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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