He’s being a jerk to you and you’re trying to figure out why. Maybe he can’t help it, in which case you sympathize and make allowances. Maybe he can help it but won’t, in which case you resent the imposition and stand your ground. And maybe he’s not really a jerk, he shouldn’t behave differently since the problem isn’t him but rather your incompatible cultural values, in which case you should disengage to the extent possible.

I’ve long been interested in this can’t-won’t-shouldn’t trichotomy because of the cognitive dissonance it creates. When you’re having trouble interpreting the source of a relationship problem you’re pulled in three opposing or mutually exclusive directions. Sympathy, resentment and disengagement are incompatible emotional responses. On any given issue, you can’t simultaneously make allowances, stand your ground, and disengage.

This can’t-won’t-shouldn’t trichotomy can arise in any relationship. I’ve experienced it in child-rearing, romantic partnership, friendship and in politics. Right now I’m experiencing it politically in my relationship with the new-right–the Tea Party and Fox news.

Whenever I write about politics here I get letters from outraged readers, some wielding swift justice with sweeping condemnation. This month a reader told me I would have made a good staff person for Stalin.

Others argue that because I’m more critical of the right than the left, I must be biased, to which I reply that if focusing on a particular faction’s failings always demonstrated bias, then any teacher who gave different grades to different students would be biased. Equal performance standards and equal outcomes are different and indeed often incompatible measures of merit. No one knows this better than the traditional right, which advocated strict performance standards regardless of outcome equality.

The linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff argues that holding strict absolute performance standards is the Right’s distinguishing feature and that their fundamental frame of reference is the strict, authoritarian parent. I had dinner with George recently and argued that the right has changed, and that the new Right’s more fundamental frame is simply “I’m absolutely right no matter what.”

Anyway if you happen to be a reader who thinks I’m wrong to write about politics the way I do, then I invite you to assume I’m the one being a jerk and read on. Most of the ideas I discuss here pertain regardless of ideology. And let me clarify the can’t-won’t-shouldn’t trichotomy from your perspective:

People like Jeremy are total jerks. Why don’t they get it? Why can’t the see what’s obvious? Are they mentally deficient? Are they evil? Or are their views are equally valid but just different?

When this trichotomy comes up, it is often accompanied by a simple moral formulas for answering it, for example:

Can’t: Always be generous with people who don’t behave well. Make allowances because they can’t help it.

Won’t: If someone rubs you wrong, it means that they’re taking advantage of you and it’s your moral responsibility to fight back.

Shouldn’t: Conflict never helps. We should all be tolerant. If you find yourself in conflict with someone just agree to disagree. We must always make room for each other.

I don’t trust these moral principles for practical reasons. For one, they distract us from the can’t-won’t-shouldn’t question by implying that there is a simple formula for answering it. For another, jerks can manipulate them. This is easiest to see with the can’t and shouldn’t principles. The more you believe that generosity and tolerance are universal virtues, the more you can be bullied into offering them to people who don’t deserve them.

These people can systematically destabilize you with a can’t-won’t-shouldn’t shell game, lecturing you on how you should treat them, and shaming you for guessing wrong between the can’t, won’t and shouldn’t options, shifting as serves them between arguments that you should show sympathy, admit that they meet your standards, and just give them space to be who they are.

A good strategic thinker knows better than to fall for the can’t-won’t-shouldn’t shell game. He recognizes that he has to place a bet on one of the three interpretations, or else he’ll be forever torn between mutually exclusive options. He recognizes that it will just be a bet, one that could turn out wrong, so he keeps ajar the possibility of reconsidering his bet. And he doesn’t allow the jerk to boss him around about his interpretation.

Yesterday I had two experiences of the new-right. First, over lunch I watched Jon Stewart’s Jan 24th show in which he played clips of outraged Fox news presenters shunning a Democratic congressman for drawing a parallel between Hitler’s and the new-right’s propaganda tactics. The Fox news presenters denied flatly that they would ever play the Hitler card. Stewart followed it with clip after clip of Fox presenters playing the Hitler card.

My bet is placed. With Fox news it’s a case of “won’t.” They know they are lying, and lying about their lies, and they won’t stop because it’s getting them what they want. I’m with those who would draw a line.

I know that the Republicans disagree with me about this. I know that they believe they are on the path of virtue. I’m saying they’re wrong. I’m convinced that Bill O’Reilly is, to quote his own rhetoric, a pinhead.

There’s also a moral principle that we shouldn’t resort to name-calling. I agree that we shouldn’t leap to it, but people come up with all sorts of work-arounds, that imply a name without calling it outright. In one clip, Bill O’Reilly snaps at an interviewee, “I’m not saying Huffington is a Nazi, I’m saying there’s no difference between what the two do.”

And then yesterday evening I had an interaction with a new-right acquaintance who has a disability he’s a bit sensitive about, and by temperament I’d guess he’s not very socially adept or good at debate. From my perspective a surprisingly small thing set him off and it was hard to work through it. He resorted to O’Reilly style argument and I do know he’s an O’Reilly supporter.

My bet in this case is “can’t,” given his temperamental vulnerability he compensates with O’Reilly style self-certainty, which, while present on the left and on the right, is showing up a lot more on the new-right in my opinion these days, though of course you are entitled to disagree.

Historically many revolutions and movements start as reasonable causes. To survive intolerance, they become more absolutist and then attract both vulnerable followers and tyrannical leaders. At that point they become confusing mixtures of can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t, and their leaders can exploit the shell game, shaming opponents for attacking the vulnerable, being culturally intolerant, and for accusing the movement of sub-standard behavior. The most dangerously self-certain movements in history are comprised leaders so arrogant they won’t doubt, leading people so vulnerable they can’t afford to doubt.