Conquering the Pandemic of Contempt

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to introspect and contemplate changes in ourselves and the world. While all negative emotions are baneful in high doses, contempt may be singled out as particularly pernicious. Even before Covid-19 catapulted our world, Harvard Business School professor and social scientist, Arthur Brooks, bemoans in his 2019 publication, Love Your Enemies, that the “pandemic of contempt” in political discourse so consumes people on either side of a divide that consensus is almost impossible. Though he focuses on the bipartisan rift that typifies current American politics, his message of conquering contempt is significant for us in India as well as these baneful emotion courses much of our discourse, both political and otherwise.

According to Brooks, anger and disgust are conjoined in contempt, and thus the combined emotion is more destructive than either one alone. He quotes philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who claimed that contempt involves the belief in the ‘worthlessness’ of a fellow human being. Unlike anger, which can erupt and boil, but eventually peters out, contempt tends to endure. Further, anger sometimes serves a corrective function if it’s directed at social injustices. By expressing anger, we hope that our opponents will change their ways because we still perceive them as one of us. In contrast, contempt denigrates, demeans, and disgraces the other and precludes ‘us’ from working with ‘them.’

Contempt harms both the instigator and the receiver, physically and psychologically. Relationship expert, John Gottman, maintains that contempt compromises our immune systems and can blunt our cognitive faculties. Brooks states that disdain for can make us unappealing and repulsive, even to those who concur with us. While we are resigned to watching politicians, spanning ideologies of all shades and stripes, spew contempt for their opponents, many ordinary people also exhibit this emotion on a daily basis, on social media.

Brooks argues that social media amplifies this emotion by permitting us to block out dissenting news and views, making us more rabid in our belief that we, and we alone, are right, while those who disagree with us are not only wrong but despicable. Further, contempt feeds on itself, increasing the number of people who fall in the enemy camp.

What can we do to stem contempt from perpetuating? Gottman gives Brooks four-pointers. First, we need to cultivate empathy for others. When people vent their feelings, we may attempt to understand their perspective instead of butting in with a rejoinder. Second, in our interactions, we may maintain a rule, wherein for every negative comment we utter, we need to offer at least five positives. Third, however upset you are at someone, no one deserves our contempt. Finally, we may widen our ambit by seeking out people who hold divergent views.

Brooks also seeks counsel from the Dalai Lama who advises us to cultivate warm hearts While we need not abandon our views, we may be respectful and kind towards those who disagree with us. Brooks admits that when we are met with contempt, we can change at least our own hearts. Even if we don’t feel like meeting scorn with kindness, we should act as we do and before long we may even experience a warm, fuzzy feeling. Acting happy, kind, or sad can make actually make us feel the corresponding emotion. Brooks exhorts us to commit to acting with grace and gratitude instead of reacting to our feelings.

Gratitude also overrides derision. Brooks provides a poignant example to illustrate this. On publishing his first commercial book, Brooks received a lot of fan mail and one particularly acerbic one from a Texan. Brooks could have either ignored the message, insulted him in equal measure or decimated his every argument. Though Brooks felt maligned, he was also thankful that the man had bothered to read his book. In his reply, Brooks thanked the man for reading and commenting on every chapter. The Texan was taken aback by Brooks’ note and invited Brooks for dinner if he ever came to Dallas. With cordial appreciation, Brooks circumvented an acrimonious exchange.

Some believe that kindness is a sign of weakness. However, based on a survey that categorized fifty-two thousand leaders, social psychologist, Amy Cuddy found that warm beginnings are more likely to change hearts. Further, inspiring leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela eschewed contempt towards their oppressors even as they mobilized millions to march for freedom.

Face-to-face engagement between hostile groups can dilute contempt. Father Greg Boyle, a priest in Los Angeles, helped youngsters break free from street gangs that destroyed lives. He started a bakery chain called Homeboy Bakery where members of rival gangs were forced to work together. When the youngsters encountered each other as individuals, their contempt for their enemies dissolved.

Finally, creativity and innovation tend to flourish with diversity. Our lives will be enriched if we embrace disagreement and divergence. Brooks reminds us not to meet differences with taunts and insults. For competing ideas to thrive, we, as individuals and a culture, need to extend warmth and gratitude to our dissenters. As the world joins forces to combat the Coronavirus, perhaps, we should also strive to eliminate contemptuous thoughts, words, and deeds.

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