Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Who Created Our Age of Contempt?

In yesterday’s New York Times philosopher Karen Stohr analyzed of the corrosive power of contempt in public life. Unfortunately, she took a partisan approach, calling out Donald Trump, in particular, for offensive and vulgar gestures. 

Stohr was correct to see that the American president sets the moral tone for the nation, but she neglected to mention the Age of Contempt was produced by Trump’s predecessor. Trump has not been in the public eye long enough to have produced a significant cultural shift. True enough, to the chagrin of many, he has been using the language of contempt and ridicule. But, he was also counterpunching.

When Stohr compared the contempt demonstrated by a president to that of a protester carrying a sign, she failed to note that we did not see a lone protester carrying a sign last Saturday. We saw millions of protesters carrying millions of signs. And she did not mention that our new president has been showered with contempt by members of the press. The press is not just a lone voice crying out in the wilderness… to coin a phrase.

Stohr said correctly that we are living in an Age of Contempt. And yet, she did not note who has been in charge for these last eight years. Once she highlighted the power of the presidency—fairly, I add—she should have mentioned that we have suffered through eight years of a president who showed limitless contempt for Congress, for his political opponents and also for the prime minister of Israel.

Barack Obama’s Democratic Party has also been displaying boundless contempt for white males and for white police officers. Currently, the Democratic Party—or, what’s left of it—continues its crusade against white males. It's what you would expect from a political party that glorifies Jeremiah Wright's protege.

When Obama chose to reform the immigration system with an executive order-- on the grounds that if Congress did not do what he wanted, he would do it himself-- he was showing contempt for the members of Congress. When he decided to govern by executive order he was dismissing the other branches of government. When Obama declared that the treaty he signed with Iran was not a treaty, but a deal, he was showing contempt for the constitutional authority to advise and consent vested in the United States Senate. When his IRS chose to discriminate against Tea Party organizations, it was showing contempt. When his Justice Department blamed black-on-black crime on white police officers, it was showing contempt. All of these acts were dismissive and contemptuous.

If the Democratic Party, in the persons of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had not been spewing contempt these many years, Donald Trump would not be in the White House today. In an atmosphere of contempt, Trump chose to fight fire with fire. Many of us did not like it. Many of us found it corrosive. But, Trump was not the source. The person responsible for the Age of Contempt was Barack Obama.

With that small caveat in mind, Stohr’s article is excellent. She points out that contempt corrodes civility and national unity. In an Age of Contempt people feel free to express raw feeling. They have no real interest in engaging other people. Stohr notes wisely that when you are angry with another person, you are engaging with him. When you treat him with contempt you are dismissing him.

We live in an age where raw feelings are valued. (Cf. Richard Rorty) Doesn’t that sound like a therapy culture? Stohr writes:

Gone are the days when contempt for political rivals and their supporters was mostly communicated behind closed doors, in low tones not meant to be overheard. Whatever veneer of unseemliness we associated with contemptuous public speech has been stripped away. We are left with everyone’s raw feelings, on all sides of the political spectrum, exposed and expressed in contexts ranging from social media and public protests to confrontational signage and clothing.

She adds:

Widespread public contempt has the potential to undermine the moral basis of all human relationships and, indeed, of human community itself.

Stohr explains Kant’s belief that a community can only remain stable if people refrain from expressing their private feelings and thoughts in public. Here, if you think as I think you will recall that Freudian psychoanalysis promoted the therapeutic value of speaking whatever was crossing your mind, without regard for the damage it might do.

If you want to undermine human community, become a practicing Freudian.

Stohr writes:

It wasn’t that Kant didn’t value truthfulness and sincerity in our interactions with others; he did. He realized, however, that the stability and progress of moral and political community depends on our being able to restrain ourselves from expressing publicly whatever we happen to be thinking or feeling. This is especially pressing when our inner thoughts and attitudes reflect contempt for our fellow human beings

Stohr makes the salient point that contempt is dismissive. It does not engage with people and deprives them of moral agency. She writes:

A fundamental feature of contempt is that it is globalist, meaning that it is directed at the entire person, rather than just some aspect of that person. It is thus unlike other negative attitudes, like anger. If I express anger toward you, I am engaging with you. If I express contempt toward you, I am dismissing you. The distinction is crucial.

As I said, Obama dismissed Republicans from the onset of his administration. As it happens, the new Trump administration has been reaching out to political opponents. And it has nominated cabinet members who are apolitical.

In Stohr’s analysis:

Contempt functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency. This is how contempt accomplishes its dehumanizing work — by marking its target as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community.

