Contempt may be partisan America’s unofficial emotional sponsor, a feeling of moral superiority that fuels our fantasies of “owning”, “trolling”, “dunking” and “shadowing” opponents. Contempt thrives in this “outrageous industrial complex” and hits home, creating a chilling silence at kitchen tables across the country.
Source: NotionPic / Shutterstock
While disgust protects humans from pathogens and anger can inspire us to defend values or repair relationships, contempt, a mix of the two, is uniquely social and hierarchical. At its best, contempt cools an anger or generates a brilliant comedy. Primarily, it inspires in others a defense – a counter-contempt – that fuels hostility and corrodes cooperation. Contempt is a disowned part of the human being.
Contempt is apparently everywhere, but it remains poorly studied in the social sciences and underused in our vocabularies. Academics speculate that contempt sounds too much like “content”. Despite its dwindling use over the centuries, it is time to call it by name to help break our addiction. But it is not easy. Our “culture of contempt”, a phrase that author Arthur Brooks offers in his book Love your enemies, finds shelter behind virtuous group affiliations; it is constructed and disguised as fear, despair, shame and … self-loathing.
Human beings unwittingly harbor contempt for themselves, other people, parties and ideas, but also for the qualities and traits associated with masculinity and femininity. It creeps into everyday language.
Contempt towards pink and blue
Contempt for femininity can be seen in the mockery of shrill women, “cat women” and “drama queens”, “bimbos” and “gold diggers”. It’s easy to target people who don’t quite fit pink or blue gender boxes or offer outrage at how male physical characteristics affect athletic fairness.
Racism and sexism are symptoms of an underlying contempt, and #MeToo was a fair response that reflects the persuasive power of anger in the face of contemptuous male behavior. But in more hidden ways, gender superiority motivates the attempt to rule the female body and makes way for regressive workplace policies, unjust division of housework, and prejudices about the inferiority of women’s time over men’s.
“Men’s time is treasured as a finite resource (diamonds) and women’s time is plentiful (like sand),” especially during parenting, author and activist Eve Rodsky wrote in her book Correctness (page 53).
“We despise poor ‘lazy’ mothers. We despise “distracted” working mothers. We despise rich ‘selfish’ mothers, “noted writer Kim Brooks in a New York Times piece. Conversely, fathers are often praised for simply introducing themselves.
In opposite-sex couples, it’s easier to hurt a partner with negativity than make him feel good with positivity, according to research conducted by psychologist John Gottman and his team. This study found evidence to the contrary in same-sex couples, where there is often less hierarchy of status and a greater focus on equity and power sharing, both safeguards against contempt.
Men in opposite-sex relationships generally do not come to psychotherapy with the problem of contempt. Yet, beneath the surface, it permeates their view that their partner’s femininity is synonymous with frailty, hyperemotion, manipulation or that female tears are irrational ploys seeking attention.
No wonder women have countered this slow-dripping contempt with righteous feminist movements and counter-contemptuous language (Stein, 2011).
It is difficult to differentiate the slogan “toxic masculinity” as a valid critique of the toxic cultural programming of males from its use as a grenade of contempt thrown at men in general. Either way, many men tend to absorb this term as slanderous because of their healthy self-reliance, courage, or risk-taking. Lead men towards counter-contempt rather than the alliance. It also mirrors the entertainment industry’s cynical and antiquated portrayal of men as incompetent, violent, or emotionally unfavorable, neglecting their caregiving identities.
We continue to condescend to “stupid dads”, ironically wonder if men are “necessary”, emasculate “soft” men who don’t meet male norms, reduce muscular guys to “meat heads” and mock “Chads”, ” bros “and ‘mansplainers.’ We roll our eyes to emotionally illiterate men who try to fix too much and listen too little. We colloquially define “boy’s club culture” by being exclusive or “locker room chat” with misogyny instead of camaraderie, just as men face an unprecedented crisis of disconnection and suicide.
Under the influence of contempt, we become devoid of curiosity and lose the minutiae. And when we look out the windows of our home office at the workers going down the sewers or climbing the skyscrapers, we see only workers, not the concept of masculinity.
“Our culture often treats a man’s vices as the result of his masculinity,” noted author David French in an essay, “while seeing his virtues as the result of his humanity.”
Masculinity and manhood now face a showdown. Some support it masculinity must return to its ancestral roots; others that masculinity should be reinvented. When you invoke your contempt instead of calling out the other party, you find that the middle ground between extremes offers wisdom or that tapping into your anger is more productive to accomplish a goal.
Free yourself from contempt
Contempt, like masculinity, is not inherently toxic, although our relationship to this emotion may be. I believe that observing contempt and breaking it down into its component emotions is a first step in recognizing the unwelcome inner experiences that it often hides.
The next is to make a serious effort to understand the values or moral basis of the other, as defined by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. To do this it is necessary to ignore insults and derision and instead appeal to each other’s instincts for care, fairness, loyalty and authority, and then dialogue on the narratives and stories connected to these moral foundations.
Gottman and his research group called contempt “the sulfuric acid of love”. And as the flirty phase of romance erodes with uncontrolled sighs or sarcasm, so does our capacity for love, respect, and higher vision: the ability to look at humanity in our spouses and neighbors with curiosity, despite differences.
Let’s start by noticing the contempt before it burns a hole, and perhaps progress will follow.