Contempt is the emotional/cognitive/social version of biological revulsion, that feeling you have when you see something that is tainted, decomposing, or mutilated. As such, contempt is universal. We all feel contempt. Generally, we express contempt out of fear or anger at the loss of power, or against some other kind of social threat. Also, people who believe that their control over others comes from their inherent superiority spew contempt around them continuously like the smell of decomposition on a hot day. In this case, contempt is a habit of delusional superiority and ignoring the environment and the people in it, like sneering unconsciously at the homeless as you pass them by.
Bullying is the specimen example of contempt, but there are many others. There is a sort of continuum of contempt ranging from the one percenter who doesn’t know the names of the staff who see to his daily needs to the screaming man in the street with a face so red and a sneer so deep that you are afraid he might have a stroke.
And behind every single expression of contempt, regardless of where it is on the continuum, is the threat of violence. For all I know, the expression of contempt might have served in our past as a social substitute for overt violence. But there is so much contempt expressed in our world now, and its impact is so universal with the advent of the internet that I view it as inciting a constant and spreading low-level violence that is entirely out of our control, like a forest fire.
Just as our sense that food is tainted makes us avoid it, so the expression of social contempt ties a taint to a target, with social isolation and lack of accurate perception of the target as the ordinary concomitants of that expression.
And, of course, everywhere there is the experience of shame, lurking somewhere outside or inside is contempt. Think about how common shame is in our social matrix. That is a reasonable index of the amount of contempt.
Contempt has always been a part of politics. Political opponents are often targeted as tainted, using metaphors that point to spoiled food (think, “my opponent is a rotten bastard”). But the current level of mutual contempt across every part of the political landscape and the huge rate of repetition of expressed contempt that has become a constant din in our minds is producing significant social disintegration and it is undermining our ability to take any other political actions.
Contempt is currently the only viable way to organize politically at the national level, and it is the most effective way at every other political level. The far right spent 50 years using contempt as an organizing tool, but it has only been with the advent of the online world that it has become singularly successful. There is no fundamental difference between the politics of “None Dare Call It Treason” and the national political agenda of the current Congress. The difference is the instant reach of the contempt.
And every other political stripe has learned that same lesson from the recent election. The winners are disintegrating into factions and the losers are unrelentingly demonizing their internal opponents.
Expressed contempt is disruptive of the current target all right, but it has no upside. It is the social version of an IDE. Its purpose is only to spread fear, anger, and hatred. The actual attack is secondary to that spread. If that wasn’t enough, there is no way to get rid of contempt or even reduce it. Right now, trying to reduce contempt is like trying to spray insecticide on a week old hamburger. You can kill the flies, but you can’t change the basic problem.
There is a way to replace contempt called engagement. The next post will talk about what engagement is. But I’d like to close this post with what engagement isn’t:
- It isn’t being nice and polite to your opponents
- It doesn’t require anyone to no longer feel contempt
- It isn’t suited to the internet or meme based organizing
- It isn’t “reaching out” to your opponents so you can neutralize or convert them
- It isn’t accepting third-party analysis about why your opponents are the way they are.
Next Post: Engagement