“Judging people” has a very unfashionable connotation these days. Nevertheless, it’s not only something everyone does, but an important part of life, a tool with which we sculpt our own personalities to best reflect our ideal persona. Being “judgmental” is considered ugly and rude, but we’re constantly asked to judge whether someone else’s behavior were appropriate or not, and if we’re expected to do that, then how can judgment be ugly? Well, it’s ugly whenever we unfairly conclude something, of course. That’s precisely when judging the behavior of others makes us an asshole. It therefore becomes a man to consistently check his judgment of others for inconsistencies such as hypocrisy, unfairness, or just plain ol’ meanness.
I try to catch myself when I think something uncool about another person — preferably before I say it — and this self-censorship is part of how I try to be cool to people. However, I also feel that I owe society a little vigilance in holding my friends and neighbors accountable when I calculate their behavior to be assholey or dickish, and in mentioning similar judgments to other people when appropriate — you know, in order to spread the word: “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice that what you just did makes you look like a huge asshole. You should knock that shit off.” Being nice to everyone all the time seems injudicious, seems to perpetuate unwanted, uncool behavior in society [see “A Hurried History of Pagans and Pulpits,” if’n you’re inclined].
The difficult part is knowing which behaviors to encourage and which to discourage, or, colloquially speaking, what makes a guy become a dick. This week’s “In a Real World…” attempts to provide a lenient and justifiable guide to judging other people (but is really only a 10-dollar-word version of a shit list). I apologize for electing myself to the position of Grand Inquisitor, bytheway, but we agnostics and atheists need a little guidance, too. Besides, I didn’t come up with this stuff; it’s not my idea; it’s merely my best synthesis of things society seems to think at-large.
I. Behaviors, Knowledge, and What People Have Commonly Known
The most important thing to understand — and this is crucial — is that nobody is or is not a dick. People merely do, or refrain from doing, dickish things. In order to know which activities are cool and which are uncool, we must know to what extent we may hold people accountable, for people live their lives according to what they know (or think they know) and it’s not reasonable to hold everyone accountable for not knowing everything. It becomes our job, then, to make a reasonable list of things people can be expected to know and understand. I won’t do this arbitrarily. Let’s look at what people have commonly known through history, and we’ll call it common knowledge.
Makes sense to me to start from the late nineteenth century. That’s when public schools started in the United States and institutionalized knowledge, making it “common,” so-called. Before public schools, most people knew some folk medicine, some folk music, some recent history, how to mostly practice their religion, and the appropriate ways to perform their mostly menial jobs. That’s most people, mind. News came word-of-mouth, superstitions were widely believed and practiced, and one’s reputation in the community meant more then than one’s criminal record or credit score does today. Note that rudimentary logic, reason, and rationality are not here featured, yet people somehow managed to treat their favorite same-skinned neighbors civilly. If pretty much everyone can be expected to know how to be nice, therefore, then the question becomes: to how many people?
It makes sense to me that we can expect a completely uneducated person in America to operate on a level consistent with the above knowledges. When I’m in a particularly rural area with little technological industry (the same industries which necessitated American public schooling to begin with, you see) I do not call a man a dick for failing to understand that we civilized folk don’t use one word or another anymore, or that his neighbor is probably not going to a hell when he dies, or that going slow in the fast lane hinders my progress and wastes my precious city-boy time. He doesn’t know the things I know, therefore I consider him cool by what I can only approximate to be a standard typical of his culture.
That’s very important, too: understanding that our culture (and its subcultures) is not the arbiter of cool will keep us from being a dick from alien perspectives. Ethnocentric people don’t usually give a fuck about outside perspectives. That’s why they end up getting caned in Shanghai and cussed at in Paris. Of course, it’s also why Westerners are occasionally beheaded in the Middle East: from our perspective, religious fanatics are total dicks.
II. The Least a Person Can Be Expected to Know
Literacy, history, the arts, science, math, and other high school subjects were not commonly understood until roughly the nineteen-forties, and even then we must confine this newfound understanding to centers of urban civilization. Today in Southern California, however, all of these subjects are taught in public schools, and we can expect even the worst student to grok the most-basic gist of them: science says, causes have effects; math says, everything affects everything else; history says, people really like to hurt each other. Understanding any one of these can teach someone to stop being such an asshole.