As I said, Stohr errs in blaming it all on Trump. Clearly, Trump showed serious contempt for many of his opponents, and he did show contempt for the media. She errs because her blaming Trump functions to exonerate those who bear the most responsibility for the current state of our culture:

Trump and his supporters are responsible for much of our current glut of contempt, but they are hardly the only perpetrators of it. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment qualifies as contempt, although her subsequent expression of regret undid some of its effects. Opponents of Trump have also directed plenty of contempt at both Trump himself — as we saw in some of the signs brandished at Saturday’s marches across the country — and at the people who voted for him, particularly rural voters without much education. Contempt has been injected into our public space from all sides.

Stohr wants to indict the current president:

Trump’s standard method of responding to critics includes denigrating their appearance, denying their intelligence and calling them total failures. He thus treats them as objects to be scorned and dismissed, rather than as fellow human beings worthy of basic respect. This is what makes it contempt and not merely colorfully expressed criticism.

In fairness, Barack Obama rarely practiced the same level of public vulgarity, but he was simply more subtle. He hid his cards better than Trump. Yet, if the president himself is as important as Stohr says, Obama deserves much of the blame for having created a cultural climate in which certain segments of the population are treated with contempt.

Stohr is right to hold Trump accountable for his behavior, and she is right to emphasize the importance of the president. But, she is wrong to ignore the role of former president Obama:

Even if we grant that Trump deserves contempt for his attitudes and behaviors, his powerful social position insulates him from the worst of contempt’s effects. It is simply not possible to disregard or diminish the agency of the president of the United States. This means that contempt is not a particularly useful weapon in the battle against bigotry or misogyny. The socially vulnerable cannot wield it effectively precisely because of their social vulnerability.

But, who are the most conspicuous victims of liberal and Democratic contempt? The basket of deplorables, the bitter clingers, the people in flyover country. Or is it the Tea Party or any organization that called itself patriotic.

Donald Trump’s constituents had been diminished and dismissed by the Obama presidency and by the swells who inhabit America’s coastal regions. After all, what could be more dismissive than Hillary Clinton’s failure even to go to Wisconsin? The deplorables responded by voting for a candidate who returned contempt with contempt.

Effectively, they were following Stohr’s recommendation. They turned out to vote—not to protest, not to burn limousines, not to defame— for someone they believed would stand up “strong and loud” against those who had treated them with contempt:

In an environment where contempt is an acceptable language of communication, those who already lack social power stand to lose the most by being its targets. The only real defense against contempt is the consistent, strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.

11 comments:

george boggs said...
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george boggs said...
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Trigger Warning said...

In a commentary warning about the ill effects of the Age of Contempt, Stohr risibly says:

"the people who voted for him, particularly rural voters without much education" [emphasis added]

What she means by "not much" education is not much education like hers, as if that means anything in some larger scheme of things. I'd like to see Stohr plant and harvest a field of soybeans, wire a new house, weld a John Deere tie rod, repair a leak in a gasoline refinery, manage a Dairy Queen, start a flooded chain saw, sew a prom dress, or replace the rings on a 1985 Ford F-150 straight six.

So, as you can see, I have contempt for Stohr. In other words, her ignorance - her obvious lack of understanding about the complexity of the world around her and the epistemological status of the people who live in it - puts her notions and nostrums, in my mind, "beneath consideration" and "deserving of scorn". Frankly, I don't pay attention to people who obviously don't know what the hell they're talking about.

I'll bet real money she couldn't drive a refrigerated 18-wheeler loaded with arugula and zucchini cross country without tearing up the transmission or taking the top off on a low bridge. So when the Georgetown Fresh Market runs out of produce, her PhD in philosophy is going to buy her exactly what?

Piffle. I can like without Kantian ethicists, but I can't live without groceries.

Sam L. said...

The media is contemptuous of Trump, I've noticed.

sestamibi said...

Trigger Warning, Irving Kristol wrote about such individuals as far back as 1978 in an essay called "People Who are S-S-ST" (smart! smart! stupid.) I can't get a link but you can look it up perhaps elsewhere.

As for contempt in politics, I recall a lunch meeting of the Dallas Economics Club that I attended in 1999 at which the guest speaker was Rep. Dick Armey, who was not only House majority leader, representative from a Metroplex district, but also a Ph.D economist and former professor in his own right. He noted that most people tend to think that political battles are fought on the floor of the House, but that its members put their differences aside after hours to have a beer together. He said that he didn't see any evidence of that, and came right out and said of the Dems "I don't like 'em." Clearly things are a lot worse now, but only because the Dems and the Left are finding out that contempt can run both ways. They are starting to see the consequences of that, as Chelsea Handler, Kate Rich, Madonna, and the 100 or so inaugural protestors now facing felony charges that could involve ten-year prison sentences can now attest.

