The Politics of Contempt

All you have to do these days is read just about any polit­i­cal post — say on Face­book if not some oth­er favorite web­site –and then go to the com­ments section:

Per­son A: “Per­son B, what a liar! You should be forced to prove your accu­sa­tion. Peo­ple like you are ene­mies of the state”

Per­son C: “Has any­one fact checked this?? Oh, please let it be TRUE

Per­son D: “no it isn’t true, fools”

Per­son E: “Per­son D You are an idiot igno­rant ass!”

Per­son F: “Per­son E May I say you are a com­plete dumb shit?”



Per­son I: “Per­son G You are a MURDERER. Why don’t you go back to the dirty lit­tle hole in the ground you came from”

And these exam­ple com­ments are, you know, rather tame. It’s clear no one ever wins such exchanges. No, they don’t, and yet this behav­ior has become our every­day pol­i­tics of con­tempt, the cur­rent prac­tice found all over the web where what once might have been debate has devolved into nasty attempts to destroy those who don’t share indi­vid­ual views — through per­son­al insults, taunts, mean­ness, sar­casm, name-call­ing, aggres­sive and threat­en­ing trolling, pro­fan­i­ty, cut-throat ridicule and oth­er expres­sions of inter­per­son­al dis­gust. Don’t you know, both sides are absolute­ly sat­u­rat­ed with hate and supe­ri­or­i­ty, like two vicious gangs intent on wip­ing each oth­er out.


This is us. This is our town square and what we are choos­ing to do in it in full pub­lic view. This debil­i­tat­ing, per­son­al­ized pow­er strug­gle. Do you think it’s in any way heart­break­ing? Who ben­e­fits from this non­sen­si­cal par­ti­san war, any­way? Who wants us to be fight­ing with one anoth­er in this way, and why?

If this were a mar­riage, the research would say divorce is immi­nent, con­tempt being high­ly cor­re­lat­ed with mar­riages break­ing apart. If this were a fam­i­ly, the fam­i­ly would be torn to pieces with recrim­i­na­tions. If this were a team, the team would erupt into fist-fights in a con­fer­ence room before com­plete­ly dis­in­te­grat­ing. But this is not a mar­riage, a fam­i­ly or a team. This is our coun­try at war with itself. Keep going and all we real­ly need are the firearms to do each oth­er in phys­i­cal­ly. And who would actu­al­ly ben­e­fit from such a war? I’ll guar­an­tee you, some­body will bene­fit from a blood thirsty sec­ond civ­il war.

If you aren’t look­ing at this divide, scared by the lev­els of con­tempt and dis­gust, angry about the loss of civil­i­ty and pos­i­tive norms for con­duct, then I ask that you care­ful­ly reflect and con­sid­er what I’m say­ing. In a mud fight, one side is not going to con­vince the oth­er by adding more mud. And by now the mean­ness — the mud — is everywhere.

What is it they say about revenge? It’s like per­son­al­ly drink­ing rat poi­son but then expect­ing the rat to die.

The only way out of par­ti­san con­tempt is to decide it is a form of col­lec­tive social fail­ure for which we are all respon­si­ble — no mat­ter who said what — and as a first step, sim­ply not par­tic­i­pate in the mud-sling­ing and rat poi­son­ing. That does­n’t mean we are silent. It does­n’t mean “mov­ing on” or giv­ing up. It does­n’t mean we have to all imme­di­ate­ly try to sit down and talk it out in one big kum­baya moment of re-civ­i­liz­ing our­selves, but it does mean the obvi­ous, that we don’t equate free speech with a bunch of destruc­tive, mock­ing insults and attacks on one anoth­er’s integri­ty in some mis­placed effort to defend our­selves while tak­ing some­body else down.

We can take a moment to cool off. We don’t have to love each oth­er or even agree with one anoth­er in order to re-cre­ate a bet­ter Amer­i­ca. We can have very dif­fer­ent views of what needs to hap­pen on the issues… and talk about it. It would be nice, don’t you think, to be able to talk to each oth­er as if the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca still exist­ed — “states” being our own men­tal and emo­tion­al and even par­ti­san mind­sets, not just loca­tions on a map?

I encour­age every­body to put the top back on that bot­tle of poi­son — as an act of per­son­al lead­er­ship, courage and self-respect. 

That could be our start.


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  • So true, Dan, and Thanks! So sad. We are on the same page with this con­cern as I just wrote a blog with the chal­lenge, “Can Chat Room Dis­cus­sions Go Deep & Hot With­out Going Down?” My hope is that we begin teach­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills in class and show evi­dence that these allow us all to dis­agree — while build­ing good­will with those who dif­fer. Even a first step will offer us the hope many crave for a new direc­tion … Best, Ellen

  • Ellen~

    I must take a look at your post! I’m not think­ing my encour­age­ment is the be-all and end-all of end­ing nasty pol­i­tics, just one per­son­’s idea for a start. Glad to know we are aligned in the jour­ney to help our brains and our cul­ture grow into our humanity.

