What fills you with contempt? Murderers? People who whistle? Those imbeciles who put the toilet paper roll facing toward the wall? Maybe… liberals? Conservatives?
Contempt is to relationships as a cockroach is to a pot of soup, even a lil’ bit of it can ruin the whole. To have contempt for someone requires you to dismiss them, to write them off with a curl of the lip and a sneer. It is to make less than, to dehumanize. Once you’ve made the “Other” the object of your contempt, you can no longer imagine them as a complex person. Yet, too often we look with contempt toward those who disagree with us. If we wish to return “civility” to politics, we must then also banish contempt.
Social science researchers have consistently documented that people tend to assume that those who hold differing political views from them are less intelligent, less informed or just ill-intentioned. One of many forms of “attribution bias,” this cognitive defense mechanism can creep into political discourse and turn frustration into contemptuous dismay. Caught up in ourselves, a label delivered with a sneer becomes an easy stand in for nuanced engagement. The author John Green asked: “what is, in my opinion, the central problem of human existence? I am stuck in my body, in my consciousness, seeing out of my eyes. I am the only me I ever get to be, and so I am the only person I can imagine endlessly complexly. That’s not the problem, actually. The problem is you. You are so busy taking in your own wondrousness that you can’t be bothered to acknowledge mine.”
A week with Values & Capitalism’s Summer Honors Program at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) showed me what happens when I’m deprived of that cognitive cop-out. I had a hard time acknowledging that the smug–ahem–respectable conservative student across from me didn’t disagree because they lacked brains, as I knew that the AEI crew had selected the cream of the crop (and somehow also me). What’s more, these students were my brothers and sisters in Christ. If I couldn’t trust that their hearts were generally aimed in the right direction I might as well pull a John the Baptist and make for the wilderness.
Lo’ and behold, without contempt, a conversation emerged, respectful and restrained. That is not to say we agreed on everything–far from it! Just ask one of my classmates about my many soapbox speeches that day. Yet, by depriving us of two of the easiest ways to slip into contempt, either dismissal of my peers’ intelligence or their motives, AEI created a space for real dialogue.
As an intern living on a pasta diet the last two weeks in a flat with four strangers, I know that life’s not all fine wines, distinguished scholars, and Christian conferences. So how do we bring the lessons of the conference beyond the ivory towers of Dupont Circle? By listening to others’ values.
Instead of attributing differing opinions to malice, we should instead listen to the values underlying individual’s beliefs. In their 2015 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg demonstrated how little people listen to and appeal to the values of others. When competing for a $500 cash prize by penning an article to convince their political opposition on a controversial topic, only 9 percent of liberals and 8 percent of conservatives used arguments that appealed to the others values.
Instead of attributing malice to those we disagree with, we must instead imagine them complexly, as people of intelligence and integrity. By avoiding the cockroach of contempt, perhaps we can return some civility to the political discussion.