A call to refuse contempt
Eddie Damstra | Thursday, September 27, 2018
This Tuesday, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture given by Dr. Arthur Brooks. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and a columnist for The New York Times. While I felt the entirety of the lecture was impressive and insightful, Brooks’ discussion of polarization and contempt particularly resonated with me.
Brooks told a story about a time when he gave a talk at a conservative conference and diverted from the rhetoric of other speakers at the conference by telling the audience that liberals are not “evil and stupid.” Upon saying this, a woman in the front row shouted out “I disagree. I think that they are all evil and stupid.” Brooks said this woman’s comment offended him because he knows countless progressives, including his own parents, that could never accurately be described as either evil or stupid. He said that this woman’s comment was emblematic of a general contempt held by many conservatives towards liberals. He emphasized that, of course, many liberals feel the same contempt towards conservatives.
Contempt, as Brooks said, is extremely dangerous. He said that his friend who works in reconciling marriages has found feelings of contempt to be the number one indicator of divorce. This is because contempt is different from anger. Anger suggests that an individual wants to initiate change. Holding contempt means one has lost any hope of change and is resigned to feelings of disdain. In the context of politics, holding contempt for a person on the opposite end of the political aisle means one has surrendered any attempt to persuade or reason with the other individual and is instead destined to insult and demean.
The moral implications of political contempt are devastatingly severe. I believe we are seeing some of those implications play out today, as political discourse, particularly the discourse of our elected officials, has devolved to name-calling and vitriolic offenses. To continue down this path is to ensure the absolute and irrevocable fragmentation of America along ideological lines. In other words, feelings of political contempt could destine America to suffer a brutal divorce, just as Brooks noted so many couples experience.
Furthermore, contempt is fundamentally antithetical to the very aim of politics. Isn’t politics largely about convincing others of the merits of your ideas? How can you ever achieve this through hurtful rhetoric? The answer, of course, is that you cannot. Persuasion only comes about through respectful dialogue.
Brooks suggested that instead of holding contempt for our political opposites, we should try to reason with them. We should respect their views and even try to find points of agreement. Efforts towards civil discourse are fundamental to the functioning of any successful society and we must attempt to restore such forms of respectful dialogue.
I felt particularly moved by this part of Brooks’ discussion of contempt because I believe that I have, at times, fallen into the trap of contempt. Brooks’ call to completely jettison all feelings of contempt resonated with me and left me determined to heed such advice.
It is important to note that refusing to feel contempt for those of opposing political views is not the same as conceding the validity of those views. I am a conservative, and as such I believe that many positions of the progressive left are unsound and could lead the nation in a wrong direction. However, I do not believe that progressives are inherently stupid or evil people. All of my liberal friends are highly intelligent and extremely good people. This does not mean that I agree with them, but it does mean that I refuse to allow my disagreement with their ideas to translate into contempt towards them as individuals.
In a time when the country is plagued with unprecedented levels of political polarization, I believe Dr. Arthur Brooks’ call to refuse feelings of contempt for our ideological opposites is essential. If we as a nation truly want to cease our descent towards utter disunion, we should all strive to abide by this advice.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.