Anyone who has hung out in certain progressive circles, particularly around young LGBTQ people in the process of coming out/figuring out who they are, has heard noble speeches about how we must respect how people self-identify, because questioning those declarations is being judgmental. Questioning those declarations is dismissive. Questioning those declarations trivializes their experiences and existence. Questioning those declarations denigrates their personhood. Questioning those declarations denies their agency, effectively treating them as children or non-persons who need adult supervision and guardianship.
And I agree. If someone refuses to call a transgender person by that person’s preferred pronoun, that someone is a first-order jerk. As one friend once responded to one such idiot who kept harping about a transgender woman of our acquaintance, “You’re right. Gender isn’t a matter of opinion. Her gender is not a matter of your opinion.”
However, there is a difference between matters of identity and matters of behavior. Being a “nice person” is not an identity on the level of gender or sexual orientation. It is a product of how you behave toward others, not who you are.
Therefore I want to state now, for the record, that I am not a nice guy. I try to be nice. I try to listen. I like helping people. I like doing nice things for people. I strive to be kind and understanding. Often I succeed. But I also fail. And I fail more often than I should. I know this. I’m not saying that as some sort of humble brag or a warning. It’s just an observation of a phenomenon that is true of most people. We’re trying.
Being nice seems to come more easily for some than for others. I know that one of the reasons it comes less easily for me is that one of my role models growing up was a very abusive man. When I mentioned in a recent post that I realized in my twenties that I was carrying around a lot of toxic waste from those years of abuse, I wasn’t referring so much to angry and resentment but more to that role model effect. Humans are hardwired to imitate–there are specific structures in the brain for imitating what we observe–and this trait is more active when we’re young. So even though I didn’t like the way Dad treated me (or other people), his way of reacting to things, his behaviors, even many of his figures of speech got encoded in me.
There have been times in my life when I have been shocked to hear essentially Dad’s voice coming out of my mouth. I have literally said to some friends when that happens, “I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from.”
That’s not an excuse. Each time it happened, I spent some time figuring out what triggered that reaction, then thinking about what I would have rather said, and finally practicing in front of a mirror saying the other things. It isn’t about acting or putting up a facade. It’s about being mindful. When you have a bad habit, the best way to get rid of it is to replace it with something else that fulfills the impulse underlying the bad habit.
All of this is to say that if I interact with someone who is behaving in an obnoxious, combative, abrasive, mean-spirited manner, it is not unreasonable for me to point out that they’re acting like an asshole.
Some people will say that using such coarse language is too rude. It depends on the circumstances. Rudenss is defined by the social context. That means once one person begins acting detestably, it becomes acceptable to respond with blunter language. So depending on the circumstances, I might say, “That’s uncalled for,” or “I don’t know why you’re being so angry,” or “Hey, no reason to be a jerk about it,” or “I really can’t deal with asshole behavior today.”
Someone calling out your behavior for what it is isn’t an ad hominem attack, it is a signal that you have stepped over a line.
Insisting that the label of jerk or asshole is somehow worse than the behavior that earned it isn’t a valid argument. Insisting that you’re actually a nice person if we only got to know you isn’t a valid argument. Angrily insisting that someone doesn’t know you well enough to identify you that way isn’t a valid argument.
For example, remember a couple years ago when group of white people crashed a child’s party at a black family’s home, waved guns in the faces of the adults and kids and shouted various racist slurs (all caught on video)? When they were all arrested, tried, and sentenced for crimes such as reckless endangerment and racially-motivated intimidation, they cried. They sobbed and wailed and insisted that they “weren’t racist” and “not the sort of people who would do that!”
Except they had done it. They had done it and then bragged about it afterward. It doesn’t matter how many times they had gone to church, nor donated to charity, nor been nice to puppies. It doesn’t change the fact that they pointed guns in the faces of small black children and screamed the n-word.
So, if you act like a bigot, it’s perfectly acceptable for other people to call you a bigot. Act like a jerk? Accurate to call you a jerk. Behave like an asshole? Perfectly legitimate to call you an asshole.
And I’m saying this as someone who has deserved to be called an asshole more than once. I’ve tried to get better. Getting better meant recognizing that even if at the moment I didn’t think the word was called for, I had pushed the other person into a situation where they felt they had to say it. And if I didn’t want people to react that way to me, I need to change.
If, when I’m reflecting on why someone called me something like that, I decide that it wasn’t called for at all, the change I make might be to spend as little time as possible around that person. But that’s a topic for another day.