Contempt: It’s Not All Bad

Contempt: It’s Not All Bad July 6, 2020

NOTE: This is a portion of a paper I read at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association last February. It is a revision of an earlier SO post “Contempt: A Qualified Defense.”

In January 2017, I was pleasantly surprised to see an op/ed by a professional philosopher in The Houston Chronicle. Karen Stohr’s timely and insightful essay “Our new age of contempt is on full display,” was first published in the New York Times. Professional philosophers, like other academics, tend to communicate eagerly with their peers, less eagerly with students, and less eagerly still with the general public. This is too bad since the role of the public intellectual is a vital one.

Stohr argues that in the 2016 presidential election, contempt for the opposing candidate and his or her supporters became mainstream, no longer expressed privately, but blared across television, social media, and the Internet. Messages of vicious contempt even festoon wearing apparel (e.g., a T-shirt worn by one attendee at a Trump campaign rally: “Reporter, rope, tree. Some assembly required.”). Stohr argues that such pervasive and strident expressions of disdain are dangerous:

…it [public expressions of contempt] threatens the foundations of our political community by denying the central moral idea on which that community is based—that everyone has a right to basic respect as a human being.

The cure is not to return contempt for contempt, but to repudiate it entirely:

The only real defense against contempt is the consistent strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.

What makes contempt so dangerous? Stohr distinguishes between contempt and anger. Anger is directed at some specific action, aspect, or attitude of a person; contempt rejects the whole person. Even the most devoted couples are sometimes angry with each other. However, marriage counselors say that when genuine contempt crops up between spouses, a marriage has little chance of lasting. When you disdain someone you dehumanize and objectify that person, Stohr argues. You no longer regard him or her as a moral agent to be rationally engaged, but as an object to be scorned or an obstacle to be overcome. In a political context, you no longer regard the ones you scorn as fellow citizens, united, despite disagreements, in pursuit of common good, and approachable in good faith through open dialogue and debate. On the contrary, you despise them, and only want to see them beaten.

But why can’t those who have been the objects of contempt simply reciprocate the attitude? Why, for instance, should not refugees, immigrants, or transgender persons simply return the disdain in full measure towards those who have disdained them? Stohr argues that the contempt of the powerful is powerful, while the contempt of the powerless is negligible. To return contempt for contempt is a battle that the marginalized cannot win, and so they only hurt themselves if, by engaging in expressions of contempt, they help to legitimize such discourse. As Stohr puts it:

In an environment where contempt is an acceptable language of communication, those who already lack social power stand to lose the most by being its targets.

So, reciprocation is not a winning strategy for those who have been marginalized by contempt. At a deeper level, as noted above, the expression of contempt in a public context is intrinsically objectionable. If we truly believe in democratic process in which all are to have a voice, then we will not use disdainful language to dismiss anyone from that process; rather, we will insist that all be included as participants. Therefore, Stohr says that we must work to banish all public expressions of contempt:

Contemptuous political discourse, with its pernicious effects on mutual respect, should never have become mainstream. For the good of our country, we must make every effort to push it back to the shadows where it belongs.

Disdainful language should be eliminated from public discourse and we should insist on respect for all.

All? Really? I am absolutely as appalled as Stohr that expressions of contempt have become the default mode of our political discourse. I and a coauthor have published a book that decries the decay of civility in our culture, a decay typified by a presidential campaign that vilified and scorned every perceived critic, even stooping to the mockery of a reporter’s disability.

Nevertheless, I think that Stohr’s recommendation of elimination goes too far. I hold this for three reasons. Before turning to these, let me state what I consider contempt to be. “Contempt,” which I hold to be synonymous with “disdain” or “scorn,” is an attitude of utter disregard, combining anger and disgust, directed towards someone or something judged to be in some sense egregiously bad. Typically, a human being is judged contemptible if he or she exhibits extreme and apparently irremediable defects of character or inveterate disrespect for the most basic norms of decency. Scorn for such persons is therefore a moral judgment of maximum astringency based upon a perception of extreme moral delinquency.

I object to Stohr’s position on the grounds that (1) It is impractical, (2) expressions of contempt, in the form of mockery, ridicule, or satire are in fact very effective weapons for good, and (3) the truly contemptible have dehumanized themselves; in their disdain for basic human decency and respect they have disqualified themselves from the context of civil and rational discourse.

(1) Stohr seems to hold that expressions of contempt should be like discussions of sex between proper Victorians. Such discourse was to be conducted sotto voce behind locked doors so as not to scandalize the servants. I am permitted to tell my wife, e.g., exactly what I think of some public figure, but not to express it in a public context.

It is indeed regrettable that the private/public distinction has so far decayed in our day, largely due to ubiquitous access to social media and the Internet. The impersonal nature of these media tends to undermine the inhibitions that have long surrounded face-to-face communication. For instance, people responding to each other in online comments regularly abuse and insult each other in the harshest terms, frequently using scurrilous language. Decorous inhibitions about revealing personal feelings in public have also atrophied. Add to this the palpable coarsening of our public culture over the years, and these factors combine to substantiate the perception of increased incivility.

Again, one may regret these developments, but such regret does not return the genie to the bottle. Stohr’s admonitions to play nice might have been effective when conversations were held in drawing rooms between ladies and gentlemen, but now it seems far too little and far too late. We live in an age where harsh, bitter, and derisive comment is the norm.

