Karen Stohr on Contempt

Karen Stohr has a wonderful essay on contempt and the current political discourse in the NYTimes Stone section today.  An excerpt:

It may seem as though the best response to Trump’s contempt is to return it in kind, treating him the same way he treats others. The trouble, though, is that contempt toward Trump does not function in the same way that his contempt toward others functions. Even if we grant that Trump deserves contempt for his attitudes and behaviors, his powerful social position insulates him from the worst of contempt’s effects. It is simply not possible to disregard or diminish the agency of the president of the United States. This means that contempt is not a particularly useful weapon in the battle against bigotry or misogyny. The socially vulnerable cannot wield it effectively precisely because of their social vulnerability.

The better strategy for those who are already disempowered is to reject contempt on its face. Returning contempt for contempt legitimizes its presence in the public sphere. The only ones who benefit from this legitimacy are the people powerful enough to use contempt to draw the boundaries of the political community as they see fit. Socially vulnerable people cannot win the battle for respect by using contempt as a way to demand it. In an environment where contempt is an acceptable language of communication, those who already lack social power stand to lose the most by being its targets. The only real defense against contempt is the consistent, strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.

2 thoughts on “Karen Stohr on Contempt

  1. Does it imply that contemptuous behaviour between socially empowered agents is OK? Also, it ignores the psychoanalytic scars that contempt leaves on the socially disempowered, that may lead to internalisation or much worse.

  2. @ Tanmoy: 2 thoughts. We are not in a position to use contempt to mitigate the effects of Trump’s contempt on the socially disempowered; he will not stop using contempt as a weapon just because we start to use it. and also: contempt towards Trump is experienced as contempt towards themselves by some (*many?) Trump voters who are also socially disempowered. Do we really want to drive them even further into the arms of that camp? We should oppose his policies and positions vigorously, without doing anything to make those voters feel even more alienated from the “coastal elites.”

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