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Courting ContemptCourting Contempt

Courting Contempt

The spreading toxin of treating political differences with dehumanizing contempt, Convivium contributor Ruth Dick warns, sounds a tocsin for the future of democratic life.

Ruth Dick
10 minute read

Contempt has polluted our political discourse at every level.

The candidates of the last U.S. presidential election may be rival political archetypes, but they have contempt in common. Donald Trump works it like Bernini did marble. Hilary Clinton flourished hers with the memorable phrase “basket of deplorables.” Commentators on all sides spew it round the clock. Recently a friend of mine, a thoughtful, profoundly decent human being, remarked, “Trump is beneath contempt. I reserve my contempt for 63 million American voters.” He was venting anger, but there are plenty who’d be prepared to defend that statement. We don’t just disagree. We hold each other in mutual, loud, and proud contempt.

I’m not about to suggest we should or could rid ourselves of contempt. It serves humour. Its expression can be a safety valve, a means of blowing off outrage, even horror, verbally, rather than setting a car on fire. Contempt does some service at the far end of the moral disapprobation gauge and, given our nature, it’s anyway-inevitable.  

But we need to take a hard look at what it’s doing, and isn’t, in our increasingly divided political life.  

Contempt is an entitlement of the private sphere. However, in a politician on the job or, frankly, in a negotiation of any sort, it’s an indulgence. A complacency. Human beings generally are not going to be inclined to be persuaded by anyone who treats them with contempt, no matter what goodies they’re offering, or how urgent the need to pull together for a greater purpose.
This is what Nelson Mandela realized, Malala Yousafzai knows. Martin Luther King knew. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when asked how she unseated an established Democrat, said, “I listened.” Listening is an act of respect, one human to another. 

My father was a clinical psychologist who for years did work in prisons. When I asked him if he was ever scared of the really violent offenders he worked with, he told me he wasn’t, especially, for three reasons: He was always straight with them about why he was there, which was often to make recommendations about how much time they would serve, or under what circumstances. He treated them “like human beings, with respect.” After that, he figured he was well enough liked on the inside that he was protected. But, in his view, by far the most essential thing was that basic respect. 

A recent Guardian article quoted a former director of the U.K.’s Hostage and Crisis Negotiation program as follows: “When people say: ‘How did you talk them into doing that?’ we would say: ‘We didn’t. We listened them into it.’”

The truth of all this was born out in my own work as a litigator. It is a powerful thing to treat someone—to whose interests you are an adversary—with simple respect, to genuinely listen to them. It was astonishing how often settlement could be reached once people, often angry or distressed, had been given the simple courtesy of being heard. I’ve had the remarkable experience of being thanked, and hugged, by those I advocated against in court, even when a decision went against them. Such is the power of simple respect.

One of the main reasons respect, especially listening, has power is that it creates, or creates the possibility of, trust. In a situation where there’s a gulf between people, trust is often non-existent or extremely fragile.  

Trust is a funny thing – it operates between us on many levels, in ways that have nothing to do with the alignment or divergence of the views, values, events, or vested interests at play in a particular conflict. When you are able to create some level of trust, especially in an adversarial situation, people often become more open-minded and flexible, willing to take greater risks in what they’ll consider to be viable options.   

Contempt, on the other hand, has the same effect on trust as battery acid on spun sugar. 

And nobody wants to interact with, much less put themselves in a position of being beholden, or even thankful, to those who hold them in contempt. Contempt isn’t just disapprobation; it’s disapprobation with raisins in it. The interpersonal reality of contempt is that by using it, we have assumed a position of moral judgement so far up the dial that we not only register disapproval of an act or belief, we in effect dismiss the whole person as someone unworthy of consideration. 

Why put your trust in someone who’s demonstrated they think of you as less than fully human?

This, too, I know to be true:  If you are contemptuous toward someone, any offer you’re making will carry a great deal less weight, no matter how good for them it may be. You’ve given them reason not to trust it, and you’ve given them reason not to want it.  