Is even this basic knowledge needed to escape being a dick, though? That wouldn’t follow; it’s very easy to imagine a friendly ignoramus, after all. They abound in literature as gentle giants and wizened, elderly farmers. The knowledge base requisite to avoid being a dick must be smaller than this, and I suggest the following standards:
A. Colloquial etiquette and civility
B. Simple Logic (“if this, then that”)
A working knowledge of etiquette and niceties typical of one’s region seems a good place to start, but we’re going to need civility, too, which I’ll define as a simple deference toward one’s fellow man. Without a little etiquette and civility, one is certain to act like a dick sooner or later (and probably sooner).
To exemplify a lack of etiquette, if someone rockets the snot out his nostril with a firm blow while in line at Starbucks, he or she is going to disgust everyone, and that’s going to hurt his or her reputation, especially if snot spatters the the top of some little kid’s head. As for civility, double-parking makes a good for-instance: there’s nothing more dickish than for some cocknose to take up two parking stalls in a traffic-choked part of town because he’s just too busy to take ten seconds repositioning his car so that someone else can use the other space.
It can be argued that etiquette is ancillary to civility and need not be mentioned. Upon broad examination, though, one finds that these cousins are too independently important to be combined. Following etiquette usually keeps one from acting uncivilly, even when one’s inborn civility tends to be found wanting. For example, my dad drops the occasional racist joke — but that doesn’t mean he double-parks in Little Saigon. He’d never be able to live with himself.
The knowledge which ultimately decides how big a dick someone will be from day-to-day, though, is ultimately that of simple logic. A man without logical aptitude is incapable of seeing that, if he shits on his next-door neighbor’s welcome mat, he’s likely to smell it through his own open window. A person lacking basic “if this, then that” understanding may become enraged and violent at the ravings of a transient hobo, or pick a fight with someone over an ex-lover (emphasis on the prefix: ex), or fail to see that volume and repetition rarely aid one’s argument in a debate. On the other hand, the possession of active logic can and most-often will lead to polite, friendly, and decidedly less-dickish decision making. Logic probably won’t teach you to open doors for ladies (an arguably outdated custom, anyhow) but it may lead you to smile more, use tissues when blowing your nose, and refrain from double-parking, lest you want your paintjob keyed.
That’s all I think a person needs to know in order to keep from being a dick: civility with a dash of etiquette, and simple logic. Nothing more.
Now, I’m not the sort to state a bunch of principles only to finish without having left a handy tip or two, so what follows is intended to aid the reader in his or her quest for coolness. You’re welcome!
III. What You Have No Business Expecting People to Know
Some may find themselves getting carried away in their estimations of others. This condition is rampant among certain groups of people (especially the youth, as well as many of my dearest friends) and is an understandable side-effect of the assessments all humans must naturally make of their conditions, including the actions of fellow humans in close proximity. Many branches of knowledge are unnecessary to keep from being a dick, though, yet are consistently roped-in with the exceedingly small number of things one could rationally expect to be “common knowledge.” A few examples follow.
A. Fine Art, Appreciation or Execution of
Amidst the constant din of advertisement and pop-culture, it’s unrealistic to imagine anyone could form a cogent idea of what constitutes real quality in the arts, be they musical, visual, literary, or otherwise. If you call someone a dick for enjoying the homely, modest pleasures of Taylor Swift’s melodic country tunes because, fuck, you’re surprised anyone could find pleasure in such utter simplicity, I’ve got news for you: that innocent music fan is not the asshole in this example.
Don’t like her shoes? Well, where were you to help her out when she blew sixty bucks on them? You dick.
C. Much of What Is Taught In High School
As far as I can tell, most people spend much of high school trying to escape the slings and barbs of all the immature assholes on campus. That, combined with a few years of disuse and intellectual decay is more than enough to obliterate many of the details gleaned from an American high-school education. If someone forgets who fought the War of Eighteen-Twelve, it’s OK to inform them, but don’t call them an asshole. You might just become one someday, some day very soon, in fact.
