On the Dangerous Temptations of Political Contempt
Democracy is at Risk When We Lose Sight of
Our Opponent's Personhood
Not long ago I was at a barbecue at the house of a well-known scientist at an Ivy League university. We had just returned from attending a workshop on political polarization together. As we stood beside the grill, drinking beer, he turned to me and remarked, “You know, as much as I admire open-mindedness and civility and all that, I can’t help feeling that right now is not the time. Screw them.” He was talking, of course, about politics, and Trumpian conservatives in particular.
The anger that my colleague was giving voice to is probably familiar to all of us. I know I often feel it; it is hard not to, it seems, in contemporary America, and not just on the Left. It has been something of a mantra for many hard-line conservatives for some time, as even the most casual listener of hard-Right radio programs, or reader of Alt-Right blogs, well knows.
A telling example is the case of the Listen First Project. Founded by moderately conservative, Christian graduate student Pearce Godwin, it aims to encourage people to “listen first and vote second.” Its mission is noble: to encourage productive dialogue nationwide. But Listen First became tremendously controversial when it held its first national meeting (with numerous high-level speakers) in Charlottesville, Virginia, the locale a year earlier of a violent protest by white supremacists that had ended in the murder of a counterdemonstrator.
Many local activists took Godwin’s call to listen as directed at them, and they saw it as code for “sit down and shut up.” Godwin protested that this was not his intention, yet for many people, the call to “listen first” in Charlottesville was deeply offensive. Many of the racists marching in Charlottesville were self-described Nazis who had chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Who wants to listen first to Nazis? Screw them.
The misgivings about attempts to dialogue extend beyond just wanting not to hear vile chants. The worry is that sometimes being tolerant of intolerance can encourage it. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda for the Third Reich, famously said that the greatest joke on democracy was that it gave its enemies the means by which it could be destroyed. By this he meant that democratic freedoms could be used to undermine those same freedoms, to turn people against them.
As Jason Stanley has emphasized, it is not difficult to see that this same tactic is at work right now by the Alt-Right Nazis of the day. The white supremacists marching in Charlottesville were using democratic protections of free speech and assembly to endorse deeply antidemocratic views—views according to which nonwhites should (literally) be second-class citizens. And the same tactics, one might argue, can be seen on the pages of Breitbart and tumbling out of the president’s Twitter rants.
Some conspiracy theorists repeatedly endorsed the idea that the murder of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a politically motivated hoax and argued that they were just “acting as reporters” and “investigating the truth.” One can’t object to that, right? Well, actually one can, unless one thinks that looking things up on 4chan and inventing things out of whole cloth amounts to journalism. Such conspiracy theorists are using democratic means (free speech protections) to undermine democracy.Try this thought experiment: Imagine you had a drug that could cause people to believe in your political point of view. What would you do with it?
Another reason we can feel resistant to calls for democratic dialogue is that we are as divided over what counts as “democratic” as we are over anything else. That’s nothing new in democracies, where dissent and disagreement is part of the point, and where the very meaning of core values is always up for renegotiation. But it is particularly salient now.
Donald Trump infamously declared that some of those who marched on Charlottesville were “fine people”—by which he presumably meant (in a supercharitable reading) that some white protesters might have been motivated out of something other than pure racism and they should be allowed to express themselves. Yet apparently, he also thinks that (mostly) black football players kneeling during the national anthem should not be allowed that same self-expression, that they are “traitors.” And Trump, presumably, is not alone in these sentiments.
There is a third complicating factor motivating feelings of anger in politics. Calls to civility and dialogue can themselves be divisive partly because they legitimately mean different things, depending on where you sit. The key variable is power. As any negotiator or moderator can tell you, dialogue feels different when you hold more cards than when you hold fewer, if only because the outcome of any exchange is more likely to be in your favor.
For all these reasons, some may find my concerns with intellectual arrogance worrisome. When you are feeling outrage, calls to being open to your own fallibility can sound like a request to waver in your convictions. You don’t feel fallible when you are angry. You feel right. And anger can be a useful political emotion; it motivates and focuses. But anger is also a gateway to a more complicated moral emotion: contempt.
Try this thought experiment: Imagine you had a drug that could cause people to believe in your political point of view. What would you do with it? Give it to your racist uncle? Send it to your local congressional representative? Drop it in the water supply?
You would be tempted. After all, politics is a high-stakes game, and getting people to believe “the truth” would save lives. But I’ve also found that even for people who would be willing to drop the drug into the water supply, most agree that there is something clearly wrong with doing so. Why? Because you aren’t asking people their opinions; you aren’t treating them as capable of making up their own minds. Dropping the political correctness drug into the water without people’s knowledge is a clear violation of what we might call basic respect.