There are many here among us, especially these days, who say they can’t, or won’t, set aside their contempt. That’s fine. Just don’t ever go into a line of work where you’re trying to persuade others who don't agree with you to accept real world trade-offs that materially affect them. 

This is why, to take a tiresomely worked-over example whose lesson still doesn’t seem to have taken, Hilary Clinton’s offer of better policies didn’t override the perceived contempt in her use of the phrase “basket of deplorables.” The phrase rings with contempt, not just for the racism and misogyny she was rightly calling out, but because its dismissiveness extended from views to people, disdaining other human beings as having so little moral weight they came packaged in a flimsy wicker carrier.  

It was a gift basket to commentators such as Ann Coulter. It doesn’t take much for the judgmental expansiveness of contempt to encompass not only its targets, but others by association. Such is the power of contempt. Thus, it was easily taken as a thumb in the eye of voters who had any reason to lean toward Trump, and many were happy to thumb back. 

Election promises don’t exactly come signed, sealed, delivered. They require a measure of trust in order to take. For the reasons and realities discussed above, once contempt, directly from the candidate, entered the stage, the persuasive power of her beneficial policies dimmed, her persuasive power dimmed. That display of contempt did its bit to destroy the trust it was her job as a presidential candidate to build (and as a career journalist, brilliant friend, whose beat was federal politics, observed, the first job of a politician is to get elected.) 

This isn’t an issue of “likeability.” This was an issue of trust, of political judgement about its import for a candidate seeking to persuade as many voters as possible that she would represent them. Her trustworthiness being under siege made that judgement all the more essential. In a legally-trained negotiator and politician of Clinton’s experience, the best one might say of her use of that corrosive phrase is that it was complacent. She thought her base would love it (she was right) and she could afford it (she was wrong).  

But! There’s a double-standard! Trump pours on contempt like syrup at a Denny’s!  

So he does. But he isn’t trying to persuade those who disagree with him. He’s pushing them away. By fanning contempt, he’s inflaming an already committed base, deepening divisions and encouraging isolation across the political spectrum because mutual contempt is a symbiotic relationship. He seeks to destroy the possibility of trust between those of differing views. He’s building walls.

The divisiveness of contempt serves a guy like Trump and his authoritarian leaning ilk. The ongoing two-way flow of contempt is one of the things that continues to carry him. Nobody looks too closely at their own guy when contempt is being showered on them by the other side, especially if he gives it back. But it’s lousy for those democratically inclined, in either tactics or spirit.  

Why belabor that particular instance in Clinton’s case in a way we don’t harp on the deluge of it in Trump’s? It’s not because she’s being held to a double-standard. Their ends were patently different. His framework of undemocratic values is deplorable, but contempt serves them. Within her framework of democratic values, resort to contempt was a serious failing. 

It’s important we understand these failings and not bury them in the pile as just another instance of misogyny, “likeability,” or double-standards. If we do that, we are missing how poisonous contempt is for our society, from the interpersonal to the highest levels of leadership. These are things we must understand if we are to stabilize and substantiate the protections and promise of our listing democracies.

Let’s come back for a moment to the entitlements of the private sphere, in which we can get drunk on contempt every night and have it for breakfast. However, when our expressions of contempt chime out, as they do with Pavlovian regularity on social media: “Unfriend me if you think X,” “You can’t talk to anyone who voted Y,” we begin to toe across the line from private sentiments to at least semi-public stances that are mutually-influencing, bubble-inducing, and nuance-destroying beyond the wildest imaginings of bumper sticker manufacturers. 

Entitled to it all we may be, but it’s worth asking if mutually-reinforcing mutual contempt is really a good go-to for taking our principled stands. Contempt divides us beyond the substance of our disagreements, severing communication, and connection. Destroying trust, contempt softens us up to believe and resist believing, not by accepting the best available evidence, but by sampling a buffet of fallacious partiality. It’s into these spaces between the ribs of the body politic that foreign influencers such as Russia stick their fingers and pry. It seems a safe bet they’re not doing so in order to enhance democracy, and they wouldn’t be bothering if keeping the contempt flowing didn’t serve their ends. 