D. Philosophy, Government, Religious Studies
Almost everyone has a favorite one of these. Each is much, much, much more closely related to the others than may appear at the outset — even across the branches — and their worshipers have a habit of accidentally becoming assholes in their righteous quest to vanquish those whom they view to be assholes. Regardless the potential veracity of your particular passion, it’s just a few interesting ideas. Don’t be a dick.
E. Any Knowledge One Could Pay Someone Else to Use
So, what if your friend can’t change the oil in his car? Can you sew a fucking blanket? Can you catch a stupid rabbit? Good luck surviving your first natural disaster. Asshole.
IV. How to Pinpoint, Within Reason, a Dick
The only definitive way to note dickish behavior is by observing selfish, uncool activity. However, certain traits which often accompany a terrific want of reasoning faculty are visible even from across the street, and it behooves the reader to acquaint himself or herself with them in order to decrease the likelihood of abetting, encouraging, or becoming the victim of, an asshole. If for you this sounds too much like judging a book by its cover, as the cliche goes, please imagine any important piece of literature, The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, with the cover of a typical dimestore romance novel, and explain to me why it doesn’t have one — the publisher would almost certainly sell more copies with all that cleavage and flowing hair, after all.
A. The Eyes
You’ve probably noticed a certain dullness in the eyes of your slower-witted neighbors. While a lack of education alone does not make a person a dick (see above) it does increase the likelihood. Slowness or laziness in the eyes may denote a lack of purposeful seeing and searching, a sort of disinterested passivity about life and the surrounding world. If passive thinkers act like dicks, it’s probably not because they mean to be, it’s just that it hasn’t occurred to them to give a fuck about you. Besides, who the hell are you, anyway? You think you know me? You don’t even know me!
B. Gaping Mouth, Poor Posture, Other Signs of Habitual Relaxation
It takes energy to be cool. One may argue that in the long run it takes less energy than is needed to be a real dick, but on the battlefield of life, some people just can’t be bothered with courtesy. This is the guy who’ll casually drop his litter on your front lawn, keep your misdelivered mail, block your car in the driveway, blab sensitive information, or “forget” to return borrowed items. We all do stupid, inconsiderate shit like this sometimes — but some people do stupid, inconsiderate shit like this as a matter of course. Avoid like the plague, son.
C. Failure to Produce Supporting Information On Proposed Points of View
The most remarkable aspect of the true dick is an uncanny suspension of disbelief. A real cocksucker can hold any point of view he likes without feeling any compunction to find reason in it whatsoever. These winners say things like, “It just is,” and, “See? I’m right, huh. Ask this guy. Aren’t I right? See!” Ask them why they think their team is gonna go all the way this year, though, and you’ll hear more cutting-edge statistics than the WTO has compiled over the last decade. Even this is not enough to convict them of being assholes, though. You have to wait until they say something really offensive. It usually takes ten minutes, half a beer, or one unit of patience less than you have — whichever system of measurement works for you. Play it safe I say, and politely withdraw at the first sign of unsubstantiated bullshit, or you might get some on you.
* * *
I do hope that this little tutorial has elucidated some of the complexities involved in not being a dick. It’s one of the most important skills to hone as a human being, and a difficult one for many people, impossible given certain situations. Perhaps humility comes with increasing effort as one achieves more throughout one’s life, but somehow I don’t think so. With a little consideration, anyone can act as nice as he or she would like to act.
I like the word consideration: it has the denotation of purposeful thought and the connotation of politeness, a perfect marriage between logic and civility. Even if we’re pretty cool to one another, we can always do a little bit better, and personally, I like doing better than usual. People like that, and people smile when they like things, and as far as I’m concerned, anything like a smile to pretty-up this overdeveloped parking lot is a good idea. So be cool! Be considerate. But above all, don’t be a dick.
We friendly bastards are ever-vigilant.
Earnestly and Bemusedly Yours,