    All the best

  • Michael G. wrote:

    All well and good, but I can’t tell you the num­ber of times I’ve said some­thing like “Well, accord­ing to the Office of xxx, the per­cent­age of yyy who drink zzz with their wheaties is etc. etc.” and get the reply: f you idiot Lib­tard. It’s not always a ques­tion of who start­ed it. Some peo­ple get upset when you sim­ply state facts.

  • Hi Michael~

    Yes, that is so true, and at least for me, it invites me to an imme­di­ate drink at the rat poi­son bar. I guess I’d say it does­n’t pro­hib­it you from con­tin­u­ing the con­ver­sa­tion if you want by set­ting a boundary…i.e., “Hey, I’m just try­ing to report the facts and offer a view­point. Are you will­ing to engage with me with­out the insults?” Might work, might not. We can’t con­trol more than our own behav­ior. And we can always choose to leave the encounter or keep going, as we wish.

    Thanks for stop­ping by!


  • Dan,

    You’ve put my thoughts into a beau­ti­ful­ly word­ed post that real­ly can’t be shared enough.

    Thank you so much!


  • Some­times I feel dis­heart­ened by the increas­ing reports of this kind of con­tempt in many polit­i­cal realms, not just in the halls — and hotels — of elect­ed offi­cials, but in stores, restau­rants and school­yards. Slate, in con­junc­tion with the Souther Pover­ty Law Cen­ter, recent­ly post­ed a com­pendi­um of inci­dents of racism, big­otry and abuse since Don­ald Trump was elected.

    I don’t think we’ll be able to put the genie back in the bot­tle, and I don’t think we’ll be able to cap the bot­tle. The metaphor I am work­ing is more of a drain plug. I believe many peo­ple are angry and afraid, and our pres­i­dent elect has giv­en implic­it and explic­it per­mis­sion to vent their griev­ances and fears. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as Ger­ry Jam­pol­sky not­ed decades ago in his time­less clas­sic “Love is Let­ting Go of Fear”, I am nev­er upset for the rea­son I think.

    My hope is that as more peo­ple get in touch with their anger and fear, some will dig deep­er, look inward, rec­og­nize the true (inner) sources of their anger and fear, stop pro­ject­ing the anger and fear onto oth­ers, and shift from chron­ic “oth­er­ing” to an aware­ness that we all have anger and fear, and are doing our best with the [self-]knowledge we have. 

    I don’t expect this will hap­pen any­time soon, but some­times great pain and dis­com­fort is required for great change.

  • Pam~

    Thank you so much. Your kind words are great­ly appreciated.


  • Hi Joe~

    Thanks for tak­ing it down a lay­er or two. I’m with you, that the sheer weight of the neg­a­tive emo­tions may help some begin to ask deep­er ques­tions and help them give up on their pro­jec­tions. That is a larg­er, longer hope. What your com­ment helps me real­ize is that I’m speak­ing in this post at a more behav­ioral lev­el and con­scious choic­es about per­son­al con­duct. It isn’t about try­ing to change oth­er peo­ple either way, but yours is the more pro­found road. I guess my hope would be that if I choose on a behav­ioral lev­el to not drink the poi­son, I’ll ulti­mate­ly also need to find deep­er rea­sons for doing so oth­er than the poi­son kinds of makes me sick. 

    My one wor­ry about too much “drain­ing,” as con­trast­ed with the “cap” metaphor is that fear­ful respons­es and angry vent­ing, once nor­mal­ized, may lead to even worse behav­ior. Angry argu­ments on the inter­net are — to use a third metaphor — a gate­way drug. Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty would argue for that, and so would the Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy of Thich Nhat Hanh.

    All the best

  • Anoth­er time­ly and thought­ful post Dan.

    Yes, we have cre­at­ed a “drain­ing space” so per­va­sive and some­times so tox­ic that it is hard to imag­ine how it will ever be a “safe” place for real dialogue. 

    Maybe this new town square will be aban­doned like the out­dat­ed malls of the 60’s are today. No one will want to go there any­more. My twit­ter par­tic­i­pa­tion has dwin­dled sig­nif­i­cant­ly in ’16, not just because it’s becom­ing bor­ing and repet­i­tive, but because it’s like wan­der­ing into a garbage filled alleyway.

    How did we get here? Well these are the big and deep ques­tions. Some inter­re­lat­ed com­bi­na­tion of polit­i­cal abdi­ca­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ty based on greed, mon­ey dri­ven pol­i­tics that result in base neglect of the major­i­ty of the cit­i­zen­ry result­ing in eco­nom­ic restru­c­ur­ing that is rip­ping apart the cul­tur­al fab­ric. Add in tech­nol­o­gy and all it’s repercussions. 

    Where is per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty — so many might ask. Per­haps we sim­ply do not deeply under­stand that cor­re­la­tion between cul­tur­al and human/group dynam­ics. How a tox­ic struc­ture can­not pos­si­bly fos­ter pos­i­tive social/emotional growth. And per­haps the “cap” has been held down for too many for too long and we haven’t yet cre­at­ed the con­tain­ers for healthy expres­sion of all that we are feel­ing. Repres­sive will do that.

