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.
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.
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.