. Sometimes. But don’t count on it.

Third, narcissists — they present themselves as wonderful and worthy of worship. They have no interest in you at all, except that you should admire them. If there’s a conflict, they brush aside others’ concerns — after all, it’s them that matters. They’re royal and the rest of us are peons. These people act like jerks all the time. They’re hard to punish, because anything you do against them they’ll take as an offense against nature — in their case, their natural right to do whatever they please, no matter how offensive or humiliating to others, simply because they’re special. Punishment may cause them to back off somewhat, but instead of regret and contrition, they’ll feel wronged. They live for the thrill of superiority, so they regress quickly to their bad habits. Transfer them, and soon enough they’ll bring disruption to their new office. Fire them, and at least they’ll be gone from your world, but now someone else will have to deal with them.

Finally, sociopaths — four percent of the population, by one estimate — who find others uninteresting except as prey. They like to cause harm, either by hurting feelings or stealing or dominating. This includes forced humiliation, rape, and murder. Since they have no experience of compassion for others, they believe it doesn’t exist, so they assume everyone else is faking empathy. They follow suit, and, undaunted by any sense of guilt, become good at swindling innocents out of their happiness. Sociopaths can be punished, but the lesson they learn is to avoid their tactical errors in the future and instead plan new approaches and ruses. They’ll never learn contrition because they can’t. Jail keeps them away from society only until they wangle parole.

We can see, then, that various types of jerks require various pushbacks. Most of the time, punishing them is either unnecessary or pointless. Avoidance is the strongest defense. We can, if we have to, actively shove the worst jerks out of our lives. But they’ll simply look for other victims.

Along comes the #MeToo movement, and at first it takes down some celebrities who might arguably be tagged as sociopaths, especially the out-and-out rapists. Hyper-jerks such as these have lately lost careers, and some may face prison. So far, so good.

It’s high time women aired their grievances, and it’s at least arguable that standards of casual social conduct be tightened so women no longer must suffer humiliation without recourse. But then people start getting fired for lesser offenses, like butt-pinching or inappropriate comments. These are garden-variety jerks — mostly defensives and a few narcissists — but they’re being held to the same standard as rapists. 

Rape should be prosecuted. Continual, serial jerkiness requires a response as well, but occasional rudeness should be overlooked. The most useful pushback is a good scolding. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as jerks and will stop bad behaviors as soon as we realize what we’re doing wrong. 

But wholesale destruction of everyday jerks smacks of overkill. It will end up punishing the rest of us, as we clamp down on our own speech, hesitating to speak our minds freely at work and at home. An overly cautious society is neither very productive nor very happy.

In our zeal to punish, we overlook one important fact: all of us, now and then, are defensive, or narcissistic, or even sociopathic. (Witness our rude contempt for people we consider “outsiders”.) The self-ordained public prosecutors of jerks may someday find that they, too, are standing before a judge, as the ongoing fishing expedition in search of punitive justice, having run out of legitimate catch, begins casting for minnows.

Thus we’re wise to think twice before we lash out at most cases of jerky behavior. Those folks might not be trying to step on our toes; they may simply not be paying attention to where they’re going.

Can we at least look at each individual case and see it for what it is and be merciful to people that are sorry for what they’ve done. If we stop having mercy as a part of our vocabulary, our world will completely die. — Kathy Lee Gifford

The evil people will always be there. — Danny Vinokur