    Well, I digress big time. So all I can do is apply what I know to my own expres­sion. Extend a hand to add back into the world ways to feel and express (hon­est­ly) safely. 

    I feel these are times that the deep­est parts of our­selves will be called on. How we respond will be crit­i­cal to the heal­ing of our greater good. 

    Wise voic­es ask­ing sin­cere ques­tions like yours are part of that healing.

  • Louise~

    To me the dynam­ics are very much embed­ded in Amer­i­can cul­ture. When things fall apart, they fall apart in jus­ti­fied war­fare and blame, some­thing that is in the back­ground as a poten­tial in indi­vid­u­al­is­tic soci­eties. I see this most notably in teams where rela­tion­ships have dete­ri­o­rat­ed to the point that the group is dis­in­te­grat­ing. Typ­i­cal­ly, the only way for things to get bet­ter is for the unhap­py, neg­a­tive influ­encers to go away. That could be the leader or any of the mem­bers of the group. 

    Extrap­o­lat­ing these dynam­ics to the coun­try as a whole may not be entire­ly appro­pri­ate, but it leads me to won­der how we do repair things, as you men­tioned, since the neg­a­tive influ­encers can­not just go away. Aban­don­ing the mall sounds like a great idea, at least for awhile. 

    What I would say, always, is that peo­ple must think for them­selves. We can­not find an answer in slav­ish adher­ence to the dog­ma of any par­tic­u­lar group. There has to be ques­tion­ing and chal­leng­ing and peo­ple decid­ing things need to be bet­ter than they are — refus­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the neg­a­tive stuff and begin­ning to make inde­pen­dent agree­ments to cre­ate sup­port­ive, more pos­i­tive envi­ron­ments, some­times by devel­op­ing very clear expec­ta­tions of how peo­ple need to act, and stick­ing with these bound­aries. Even­tu­al­ly, I believe, this can iso­late the neg­a­tive behav­iors and cre­ate an alter­na­tive social structure.

    Any­way, that’s about as far as I’ve got­ten, with the begin­ning being decid­ing sim­ply not to drink the poi­son ourselves.

    Thank you so much, Louise. I deeply appre­ci­ate the chance for dia­logue with you and the spir­it of truth and com­pas­sion you bring to the exchange. It’s a mod­el for all.

    All the best

  • Vanessa Vaile wrote:

    I’ve been wrestling with the same … chal­lenge. Late­ly, I’ve been blog­ging less but com­ment­ing more — and more wide­ly — try­ing to engage. Not chang­ing the cul­ture (ha!) but try­ing to detox­i­fy one nudge (or exchange) at a time. This is not some­thing to trust to mod­er­a­tion algorithms

    So, Dan, this, as ever, is much appre­ci­at­ed. Admit­ting that an atmos­phere of tox­ic com­ment exchanges is a col­lec­tive fail­ure has to be the first step — like admit­ting to being an alcoholic. 

    I’d like to see Ellen’s post too.

  • Years ago I went to my first cam­paign school and I was sur­prised by the first emphat­ic les­son we were taught. DON’T ARGUE WITH ANYONE. It is a waste of time and you won’t change minds.

    If you go to a door and they hate your can­di­date, smile at them, wish them a nice day, mark an X beside the name, move quick­ly on and cross them off all lists, don’t waste a moment, a thought or a pen­ny on that person. 

    Put your ener­gy into those that agree with you, move them from pas­sive agree­ment to vot­ing, from vot­ing to con­tribut­ing and/or volunteering. 

    If we fol­lowed this strat­e­gy online we’d get fur­ther and be happier.

  • Vanes­sa –
    I very much appre­ci­ate your strat­e­gy — focus­ing on com­ment threads. I’ve seen a few peo­ple do it well — bring­ing back an atmos­phere that is more rea­son­able or cor­dial, and I notice when one per­son responds with more matu­ri­ty, it rais­es the game. Thank you.

    BTW, Ellen’s fine post is here.

    All the best

  • Hi Lin­da~

    I absolute­ly think you are right that there are cir­cum­stances where it’s best sim­ply not to engage at all. My hope is there where peo­ple make the choice to engage that they also make the choice to do so respect­ful­ly rather than sim­ply throw­ing invec­tive and pro­fane insults at one anoth­er. I believe in the long run soci­ety ben­e­fits if we can find (or cre­ate) more ground between full dis­en­gage­ment and ful­ly dis­re­spect­ful engage­ment — and actu­al­ly move the con­ver­sa­tion to a more civ­il place. It’s a very tough chal­lenge to do this online, but I’ve seen a cou­ple of instances that real­ly impressed me and rep­re­sent­ed a kind of recon­struc­tive lead­er­ship that’s pret­ty cool. It’s a skill I hope more of us, includ­ing me, can learn. But again, yes, there are many sit­u­a­tions, such as cam­paign­ing door to door, or extreme­ly nasty exchanges on the web, where spend­ing any time at all in a neg­a­tive argu­ment is sim­ply bad for your own men­tal health and welfare.

    Much appre­ci­at­ed your com­ment. Thank you again.


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