As we saw earlier, one of the most fundamental democratic ideals—an ideal that lies behind one conception of identity politics—is that that we owe each other basic respect. In a democracy, those in power can’t simply enforce their will without justification, because doing so violates that respect. Likewise, it is wrong to win our political battles by manipulation and deceit. That’s partly why fake news stories that spread online for political purposes rankle us. We are being used; being treated as mere dupes; being treated, as Kant would have put it, “as a mere means” to other ends, not as ends ourselves.
This connection between respect and democracy is why we think that citizens are accountable to one another. No matter how different we may be individually, under the law we are all equal. And democracy is partly grounded on this fact. By trading in real reasons rather than “fake news” (or in brainwashing drugs as in the thought experiment I proposed earlier), we acknowledge that we owe each other some basic respect, and not just legally but as cognitive agents, as knowers and believers. Treating people with this kind of respect doesn’t mean you treat everyone as an expert. That would be silly. But it does mean treating people not only as capable of making up their own minds but as possible sources of knowledge.
The mansplainer who repackages a woman’s point and explains it back to her (as his own insight, naturally) is, for this reason, showing a lack of basic respect. When men do this, they aren’t discounting their conversational partners because they think their partners are less informed but because they see their partners’ contributions as fundamentally less important than their own. They are taking those contributions to be less credible. And in so doing, they implicitly signal that they don’t feel they have to answer to a woman either.
The sexist does not think of himself as accountable to women, and the general know-it-all doesn’t think he is accountable to anyone but himself. That’s an undemocratic attitude. In a democracy, at least in the ideal, we are accountable to one another.
This is why it is dangerous to allow contempt to inform our approach to political policy. Like its hotter cousin anger, cold contempt feels good, and it is sometimes justified. But infused into policy, it can lead to something darker: that we should back policies—as opposed to individual attitudes—that treat those we oppose as undeserving of basic respect. There is no doubt that this is a choice that many feel pressed upon them: the choice of whether to resist the use of democratic means toward undemocratic ends by using undemocratic means for democratic ends.
In other words, the choice, many feel, concerns whether to defend democracy by being undemocratic—that is, whether to take political steps that force our beliefs on others—to engage in the equivalent of dropping the drug into the water supply. Emotionally speaking, that’s switching from respect to contempt.
The temptation to abandon basic respect in favor of contempt wouldn’t be too concerning, if not for the fact that there is increasingly little in American life that is politics-free. Where we live, the cars we drive, the food we eat, the schools and churches we attend, the hobbies and sports we enjoy, the books we read, the television shows we watch, the clothes we wear—these are all increasingly tribalized. Everything has become laden with meaning, and a deep meaning at that, and the use of social media to shame and mock has certainly contributed to that fact.
When ordinary things and issues become laden with meaning, the realm of the political—the realm of conviction—expands. And when that happens, what was once a matter of debate or even dialogue can become a matter of power and an opportunity for disdain and moral contempt.In a democracy, at least in the ideal, we are accountable to one another.
Contempt is a deeply complex, almost paradoxical emotion. It is how we treat someone who is beyond the pale, who has committed not just a moral failure but has failed as a person. To fail as a person, in the sense I mean here, is to be regarded as having forfeited respect. This is different from just being regarded as an ingrate, or as reckless, or as simply having false beliefs. The contemptible person is not just someone who has done a moral wrong. Stealing doesn’t make someone contemptible just on that basis.
To hold the thief in contempt for his act of thievery, we must know something more—or think we know something more—about him. We must see him as having known better, and at the same time regard him as having, to some measure, responsibility for an irredeemable character. The target of contempt, as opposed to someone who has managed to do something wrong, is regarded as inferior in some respect, as not worth the effort.
Like any emotion, contempt comes in degrees. To hold someone in extreme or total contempt, is to see him in two lights: first, as a moral failure as a person, and thus no longer deserving of the basic respect that persons enjoy, and second, as being responsible for this failing. To treat someone with total contempt is to act, incoherently, as though personhood is a test that one (that is, a person) can pass or fail. But this very assumption is what enables contempt to justify the most inhumane acts.
Contempt is a powerful attitude, but it is not a particularly democratic one. And that is something that liberals would do well to heed. I say this because I, like everyone else nowadays, do have contempt for many of my political opponents. I, too, feel the rage of righteousness. But I also have come to recognize its danger. Once one feels contempt for someone, respect disappears almost as a matter of definition. One does not work to compromise with those one holds in contempt. One does not seek an overlapping consensus with their values, or wish to have one’s kids associate with them, or try to converse with them at a dinner party, or step in to aid them when they are threatened or bullied.
That’s the danger that liberals need to be mindful of. The twin of arrogance is contempt, but contempt is not the sort of attitude that is easy to come back from. Anger, even resentment, can come and go. But once you are contemptuous of something, it is hard to climb back out of that hole. That, however, is the hole we on the Left are digging for ourselves, even as we scorn those on the Right doing the same.
Excerpted from Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture. Copyright (c) 2019 by Michael Patrick Lynch. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.