The temptations of contempt are many, especially when matters of deeply felt principle are in contention. We get mileage from contempt that goes beyond the jet fuel of pure anger, or deep moral disapprobation. As Aristotle observed about how we work: act superior, you’ll feel superior. By hitting contempt, we "big ourselves up", as they say in the Ottawa Valley, and that always feels good, especially when you have something you genuinely care about to point to as justification.  

Being a kind of moral dismissal, it eases moral pressure to understand the thinking of those we hold in contempt. Its inherent dismissiveness gives us license to not bother with competing perspectives, never mind admitting there might be something meritorious, or at least understandable, in them, or their motivation. It saves us the correlative trouble of critically examining our own convictions; integrity and consistency are such headaches. I sometimes wonder if contempt’s diminishment of its object even dampens good old-fashioned curiosity. 

Small wonder then, as the brilliant comedian Hannah Gadsby seriously observed, “We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” 

While it’s a slap to the recipients, contempt is a sermon to the choir. Disparaging people is often seen, from the perspective of those already in agreement who are sharing the rush of superiority, as leadership. 

Contempt may spring from one’s principles, but in no way is contempt equivalent to, or a necessary expression of, principle. Passion and principle – these are inevitable, and needed, in politics, as we try to fashion the society, the world, in which we will live, in which those we love will live. Anger, for Martin Luther King, was the jumping off point to calculated action. But my fellow travelers somehow seem to think it’s a political stopping point: that we can anchor ourselves in contempt, no matter how much doing so undoes the possibility of doing more. I fundamentally don’t understand this as either politics or principle: Not only is contempt impractical as a means of persuasion, it may well blinker our capacity for compassion and a deeper understanding of the root causes of those things we fight – and fight for. I’d also note that blinkered capacity for compassion is rarely listed as a trait of moral leadership.

In the bigger picture, I haven’t got a clue why we as an entire society, irrespective of political stripe, would ever think being principled and being contemptuous would equate. I’m inclined to blame the popularity of therapy as a cultural phenomenon. I don’t mean the real, individual kind that can be essential for mental health, or the diminishing of the stigma. I mean the bastardized marketing and entertainment kind, the idea that achieving a state of selfy-self selfing is the best a being can be, and this somehow carries authority. It shouldn’t withstand contact with reality.  

No court I’ve ever appeared in cares about my personal feelings. No one who disagrees with me is going to be persuaded to my way of thinking by witnessing my feelings or attitudes, especially of disparagement toward them. Moral leaders aren’t moral or leaders just because they feel their feelings. Authoritarians may govern according to impulse and whim, but they do so only because they’re backed by force that they’re prepared to use. And yet the idea persists.  We’ve added this culturally-fed, exaggerated sense of self-importance to our political emphasis on the individual.   

That sense of self-importance both encourages and is fed by our eager use of political contempt, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to be doing good things for democracy. Maybe it’s an outgrowth of democracy itself, with its emphasis on the significance of the individual? Maybe it’s the end of the experiment? If so, I hope environmental carnage comes and takes us quick, because what comes next is going to be awful.
When those of us holding the reins finally let go, I hope the kids do a better job of focusing on the problems, not the name-calling and school yard fights. I hope they toss the idea that contempt is a democratic instrument.  If they don’t, we will bear responsibility for failing to teach them what they needed. God forbid scarcity comes to teach them. No matter what, all we are doing will come one day, I think, to be seen as a tragic squandering.

Contempt for 63 million other human beings? So much for hating the sin, not the sinner.

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Ruth Dick

Ruth Dick is an Ottawa lawyer and photographer who has lectured on medical ethics at the University of Manitoba and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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