Contempt makes political compromise and progress impossible. It also makes us unhappy as people. According to the American Psychological Association, the feeling of rejection, so often experienced after being treated with contempt, increases anxiety, depression and sadness. It also damages the contemptuous person by stimulating two stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. In ways both public and personal, contempt causes us deep harm.
While we are addicted to contempt, we at the same time hate it, just as addicts hate the drugs that are ruining their lives. In an important study of political attitudes, the nonprofit More in Common found in 2018 that 93 percent of Americans say they are tired of how divided we have become as a country. Large majorities say privately that they believe in the importance of compromise, reject the absolutism of the extreme wings of both parties and are not motivated by partisan loyalty.
Our country did not “become” divided. A 24-hour propaganda network for the Republican party told half of us the other half hated them and they were being persecuted and put-upon by, in order, the Clintons, the Obamas, Democrats generally, liberals, women, gay people, people in cities, people who drank Starbucks I think, imaginary communists, and everybody younger than 30.
When liberals tried to say, erm, not really, we don’t actually think about you all that much, we’d just like to have health care, there was an 11-year screaming fit known as the Tea Party that was covered like it was the spontaneous emergence of a new species of humanity hitherto unknown.
Plus a bunch of racism, and Fox News cashed the checks.
This wasn’t a weather system that swept in. Errbody didn’t just wake up one day and say GOLLY GEE WHILLIKERS I FEEL LIKE HATING ON YOU TODAY. Facebook and Twitter have not helped, but if you think this strain of misery didn’t exist before we all started wringing our hands about it, you haven’t been home for Christmas with a bunch of relatives who want to shit on your humanities degree.
That a few liberals, sick and tired of being dumped on constantly, have now started saying HEY QUIT TALKING SHIT is not evidence of a divided country. It’s evidence that you can only kill so many of us (and Reagan and Bush killed quite a few) before we start, you know, objecting.
I mean, all weekend we’ve been hearing about how deranged and hateful CPAC is NOW, as if the 1990s rhetoric around the AIDS crisis was compassionate, or 9/11 wasn’t followed by a wave of hate crimes, or the Civil Rights movement wasn’t greeted with fire hoses and guns. As if Kent State was a peaceable meeting of equal opposites just trying to understand each other. As if Father Coughlin never took up the mic.
We did not “become” divided. Many many more of us just became heard, and this newfound insistence on civility in communication is the response to that, and it doesn’t serve anyone but the wealthy and powerful who “divided” us in the first place.
This is exhausting:
Finally, we should see the contempt around us as what it truly is: an opportunity, not a threat. If you are on social media, on a college campus or in any place other than a cave by yourself, you will be treated with contempt very soon. This is a chance to change at least one heart — yours. Respond with warmheartedness and good humor. You are guaranteed to be happier. If that also affects the contemptuous person (or bystanders), it will be to the good.
It is true that in an argument between me and another middle-class white lady I should keep my temper and smile for the sake of peace in our well-appointed neighborhood where everyone contributes to the block party bake sale. In an argument between two middle-class white college students at debating podiums, certainly, by all means let’s be nice.
But in an argument between a middle-class white lady and the man who thinks she deserves to make a third less than an equivalent male colleague?
In an argument between trans people who want to live their lives and those who want to define them out of existence?
In an argument between a black mother whose son was just shot by police and the city government that covered it up?
In an argument between a Muslim traveler and the authorities who stop him at the airport with no pretext and no explanation?
In an argument between kids who want to live free of war and persecution and people who want them gassed at the border?
I would posit there is not enough contempt for the powerful on the part of the powerless in these conversations. In these situations, where lives are weighed against social comfort, lives should always win. There are worse things than division. There are worse things than conflict. There are worse things than saying mean things on Twitter.
Babies in cages, for example. Death from preventable disease. Schools with holes in the roof. Bullets, bombs and all the other horrible things our need for comfort make possible.
If calling someone who is trying to prevent me and mine from living our lives in peace a monster is divisive, then let division reign along with freedom, forever and ever amen.