Our culture is swimming in an ocean of contempt. And we’re drowning.
Politics, which has for the better part of two decades majored in the science of smear, is a major source of this social pollution. Liberals call conservatives stupid and conservatives call liberals un-American. Campaigns are organized around opportunities for disdain and mockery. In recent years, political commentators have openly called their opponents “idiots,” “liars and murderers” and, in one notable case, even called the president of the United States a “jackass.”
The inevitable result of such contempt is more contempt. And with it, resentment, bitterness, hostility and gridlock. While Americans complain about Congress’s inability to get things done, they have taken the contempt of Congress – and within Congress – for granted. But how are people supposed to work together after they’ve just called each other idiots?
Contempt is destructive to communal life and wellbeing. According to Princeton Professor (and Rabbi) Uri Cohen, ancient Judaism prohibited the use of mockery, except when it expressed contempt for idolatry. In all other cases it was forbidden. Likewise, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus strongly warned his followers against using contemptuous language.
Contempt eats away at any social institution, whether political, ecclesiastical or familial. In a paper titled, “Ridicule as a Weapon,” Professor J. Michael Waller quotes the Czech novelist Milan Kundera as saying, “No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled, because laughter is the rust that corrodes everything.”
But the rust of contempt not only corrodes great movements, it eats away at families and churches and communities. Contempt is a social cancer.
In the bestseller, “Blink,” Malcom Gladwell relates the research of Professor John Gottman, from the University of Washington. Gottman has been able to identify couples who will experience relationship failure with an accuracy that is unmatched by marital therapists, marital researchers and pastoral counselors.
His secret? Professor Gottman watches couples for the four key signs that predict serious marital discord: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. When he sees such behavior, he knows that a couple is highly likely to split up.
But even among these four negative behaviors, one is worse than all the rest: contempt. Contempt, Gottman says, “is qualitatively different from” these other behaviors and “far more damaging.” Contempt, according to research, can even predict the number of colds a husband or wife gets – it is so stressful that it affects the immune system’s ability to fight off infection.
Contempt is used to reject and exclude others from community – even when it is a community of two in a marriage, or of four in a family. And with contempt, what goes around comes around. It is a communicable disease. It spreads from person to person through insult, sarcasm, mockery and body language (rolling eyes and scornful facial expressions).
Jesus, who understood better than anyone the dynamics of social interaction, saw contempt as devastating to a life well lived. In his famous “Sermon on the Mount,” he begins his teaching on true inner goodness with a warning against anger and contempt.
Anger is usually, in our experience, wrapped up with a sense of self-righteousness and carries with it a component of malice. “But,” as Dallas Willard once put it, “contempt is a greater evil than anger… it is a kind of studied degradation of another . . . It is never justifiable or good.”
The instruments of contempt – profanity, mockery, insult, and the like – have no place in family life or national conversation. Jesus warned in the most vigorous language possible that those who use contempt will pay a dreadful price for it. In America, we are already making payments, and the interest rates are skyrocketing.