The Cultural Gutter

taking trash seriously

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

I had a bad day, but you’re a jerk

alex macfadyen
Posted May 29, 2014

car puddle splashWe all know what we thought before we did that thing we really shouldn’t have done. We had a reason. Maybe it wasn’t a good reason, but unless we’re in an existentialist novel it wasn’t completely random and without motivation. Our understanding of why we do things is inextricably linked to what happened around us and how we were provoked. Other people, however, often do appear to be doing things completely randomly and without motivation because we don’t get to see what preceded their actions. It takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves that maybe that person who just drove through a giant mud puddle and left us dripping on the sidewalk was rushing to get somewhere for a reason we could empathize with and didn’t notice we were there until it was too late. When I do something inconsiderate or idiotic it’s because reasons, but when you do it, it’s because you’re a jerk.

It’s called the fundamental attribution error, and it started me thinking about other kinds of perceptual errors people make, like taking things at surface value and mistaking some element of the appearance for the complete reality. For example:

1. It’s a cartoon so it must be for kids

happy tree friends








2. Those aliens are so adorable, they must be friendly

cute alien, scary alien






3. I can turn my back on that little old lady and not worry she’s going to shoot me

mrs salazar 3






We see markers that we associate with a particular set of attributes based on past experience, and we conflate them in a way that allows us to make what seems like a reasonable assumption about the whole. It’s a kind of shorthand that helps us navigate the world without engaging with the myriad possibilities that exist in any given moment. If we actually considered all the options every time, we’d suffer from decision paralysis at even the simplest of turning points. It’d be like the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which shows people their actual place in the universe as a microscopic dot bearing the legend “you are here”. The only way to survive the experience is to be encased in a virtual reality where you are the center of the universe so you don’t become catatonic in the face of an accurate perspective on your own significance in the vastness of existence.

Sometimes the shorthand gets too short, and that’s when we start to get into trouble. Our assumptions go from being high probability of success predictions of what can reasonably be expected, to misguided and profoundly inadequate descriptions of reality. If you don’t consider the possibility that the cute little kitty is going to scratch your face off if you try to pet it, you’re falling prey to a perceptual error, in this case that cuteness = sugar and spice and all things nice, not something that is both cute, and also likely to kick your ass or eat you for breakfast.

Interestingly, even though it’s an error everyone makes to one extent or another, it’s also an error people dislike enough that seeing someone proven wrong or punished for making it is one of the most popular and satisfying archetypes. There are almost infinite variations on the story of someone or something exceptional that initially appears to be entirely ordinary, or is actively despised. It’s the ugly duckling, the diamond in the rough, the princess no one recognizes as royalty. It’s the possibility that we all might be secretly, staggeringly brilliant. It’s also the story of succeeding in the face of oppression –  some shining, exceptional quality “hidden” in the body of someone that the dominant stereotypes in a society cast as unlikely. There’s no reason why any particular kind of person might not be exceptional, but there are plenty of reasons why not everyone who is gets noticed or succeeds in doing something exceptional in the world.

Up to a certain social tipping point it’s satisfying to see stereotypes turned on their heads, but beyond that, what used to challenge assumptions starts to reinforce them. For instance, I think Legally Blonde is a lot of fun. It feels good to watch Elle Woods just wake up one day and decide she’s going to go to Harvard Law School, and then watch her learn to workginger and fred like hell and realize she actually wants to be a lawyer, all the while remaining relentlessly, hard-core pink. I’ve enjoyed watching sexist guys get left in the dirt when it turns out that a girl can kick their ass up and down the block in heels and a ruffly skirt, but why does she always have to do it in heels? I mean she totally can if she wants to, and the fridge magnet about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire still makes a good point, but there are other lessons to be learned here as well.

Honestly, I just find it depressing to keep watching the scene where the guys are all surprised that the expert is a woman. Why are we still telling this story? Instead of creating new, improved associations for everyone to base their assumptions on and letting those guys know they’re flat out expected to stop making that mistake, we just keep telling ourselves the same old story again and again. It’s like some kind of feedback loop.

I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from telling stories about reading each other wrong, any more than we’re ever going to be able to stop making erroneous assumptions about one another. We know better than to judge things based on appearances, but we often don’t take the time or make the effort to look past the surface. There’s a reason that the original fairy tales were full of deceptively beautiful things that were evil, and ugly creatures that could make your dreams come true. Some of the most popular stories now are about good vampires and shallow, bitchy beauty queens. Until we’re able to truly shake the belief that being physically beautiful is better, we’ll keep finding it interesting to hear about times when that wasn’t true.

