Incivility isn’t the Problem, Contempt Is

Incivility isn’t the Problem, Contempt Is

Man yelling into a megaphone
[lead dropcap="yes"]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.[/lead]

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.
  • I think I appreciate Brooks’ point. There’s a suggestion therein that the phenomenon is symmetrically distributed. I’ll demur for the following reasons.

    Every single component of our cultural production system is controlled by the opposition. You see a scatter of colleges (many of them shot through with Vichy faculty), talk radio, Fox, and some religious congregations on the other side of the equation. What seems quite mad is that important tech companies abandoned the common-carrier model and have hired a huge mass of employees to monitor content (while making use of a crooked outfit called the $outhern Poverty Law Center to categorize parties as ‘kosher’ and ‘traffe’). The role of Democratic Party officialdom and the sorosphere nexus in these transactions has yet to be limned (because ‘investigative journalists’ were never interested in investigating what they fancied). Public institutions we know well are components of the same social nexus of which the Democratic Party is the electoral vehicle. Democrats fancy the state universities and the courts and the public broadcasting apparat is their property.
    If you’ve tangled with partisan Democrats in the last 4 years, what hits you is how little they take an interest in policy. (Bernie Sanders and his acolytes are partial exceptions in this regard). It’s pretty much status games and power moves and fiction all around.
    When they do advocate something, it’s perverse and destructive. (And something Democratic pols would have vociferously denied favoring 25 years ago). You can see this by following the discourse of Democrats who’ve maintained some fixed principles (Camille Paglia, Alan Dershowitz, Jerilyn Merritt). In the last couple of years, we’ve seen partisan Democrats argue that law enforcement is illegitimate unless the distribution of arrests and convictions match racial demographics, that the immigration police should be abolished because enforcing the immigration laws is mean, that banal administrative measures meant to improve ballot security are illegitimate and unfair, that prosecutorial fishing expeditions are perfectly acceptable if they’re in the short-term interest of the Democratic Party, that using the IRS to harass the political opposition is perfectly acceptable if its in the interests of the Democratic Party, that it’s perfectly acceptable for the President and his minions to abandon U.S. government employees under siege and then spend years lying and stonewalling about it, that Bowe Berghdahl and Bradley Manning belong at liberty, that attorney-client privilege is a trifle if it is inconvenient to the Democratic Party, and that components of the Department of Justice are acting withing their proper discretion in spying on the political opposition while letting Democratic pols skate on serious criminal charges. Did I mention that partisan Democrats claim that ordinary matrimonial law as it has been understood from time immemorial is ‘unconstitutional’?

    We can’t have a passably ordered constitutional republic without some consensual procedures and mutual courtesies. And only one side has thoroughly trashed them.

    • I will agree with you that the level and degree of contempt is generally asymmetrical and that Democratic Party operatives and pols are generally responsible for the outrages you list. I would also agree that you see more of the contempt on the left than on the right, but I would say that the right is working hard to catch up. (And that Republicans have their own share of outrageous behavior, if not of the same quantity and degree.) I would only add that the problem I’m addressing–and I think Brooks is too– is in the general population of society, not primarily among the political elites, who form a special case.

      • What distresses me most is that it isn’t just the political class. The ordinary Democratic voters we have on our Facebook friend list think this way. Some of them will make up to 10 political posts a day, and it’s all witless stuff – memes and John Oliver clips. (Our Republican friends use Facebook to post pictures of their grandchildren).