Arthur Brooks writes in the New York Times that the problem in our societal discourse in America today is not incivility as so many have claimed, but contempt. We all know that people are more divided by politics than ever and politics has invaded everything. I’ve written about this problem often on this blog the last couple of years.

Brooks says that most people today suffer from “motive attribution asymmetry,” the assumption that you are motivated in your beliefs by love, while your ideological opposite is motivated by hate. Thus, if a person thinks illegal immigration should be controlled or stopped, someone of the opposite ideology thinks he hates immigrants. Or if a person wants to restrict the sale of guns, his ideological opposite thinks he hates gun owners. Brooks says this is worse than intolerance or incivility:

Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something far worse: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

The causes are clear. A 24/7 news cycle that must be fed, a proliferation of commentators and pundits, the echo chamber of social media, deceptive and manipulative memes, and so on all create an outrage-industrial complex, which makes us feel superior and allows us to assume the worst of those who disagree with us.

Interestingly, Brooks points out that we are addicted to contempt and it is making us miserable. So what’s the cure? Not Kumbaya circles where no one disagrees. The cure will come when we stop feeding the beast, when we stop seeing the worst in others. We need to start giving people the benefit of the doubt, to disagree while also assuming the person we disagree with is a good person with good intentions. That they have the good of others as their motivation (rather than selfish or hateful motives), but are just mistaken in how to accomplish the good.

We also need to start thinking more about the sorts of things we accept as fact, especially if those “facts” seem designed to increase our contempt for others. When we see a meme, a video, or a news story about the “other” side, stop and ask yourself three questions:

  • Who’s behind this information?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • What do other sources say?

I see so many memes or True Fact/History social media accounts peddling misinformation that is unsourced and sometimes blatantly untrue on its face. Much of it can be debunked with a simple Google search. Destin at the Smarter Every Day YouTube channel had a very good video that explained why this sort of stuff proliferates and how to stop yourself from getting sucked in:

But over and above such steps, the first thing to do is to stop your contempt. Stop assuming the worst of others. Stop assuming that someone who wears a MAGA hat is racist. Stop assuming that someone with a Bernie sticker wants to impoverish the middle class. Start engaging ideas, rather than attacking people. And when you are shown contempt, return it with love. As Brooks writes:

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.

Or as Jesus put it:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (John 6:27-28)

Image Credit

  • megaphone-man: Storyblocks | Copyright by owner. Used with permission.

Domenico Bettinelli, Jr., is a father of five and husband, a Roman Catholic, born in Boston, educated at Franciscan University of Steubenville, who has worked in Catholic media--print, broadcast, and online--since the mid-90s. Find out all about Dom on his About Me page.