We live in a culture infected by contempt. We see it in eye-rolls and sighs, and we see it in that facial expression that screams, “why do I have to deal with this person?” Contempt leads to the belief that another person is not worth our time or energy. It is the reason we struggle to have productive discussions, and it is what keeps us from understanding those who disagree with us.
The problem of contempt is easy to see in modern political debates where candidates argue that their opponents want to destroy the country. But the culture of contempt is not confined to electoral debates; it is also prominent in our daily lives. As a nation, we are losing the ability to assume the goodwill of others, choosing instead to assume the worst about people and the social institutions around us.
When I was in class recently, my professor presented a map of America’s military bases around the world. The map showed that we have a military presence from Brazil to Burkina Faso, and my professor asked the question, “Why do you think we have so many bases around the world? What is America’s goal here?”
“Power!” said the first student to respond. “To create fear!” said the next.
Do you see the moral contempt in their answers? They answered with the assumption that America’s leaders had only evil, power-hungry motives. This is exactly the kind of contempt (arising out of cynicism) that we have grown used to. There is no thought that America’s leaders could have justifiable or comprehensible motives for the proliferation of military bases.
I am not, of course, arguing that the U.S. military’s global presence is unimpeachable, but we must examine the facts of the matter before jumping to such contemptuous conclusions.
Contempt shuts down dialogue. The contemptuous person begins by taking the moral high ground, and there can be no dialectical progress after that. In a similar way, contempt stifles curiosity. That is why contempt is insidious in learning environments such as our university. Contempt leads to pat, ready-made answers, and obscures the process of questioning that is synonymous with learning itself.
If I am content to believe our country is led by evil people who are morally beneath me, then I have no reason earnestly to ask questions about their conduct. After all, why would I care to understand evil people? I already “know” all I need to. But such contempt leads us unwittingly into fallacy—the fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, in which we assume the answer before we really ask.
Why and how have we allowed ourselves to feel contempt toward those who disagree with us? This is a society-wide problem discussed recently by former American Enterprise Institute (AEI) President Arthur Brooks in his op-ed, “Culture of Contempt.” We have somehow lost our ability to maintain goodwill and to assume the goodwill of those who disagree with us.
As we struggle to understand this problem, let us not fall into the trap of being contemptuous toward contemptuous people. My classmates are smart and decent people. Yet, when I heard their contemptuous assumptions about our military presence, my first instinct was to dismiss them out of hand, thinking, “What do they know? Fools!” At that moment, I recognized the irony of the contempt of contempt. Contempt is tempting because it gives us an unearned sense of moral superiority, and we have grown up in an environment where contempt and such unearned moral superiority are commonplace.
To better understand contempt, we must understand how it differs from productive disagreement. Disagreement is healthy; contempt is dangerous. Disagreement is a consequence of diversity, and it can be a sign of a healthy and growing society. Passionate disagreements in our nation signal that people care deeply about important issues. Studies have found that a marriage with too little conflict is doomed to fail. If the couple isn’t arguing, then they aren’t caring! The same seems true of democratic politics. But arguing is one thing, contempt another.
We won’t eliminate contempt overnight, but there is hope. We can each move forward with a bit more compassion, a bit more graciousness, and a bit more kindness. In Arthur Brooks’ op-ed, and in his recent book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from Our Culture of Contempt, a way forward is found in charity, which is perhaps a tall order for a religiously pluralist society. But, at the very least, if we give each other the benefit of the doubt and treat each other’s views as worthy of our consideration, then we might be surprised by how much we learn, and such co-learning is a potential ground for greater civility, learning, and friendship.
Let us start then by asking the question, “Why do you believe what you believe?” If we ask this genuinely, then we have already begun to move beyond contempt into curiosity and the pursuit of understanding.