Whenever you have more than one person dealing with an issue or problem, differences in opinion are inevitable. In a nation of over 300 million citizens, a Congress of 535 members, and executive and judicial branches, there are bound to be some disagreements about how the country should be run. What isn’t inescapable is the constant berating of opponents with demeaning, divisive and often demonizing rhetoric.
We have allowed our differences in opinion and approach to drive a war of words, which has ultimately devolved into cowardly contempt for those who dare to disagree with us. Arthur Brooks, president of American Enterprise Institute, recently said at a Harvard Kennedy School of Government forum, “More than we have an anger problem in American politics, we have a contempt problem in American politics.” He then defined contempt as “the utter conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” So while we often say we have a political polarization problem, the real issue is a contempt problem.
Contempt is a cancer to the soul of our society and is not limited to the political arena. We sometimes develop such contempt for a noisy neighbor, for people whose belief systems are different or whose lifestyles don't match our worldview. The easiest way to dismiss the value of another is by developing contempt for them.
Years ago, I found myself in an interactive workshop with people who suffer from chronic pain. In my breakout group, there were a large number of longshoremen from the shipping docks of California. To be honest, I had never met a longshoreman, but I quickly surmised that these were not my kind of people. Every time we had a break they would quickly gather outside and puff down as many cigarettes as they could. Their language was coarse, their conversations crude and their stories turned my stomach. I was shocked to learn that certain four-letter words could be used as a noun, verb and adjective — all in the same sentence! So, I kept my mouth closed, stayed mostly to myself and — I confess — even indulged in some self-righteous judgment of these miserable souls. The cancer of contempt was growing swiftly and exponentially.
Then one morning, in a moment I shall never forget, everything changed. I set my newly developed contempt aside and began to interact with the longshoremen. And while I thought initially that perhaps I was there to teach them something, I rapidly realized that they were elevating me. The lessons I learned from them about kindness and courage, hope and resilience, friendship and unconditional love transformed not only how I saw them but, more importantly, how I saw myself as well. Contempt for these longshoremen had given way and was replaced by respect and deep admiration. (Before returning home I asked my wife Debbie how she would feel if I came home with a T-shirt that said, “I love longshoremen!”)
In his Harvard remarks, Brooks mentioned that he once wrote to the Dalai Lama and asked what he should do when he feels contempt toward others. The response was simple: practice warm-heartedness. This is not to say that the answer to what ails our nation, our communities or personal relationships is a big old group hug or singing some songs around a campfire. Being warmhearted does not require you to lay aside your principles or abandon your beliefs; you simply have to extend tolerance and understanding, along with a pinch of patience and maybe even some kindness and compassion.
In our modern media world, it is much easier to have contempt for those who disagree with us than it is to engage in meaningful dialogue. If I feel that my opponent is utterly worthless, it is easier for me to make ranting personal attacks rather than reasoned arguments. If I am convinced that those who disagree with me are evil, it is easier for me to melt down their Twitter feed or blow up their Facebook page with a barrage of anger-driven bombast and bluster.
The way we communicate with those we disagree with speaks volumes about who we are as individuals, as political parties and as members of society. We cannot allow manufactured contempt to crush crucial conversations or annihilate our ability to interact and address the issues we must confront in our country.
Abraham Lincoln’s approach was right: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Add in a little warm-heartedness and understanding and we can move the nation — and every conversation — forward.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.