The Case for Scumbag

We need another word. We need one that pulls up short of “sociopath” (or its fraternal twin “psychopath”). We need a word that captures the insular disregard so many with power have for those with little or none. We need a word that succinctly describes the lack of moral imagination that leads empathy, but never compassion, to be the only means of grappling with choices that affect hundreds, thousands, and millions of people. For this, I nominate “scumbag” to fill the void in our discursive vernacular.

“Scumbag” has no natural political affiliation. It does not discriminate between artistic preferences or intellectual inclinations. There may be a slight tinge of class to the term, but it is not foundational. “Scumbag” has a visceral quality, like any good epithet, that seems to carry meaning like an onomatopoeia.

There is also something apt about using a turn of phrase for those of means (political, financial, and cultural) so often applied to those without. To refer to a powerful politician, or Hollywood mogul, or titan of industry as a “scumbag” captures something sadly common about the perfidy on display: “Hey, look! They’re just like us!”

Inherent in the meaning of the word is a sense of why it is intolerable: the scumbag in the streets is cause for disgust; the scumbag in the boardroom is cause for despair; but the scumbag in the Oval Office is cause for existential dread. The source of your disgust you can ignore. The fountainhead of your despair you can (perhaps) avoid. However, the cause of your existential dread is inescapable.

At a certain point, you cannot ignore. At a certain point, you cannot avoid. At a certain point, you must confront. That is the benefit of “scumbag”: eventually, it necessitates action much as “sociopath” would, while avoiding the appearance of hysteria. It permits a clearer eyed view of the problem by not conjuring the immediate specter of Hannibal Lecter: one needn’t devour his fellow human beings to be unfit for high office; he can merely be a scumbag and be unfit for high office.

Lastly, “scumbag” lends itself to a more empirical analysis of its object. We don’t need to interpret the internal states of a person’s mind to apply “scumbag” to their actions. “Sociopath” on the other hand requires making judgments about these internal states. This, in turn, leads to much hand wringing regarding the medical community inserting itself into the public debate about a person with whom they have no direct diagnostic experience. “Scumbag” on the other hand lends itself nicely to the “If it walks like duck. . .” method of diagnosis.

So, the next time you find yourself reading/watching/listening to the news, and you witness a powerful figure with seemingly no regard for people and things beyond the scope of his personal relationships and insular ideologies, ask yourself, “Is this guy a scumbag?”

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