The Dangers of Contempt

January 12, 2018

by Shella Sadovnik

John Gottman, a marriage and relationship expert at the University of Washington, can tell in four minutes whether a couple will get divorced. He looks for one simple factor: Do they show signs of contempt toward each other? According to his published study, contempt was the “kiss of death” for relationships and nearly always led to divorce. What is contempt, and what makes it so fatal to relationships? “Contempt, a virulent mix of anger and disgust, is far more toxic than simple frustration or negativity. It involves seeing your partner as beneath you, rather than as an equal.”

Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, in the form of an attack from a position of relative superiority. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation because one person simply cannot imagine the contemptible (read, deplorable) other has any value.

Reviewing the New Yorker covers depicting President Donald Trump from the past year, I can think of no other description for them but contempt. Take, for example, the October 30th New Yorker Halloween cover, featuring President Trump as a sinister clown with razor-sharp teeth leaning out from behind a tree in a dark forest. This cover, just like the covers from January 23rd, March 6th, and December 18th & 25th, all have a similar feel — they aren’t critical of Trump or the actions he has taken as president. Instead, they seethe with contempt.

It is no secret that many on the Left, and many even within the Republican Party, do not agree with President Trump’s policies and deeply loathe his persona. There is nothing unique in that sentiment, as President Bush was much reviled by Democrats and others on the Left as well. The difference between contempt and criticism, no matter how deep the critique, can be best illustrated in the New Yorker cover about President Bush drawn at the peak of disappointment regarding his handling of Hurricane Katrina.

In the illustration, President Bush sits in the oval office at his desk surrounded by Condoleeza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld while the entire room is nearly neck deep in flood-water. Here, the critique is piercing — President Bush’s entire administration has failed to provide the adequate support for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Yet this cover does not illustrate contempt; it illustrates criticism. It does not attack President Bush’s humanity, only his ability to handle his job.

By contrast, the October 30th clown cover of President Trump, the January 23rd cover depicting him as a child in a toy car driving through his inauguration, the March 6th cover portraying him as a small butterfly, and the December 18th & 25th cover illustrating him as Scrooge, take the disapproval to a different level — one of deep contempt. The illustrations are not political cartoons; they are dehumanizing screeds against our President.

And herein lies the problem. Criticism, even deep and scathing, places the other on equal footing. Political criticism asks the critiqued other, “How can you hold such a preposterous position?” Contempt, on the other hand, looks down at the other and asks, “How dare you exist?”

Our country is deeply divided, and the nearly 50 percent of the country that supported President Trump likely doesn’t read the New Yorker or know the extent of the contempt which exists against the President. But this contempt nevertheless makes reconciliation between both sides impossible because it has created a dynamic where there is no longer a discussion of ideas. Through a feeling of superiority and righteousness, those on the Left have convinced themselves they do not need to engage with those on the Right, and certainly need not pursue compromise.  After all, there can be no dialogue with a scary clown-like figure ready to pounce on unsuspecting children — he must be vilified and eliminated. In fact, many “activists” at our universities view speech itself as violence, making President Trump’s tweets a weapon worthy of a violent response.

But our country is not like a failing marriage — divorce is not an option and contempt only creates atrophying limbs that cannot be amputated. To prevent sepsis, we must resist the temptation to remove each other from the dialogue, and instead eliminate the toxic contempt itself, which may feel good in its righteousness but leaves our society very ill.

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Shella Sadovnik is a litigation attorney based in California.

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