Against Contempt


Contempt is extremely corrosive and will destroy relationships and society if not countered. Rather than encouraging people to repair a breach, contempt encourage people to separate, widening the gap. The solution is to truly listen to people you disagree with, looking for how you share values “the why” even when you disagree about what’s the best course “the what”.

When an issue comes up repeatedly via multiple sources I take it seriously and strive to figure out what I can do.  Contempt is the most recent issue that has surfaced in my life. I am striving to remove contempt from my life and encourage people I am interacting with to do the same. This post is an attempt to take the battle against contempt beyond the people I regularly interact with in person.

Often I will read a book which leads me to other books. It is not surprising that common themes emerge for books which are clustered together in this way. However… when I find a common theme emerging from multiple books which I came to from different sources I take notice. This suggests that either the issue is quite common, or that it is an issue that providence, fate, God, (whatever you want to call it) is asking me to pay attention to.  Contempt has been a significant feature in several excellent books I have read in the last month which came to me through varied sources:

  • Freakonomics interview of Arthur Brooks  prompted me to read his book Love Your Enemies. A call to not just be tolerant and be polite, but to actively care for others and to look for shared values. Reading this book helped me recognize spots of contempt in my life, which ironically included the organization that Brooks was the president of for 10+ years, the American Enterprise Institute. Learning something of Brook’s values has me taking a second look at their materials. I don’t necessarily agree with their positions, but I am learning from them rather than dismissing them.
  • Many people in my church are reading Saving Us, Katharine Hayhoe’s book about climate change. In this book Katharine suggests that only 7% of the US population are hard core climate change “deniers”: people who have taken a stand based on identity, and will be very hard (if not impossible) to effectively engage with. She encourages her readers to engage with everyone else by finding common values, and then show how those values naturally lead to working on the issue which have beneficial outcome rather than focusing on “climate change”. The book also touches on  the science of climate change, and actions people can take.
  • For years I have intended to read Miroslav Volk’s writings due to Tim Keller regularly citing Volk. I found an audio version of Volk’s book Flourishing freely available  from Mountain View public library’s digital service.  In this book Volk discusses of how all the “universal” religions, and especially Christianity, call followers to treat everyone well, not just their “tribe” because our values are universal, not just for our people. As he noted from the Bible, rain falls on righteous and the wicked, so we should shown respect  and  embrace “the other” recognizing God created and cares for all people, not just “our people”. I really appreciated his description of how religious identity can be weaponized by taking something universal and shrinking it down to serve a “local” cause in a process that Os Guinness called “cultural containment” in the book The Gravedigger Files.
  • A conversation with a friend as he was wrestling to assess his marriage encouraged me to re-read John Gottman’s  Seven Principles Making Marriage Work which has an extensive discussion of the corrosive impact of contempt on relationships, and identifies contempt  as the worst of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  A brief summary of Gottman’s work.

Contempt has become increasingly common since the 2016 presidential election season. I see people not just disagreeing with each other, but going a step further to attack each other and attribute bad, immoral, or evil motivation to people taking a different perspective. As this has continued I have seen the “middle” get hollowed out and people going to more and more extreme positions. Many people who I considered “reasonable” are taking increasingly extreme positions.  Especially heart-breaking is to see people attributing terrible attributes to the  opposing side, which then excuses them from doing exactly the same thing.  The short version of this is “They hate people, so I will hate on them”.  I have heard people I know and love say:

  • All republicans are liars. They are all racist at best, Nazis at worse. Well, except the 14 that voted to condemn Trump…. but the rest of keeping quiet. I can’t trust anyone who is a republican.
  • The liberals want to turn us into a socialist society which would rob  us of our freedom and remove God from society. We have to stop them by any means necessary.
  • The core of the media and Hollywood are part of the Illuminati. They have literally sold their souls to the devil (a real being) in exchange for success. You can’t trust anything they say and resistant anything they advocate. One encounter like this prompted me to write about Bono

When discussing COVID related issues like masks and vaccines are not approached as a matter of science, but have become a marker of identify, with hatred if not violence flaring up when people from the two different camps encounter each other.  I have seem people who have been friends for 10-20 years stop talking to each other because one voted for Trump and the other opposed Trump. I have heard stories of this happening within families. I know several churches that are being torn apart by the forced described in the article the evangelical church is breaking apart.

If you want to have an impact rather that merely feeling smug and self righteous I would encourage you to join me in the struggle to respectfully listen to “the other”, assuming they have good intent, even if their ideas are different from yours. Find common ground and work to solve problems! Beside the books above I would recommend the following resources could help develop your listening skills, resisting contempt, and to be more present with others:

  • Communication Skills Workbook
  • Nonviolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg suggests that more conflicts can be resolved if all the parties take the time to understand what the other person‘s needs are and clearly explain their needs. Marshall explains that once all parties understand the others needs, they are willing to find accommodations so that the other parties can meet there reasonable needs.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”

Romans 14:10-11 ESV (read the whole chapter)

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