I think that at the same time as we all hate being wrong, on some level we also want to be mistaken in this. We want the surprise of finding something unexpectedly wonderful, and the feeling of being exceptional by association because we’re the only ones who can see how wonderful it really is.



alex MacFadyen tries to remind himself that always having reasons why you acted like a jerk is a way of avoiding taking responsibility for acting like a jerk, which pretty much makes you a jerk all over again.


One Response to “I had a bad day, but you’re a jerk”

  1. Valerie Polichar
    May 30th, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    Really love this essay. Thanks so much for writing and posting it. Pertinent comments and a lot to think about.

Leave a Reply

  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    At Bleeding Cool, Cap Blackard writes about the contested homeworld of Howard the Duck. “If you’ve seen the much maligned Howard the Duck film or read any Howard the Duck stories published since 1979, you’re probably familiar with the concept of Duckworld. You know, an alternate Earth where everyone is ducks and everything is duck-themed: Ducktor Strange, Bloomingducks, etc, etc. Sounds like a recipe for a finite barrel of bad jokes, right? It is, and it’s also not Howard’s real point of origin. During his landmark initial run, Howard’s creator Steve Gerber had the down-and-out duck hailing from a world of talking animals, but all that changed when Gerber was kicked off the book and Disney flashed a lawsuit. Now, after decades of backstory fumbling, Mark Waid has reinstated Howard’s point of origin in a one-shot issue of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (Thanks, Mark!)


    At The Village Voice, Jackson Connor writes about the making of The Warriors. Amid the refurbished boardwalk and laughter of children, it’s easy to forget that Coney Island was once a place where tourists did not venture. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, street gangs dominated this neighborhood. They ran rampant through the area’s neglected housing projects, tearing along Surf and Neptune avenues toward West 8th Street. Those gangs, or gangs like them, and that incarnation of Coney Island would form the backbone of author Sol Yurick’s 1965 debut novel, The Warriors, about the young members of a street gang. More than a decade after the novel’s publication it would be optioned and, eventually, turned into a major motion picture of the same name.” (via @pulpcurry)


    Edith Garrud taught Suffragettes jiu-jitsu and formed Emmeline Pankhurst’s Bodyguard. “The first connection between the suffragettes and jiu-jitsu was made at a WSPU meeting. Garrud and her husband William, who ran a martial arts school in London’s Golden Square together, had been booked to attend. But William was ill, so she went alone. ‘Edith normally did the demonstrating, while William did the speaking,’ says Tony Wolf, writer of Suffrajitsu, a trilogy of graphic novels about this aspect of the suffragette movement. ‘But the story goes that the WSPU’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, encouraged Edith to do the talking for once, which she did.'”


    At Playboy, Jake Rossen writes about the story behind the filming and the restoration of Manos: The Hands of Fate. “For a long time no one wanted to see it unless it was accompanied by MST3K’s taunts. Then, in 2011, a collector of film prints uncovered the original negative of Manos and embarked on an inexplicable project to restore the film with all the white-glove attention archivists give to Hollywood classics. His efforts would incur the wrath of a mysterious man with a fake New Zealand accent named Rupert, as well as Joe Warren, Hal Warren’s embittered son, who intends to preserve the Manos legacy at all costs.” (Thanks, Ed!)


    At Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill!, Todd reviews the two part Ghanian director Ninja’s film, 2016. “2016 is a movie that I am obligated to review by virtue of my having long ago joined the internet chorus of people trumpeting on about its insane trailer—and this despite the fact that all of you with any interest in seeing it have most likely tracked it down already. In that case, you already know that it is essentially a no-budget remake of Independence Day set in the suburbs of Ghana. And if that sounds like a massive over-reach to you, you obviously know very little about Ghanaian action cinema, and even less about the films of maverick multi-hyphenate Ninja.”

    Read about part one, here, and part two, here.


    Look, it’s the trailer for “The Abominable Snowman” a new episode of classic Thunderbirds. Huffington Post UK has more: “It’s exactly half a century since we heard the ominous tones of voice actor Peter Dyneley bringing us the Thunderbirds intro ‘5 -4 – 3 – 2 -1 Thunderbirds are go’, and to celebrate, the team are producing three brand new original episodes, based on audio-only recordings made in 1966, which means fans will get to enjoy the original voices, with some 21st century gadgetry thrown in on screen.” (Thanks, Todd!)


  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.


  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: