The Caledonian and the Continental.

What if I really am a jerk?

This is a thought that occasionally occurs to me in the stillness of the night, waking me in a cold sweat. Lord knows there are enough people who have thought this of me in the course of a long and not particularly virtuous life. What if they are right?

First a digression on semantics. My original question was What if I am an asshole? But I was uncomfortable with this vocabulary. It seems indecently craven to grovel before one’s fellow human beings in hair-shirt and ashes, and seriously, if I ask myself that particular question and open myself to an answer in the affirmative, I really should stop postponing my inevitable suicide.

So the terms, which for the purposes of this short offering, and in the interests of efficiency, I will define thus:

 asshole: a person of mediocre moral values.

jerk: an asshole with insight (ie (s)he knows it.)

That’s the quick and dirty. If you want to quibble with that, fine, but we’re not debating a proposition by Wittgenstein here. I doubt if there is a person on the planet, in the whole of recorded and recordable history, who has never, ever done anything jerkish. We are all to some extent jerks, some of us more than others. But the interesting thing is, the term asshole does not lend itself to first person use. Someone who seriously believes he is an asshole  and says so is likely to be greeted by a sudden hush in the room, followed by a stampede for the door.

You never know.

We’re not that worried about you being an asshole. After all, most of us would be comfortable with the idea that fifty percent of the people in a given room are certifiable assholes (by our own private definitions). We’d certainly be worried, however,  that the guy doing the sackloth and ashes thing and actually saying he is an asshole might suddenly pull out a machine pistol and prove it.

I think we are OK, though, with the I am a jerk statement. I’ve heard those words uttered on many occasions by some tearful penitent in a group session or an AA meeting, and my own internal echo is the words, I hear you, brother(/sister), you and me both!

Where I’m going with this is something interesting and who knows, possibly valuable that I have discovered in the course of sixty-odd years of inexpertly managed life. We believe that so-and-so is an asshole, because he has offended us or someone we hold dear is some way. We are also, I think implying that there is no hope for so-and-so, because he just doesn’t see it. Just keep out of the bastard’s way. When I hear someone say, “Oh, (s)he’s a complete asshole, I want to hear the subtext of a poorly resolved conflict between the speaker and the purported asshole.

The statement So-and-so is a jerk, however, is milder. Jerkishness is a potentially temporary state, amenable to therapy, counselling, mediation and possibly, psychopharmacology.

Here’s the “new” stuff, which of course, I only think I have discovered, because I never read the book by that guy who really did discover it (Like M. Scott Peck, or R.D. Laing or someone like that. What? Am I supposed to read everything?)

My research makes me suspect that there are two main styles of conflict resolution:

One: The Caledonian style.

Imagine some dour old Scot with a mad gleam in his eye who is quick to take offence and is incapable of self doubt. If you offend this man, his mouth will set into a straight line he will stare right through you, and never speak to you again. Decades will not suffice to warm the contempt and the cold resentment in his heart. This style of conflict handling solves the conflict by never recognising it, and by simply condemning the person who broke some obscure article of an unwritten code which the Caledonian person knows but never explicitly acknowledges. He never says what the rules are, because ignorance of the code is in itself a mortal sin. Further discussion is unnecessary.

In case you think I am being unreasonably harsh on the Caledonian, just accept that I have a perfect right to bad-mouth my own kind.

Second style: The Continental. (Some people call this the in-continental.)

I met this style when I married a Frenchwoman and discovered that French people talk French a lot of the time, and they talk a lot, period.

The Continental style of Conflict Resolution (CR for short) is noisy. Incredibly noisy, I found, involving a deal of undignified screaming and darkly sinister imputations of centuries of genetic malformation that occurred in the British Isles, because of our isolation from the healthy influence of Continental genes. The Continental is forever seeking the cause of problems, be it genes, mother’s milk or just the pernicious effect of bizarre social and cultural rituals, like the Scottish prep school and afternoon tea. The Continental is also convinced that a lack of healthy catharsis following lengthy screaming matches is deeply pathological. The Caledonian, however, is not interested in whatever caused you to become a cunt or a bism. (note: male and female for asshole in the Scottish dialect) Once the fatal assesment is made, he condemns and forgets. He doesn’t give a macfuck for your pathology, although he may darkly suspect an excess of screaming in childhood.

Some examples of the Caledonian mode, including sadly, some from my own life:

My mother had two siblings, both of whom immigrated to Canada just after WW 2, both settling in Winnipeg. They lived there within a mile of each other, not speaking, for the next thirty years. Make that forty years. Nobody really knows why this happened.

Interestingly, on the side of my aunt, one of the daughters has cut herself off from the family, and another has been denied access to her granddaughter, for what seems to me to be puzzling reasons. (If you happen to be one of these said cousins and are reading this and taking offence, please, pick up the phone and call me. No judgement or offence is intended. We are all Caledonians together.) Unfortunately the Caledonian trait is very hardy, and will likely survive the deaths of all the dramatis personae in this sadly typical family story.

To return to the perplexing question I started with, ie

Am I  a jerk?”

A sober review of the record reveals that I have done a disturbing number of jerkish things. Inexplicable things. Oh, I’m not talking about stealing, stock manipulation  and murdering and stuff, which can often lead to book rights and the lecture circuit, and has the possible cachet of dramatic criminality repented. If you steal ten dollars you can get jail for ten years. Steal ten billion dollars and you can look around for an unoccupied Pacific Island, a large yacht with a small helipad in the stern, and a large all-female crew. I’m not being sexist here. Even successful and incredibly wealthy female stock manipulators would be better with the female crew and just a couple of male secretaries.

No, the things I have done which shame me are the petty things, the people I discarded and cut off my Xmas card list for the weirdest and most trivial reasons, and feeling totally justified. One College friend I told to stop emailing me because he sent me one of those internet jokes. Yes, it was a dumb joke, but do I have so many friends I can afford to throw them away like that? I stopped writing back to another because he had taken up with a woman half his age and I thought this was stupid. Another friend stopped writing to me because he was a friend of the internet joke one. Another friend, who co-edited the yearbook with me was banished to barren, wind-swept steppes because he let the photographer of the yearbook put his business stamp on it. Yes, he should have discussed it with me, but given my level of self-righteousness, I’m not sure it would have made any difference.

So, unfortunately, I have to conclude that I may be a jerk, or at least that I have done many things that raise that suspicion. But then, sometimes my courage fails me and I listen to the two halves of my brain come to their own conclusions: My Caledonian hemisphere will say, Don’t be ridiculous, Laddie, and my Continental will say Pas du tout!


There, agreement at last!


On the bright side, Caledonians are interbreeding with Continentals at a rate that is accelerating and likely alarming to the elders of both these branches of European culture.

To the Continental assertion that blood is thicker than water (La famille, c’est la famille) the Caledonian will for a while reply, “Aye, right enough, but oor blood is thicker than yours.

To this the Continental will roll his Continental eye balls and make an eloquent gesture with his hands, saying, “See what I mean? Not enough screaming.”

After a century or two as our mutually suspicious communities struggle towards entente, who knows what the outcome will be?

The mind boggles.

Maybe we will start sitting down and negotiating the un-negotiable. We will stop trying to improve our friends and our family members by giving them deeply offensive diagnoses and prescriptions. We may even start to treasure the things that make us different one from the other and make life interesting and maybe even wonderful. We can but dream.

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