Ares Olympus said...
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Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: After all, what could be more dismissive than Hillary Clinton’s failure even to go to Wisconsin? The deplorables responded by voting for a candidate who returned contempt with contempt.

I agree the "Basket of deplorables speech" was surely proof of Clinton's elitism. I remember watching the Frontline video about Clinton and Trump, and the Trump part was interesting to see that basically his wealth wasn't considered legitimate among the wealth class, being a mere slumlord I guess, but it also seemed clear that Trump doesn't have the high-brow disdain for work, so he's been there with the people all along - selling Trump Steaks and Board games, and in the Wrestling Ring. Trump is a man of the carnival - where shame doesn't exist.

The quotes from the Shame article I took was seeing the problems of power. People without power can't shame people with power, so trying to shame Trump won't work, and in fact it will ENDEAR him to his followers, because they can see how shame just runs off him like a spring shower against a polyester suit.

----
In his essay, “Freedom and Resentment,” P.F. Strawson described it as the difference between a participant attitude and an objective attitude. When we view others with a participant attitude, we regard them as fellow moral agents, accountable for what they say and do. When we view them with an objective attitude, we see them not as agents, but as objects to be managed or perhaps obstacles to be overcome. Contempt functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency. This is how contempt accomplishes its dehumanizing work — by marking its target as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community.

... Contempt occurs in the context of social relationships that are themselves characterized by power differences. Those power differences have a profound effect on the shape of contempt and its effectiveness in diminishing the agency of its target. A contemptuous protest sign directed at the president is not on par with a contemptuous remark made by that president.

... Contempt expressed by the socially powerful toward the socially vulnerable is a much greater moral danger than contempt that flows in the opposite direction.

... Returning contempt for contempt legitimizes its presence in the public sphere. The only ones who benefit from this legitimacy are the people powerful enough to use contempt to draw the boundaries of the political community as they see fit. Socially vulnerable people cannot win the battle for respect by using contempt as a way to demand it.

... The only real defense against contempt is the consistent, strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.
---

I'm interested in the idea of "participant attitude" and an "objective attitude" and I see my failing is in general, I prefer the objective attitude for myself, perhaps my own defense against shame (don't take anything personally), but gives me a false platform to devalue or dismiss others I may disagree with.

I've also read the idea that Contempt is anger directed downward by class, while Resentment is anger directed upwards. So it makes sense that the masses have felt Contempt from "The Elite", and in turn they feel resentment against those who are above them.

Finally the interesting thing is that resentment on the Left is directed at (papa)Corporation, while resentment on the Right is directed against (mama) Government. And its never clear which is the bigger danger, but of course its when they work together that they can inflict the most suffering.

David Foster said...

Contempt seems strongly related to snark and to sarcasm, which Field Marshal Lord Wavell defined as "being clever at someone else's expense, and always offends." Also:

"Explosions of temper do not necessarily ruin a general's reputation or influence with his troops; it is almost expected of them ("the privileged irascibility of senior officers," someone has written), and it is not always resented, sometimes even admired, except by those immediately concerned. But sarcasm is always resented and seldom forgiven. In the Peninsula the bitter sarcastic tongue of Craufurd, the brilliant but erratic leader of the Light Division, was much more wounding and feared than the more violent outbursts of Picton, a rough, hot-tempered man."

GregMan said...

None of this is new. Liberals have always viewed Conservatives with contempt. They wouldn't engage with us as far back as the Reagan Administration, preferring instead to call us "racists", "Neanderthals" and the rest of their paltry bag of epithets. The only thing that has changed with President Trump is that we are fighting contempt with contempt and scorn with scorn.

Anonymous said...

Stohr does not "ignore" or even "project" her (the Left's) own contempt
as much as subliminally recoil at the fact that the Right (READ: Trump, et al)
are - ahem - returning the contempt for the very first time.

They're "shocked! SHOCKED!"...to none of OUR surprise.

(...and it feels SO good!)
Why? Contempt is not necessarily "bad" per se;
it can be a necessary part of
exhibiting self-respect in the context of an external degrading force.

The Exile said...

"It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency. This is how contempt accomplishes its dehumanizing work — by marking its target as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community."

Leftists like her are so self-unaware. Every time that they call some one a racist, sexist, homophobe, misogynist, islamophobe, etc., etc., etc., this is exactly what they are doing: marking (their) targets as unworthy of engagement. However, Leftists do it not only to dehumanize their opponents, but also because they have no arguments that anyone with an ounce of logic doesn't find astoundingly stupid.