We can (and should) individually resolve to rise above this abysmal norm in our communications, but the idea that decency will break out all over in the foreseeable future seems far-fetched. I devoutly hope for a return to a modicum of civility in our public discourse, and maybe this is all that Stohr really wants, rather than the unrealistic idea that the language of contempt can somehow be “pushed back to the shadows.” A more feasible aim would be to establish islands of civility in the seas of hostility, and work over time to increase the number and size of these islands. There is no question that the volume of vicious contempt in current public discourse is dangerous. When we cannot talk to each other, soon we fight.  However, it is not clear that the total elimination of contemptuous discourse is desirable, even if possible.

(2) In 2008 a distinct danger threatened the American republic. For some reason, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a person capable of rational thought and sound judgment, picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin, woefully vacuous and unqualified, would, if elected, have stood only a heartbeat away from the presidency. However, it was our very good fortune that talented comedian Tina Fey was a dead-ringer for Palin, and Fey’s wickedly effective impersonation of Palin was both very funny (“And now I will entertain you with some fancy pageant walking…”) and right on the money. No somber editorializing by The New York Times or hand-wringing on MSNBC would have been nearly as effective as Fey’s satire in revealing Palin’s inanity and incapacity. As H.L. Mencken observed, one horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.

We do not know if Fey’s brilliant satire was instrumental in the defeat of the McCain/Palin ticket in ’08. (Alec Baldwin’s equally devastating portrayal of Trump, was, alas, clearly not sufficiently effective.) However, the self-important, the self-righteous, and the powerful always fear becoming the objects of derisive laughter. The one thing that anyone who covets respect cannot afford is be made to look ridiculous. Nothing punctures pomposity or pretension, or shines a brighter light on the squalid motives behind self-justifying rhetoric than trenchant satire. Satire does not tell us that someone is a hypocrite, fool, or rascal; it shows what they are and gives us that best of all laughs, the laugh that comes with the recognition of stark truth. Further, laughter gives you the courage and the hope needed to fight. No one trembles before a naked emperor.

And make no mistake, there is nothing nice about satire such as Fey’s and Baldwin’s. Such satire is ridicule. It holds its target up to derision. It is contemptuous. Can we have civility if we countenance such satire? I think so, if we follow some basic rules.

First, only satirize the powerful. Don’t make fun of the little guy. When it was learned that Donald Trump’s election was largely due to rural whites, it was tempting to lampoon his supporters as “rubes,” “yokels,” or “rednecks.” Don’t. Lampooning the high and mighty is a way of speaking truth to power; lampooning the little guy is only a cheap and degrading laugh. I loathed the scene in Bill Maher’s film Religulous, where he ridicules a truck-stop chapel and its attendees. When an articulate, educated, and wealthy entertainer mocks the honest piety of simple people, he only debases himself.

Second, condemn in no uncertain terms any ridicule or derision directed by the powerful or privileged against the marginalized. When the over-privileged members of a university fraternity put on blackface and hold “ghetto” parties to ridicule inner-city black people, they are behaving contemptibly. Let one of those pampered and overprivileged guys try to live in a mean-streets neighborhood, and suffer the thousand-and-one hassles inflicted on the poor.

Third, don’t ever make fun of something that somebody cannot help. If you laugh at ignorance, make sure it is the willful ignorance of the intelligent, not the ignorance of those who cannot help it.

Finally, recognize that strong or even passionate disagreement is not a reason to disdain someone. Reasons and arguments that look knock-down to you will always appear weaker to someone with a different starting point. Also, mirabile dictu, you might be wrong, or at least not obviously right. On most important issues rational disagreement is not only possible but to be expected.

3) Some people really are contemptible: The conman who cheats an elderly victim out of her life savings; a bishop who shields a pedophile priest, leaving him free to abuse again; a CEO who dismisses urgent safety concerns in favor of profits, resulting in the gruesome deaths of workers; powerful, wealthy, and famous men who exploit their position to engage in sexual assault or harassment; demagogues who acquire power by cynically manipulating the fears, ignorance, and prejudices of voters. Is it really desirable to be on civil terms with such persons? Some people do not deserve civility; they deserve contempt. We do not dehumanize such persons by regarding them with the contempt they deserve. They have already dehumanized themselves. By their monstrous callousness, utter selfishness, and disregard of the most basic principles of decency, they in effect remove themselves from the human moral community. For such persons, only the language of contempt serves to judge them fairly.

If, in our public discourse, we refrain from speaking of thoroughly contemptible persons in the language they deserve, what do we say about them? Do we speak of them as merely misguided or oblivious? Do we say that they are well-intended but mistaken in how to achieve their laudable aims? Do we rebuke those who speak of them derisively or satirize them? By our refusal of candor, how do we avoid appearing to extenuate contemptible behavior? True, there are times when excessive candor can be harmful. Yet, there have to be times and places for candor, for calling contemptible things and persons, by their correct names. Stohr would remove such candor from public discourse, and I see this as dangerous. My rule, then, is this: Let civility be your default mode, i.e., start by treating everyone civilly. Continue to do so until they themselves reject civility by committing monstrously uncivil acts, and then speak of them as they deserve.

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