You’ve likely felt it many times. That your opinion is worth nothing. That you’re not permitted to talk. That you are inherently lower than the person talking you down. And no matter how educated you become, how much you try to understand, you’re stuck on the bottom rung of the social caste.
Or perhaps you’ve been on the other side. Believing that you know everything. Believing your self-declared credentials make you better qualified to talk, regardless of the subject. Believing that you don’t need to listen because you’ve already seen it all. Believing that your experience speaks for all citizens of Earth. For the issue is solved and it’s just a bunch of complainers ruining everything.
Or you’ve been both. Contempt is difficult to spot for the untrained mind.
The very core of an abusive relationship is contempt. Controlling personalities find it easier when the other person’s very existence is invalidated. But in society, it manifests itself in ways beyond the worst examples. You can see it in parenting, in which children talking back are inherently seen as nuisances. Pointing out racist and sexist jokes only gives you back labels of “oversensitive” and “lacking a sense of humour” (the latter to which I reply with this). We claim “innocent until proven guilty”, yet mercilessly scrutinize the testimony of rape victims. And for our current capitalist system, contempt may as well be a core value. Students protesting high tuition are seen as coddled and entitled. Teachers protesting the government bargaining illegally are seen as obstructive and unpleasable, as are workers in general fighting against the inherent power imbalance between them and bosses. But when you’re on the side with benefits, you have more protection against unwanted opinions.
In a way, contempt is a shield. Having your perception of the world fractured or even shattered is heartbreaking, and it is an arduous effort to rebuild your worldview. The just-world fallacy is one way contempt slithers into the mind; who doesn’t want to believe that what happens to a person depends on their own actions? It implies you have control over your life. If you really don’t, well, that’s a frightening thought. And it’s draining to be emotionally invested in a person, to the point where it’s tempting to simply shut off your connection by believing their own doing led to their current problems.
I don’t claim to understand the motives of people like Margaret Wente and Barbara Kay when they so passionately rail against the notion of rape culture. The above paragraph is merely speculation, as I too am disconnected from social circles like theirs. But when I hear about this victim blaming, the shadow of my past hovers over me, reminding me of being powerless and invalidated, my lived experience meaning nothing. Yet people support these opinions which attempt to silence the voices of those who have lived through trauma, and that’s depressing. I am convinced that the most dangerous person in the world is a sycophant, for one cannot have power without support. The sound of one person speaking in an empty room reaches no one, but a mob of people shaming one, that’s power. Still, I attempt to be sympathetic to the Wentes and Kays of the world, as believing in malice over ignorance also drains away hope.
Contempt will only cloud your vision, stunting your emotional growth with no one to learn from. The antidote to contempt is empathy, of course, but humanity’s greatest challenge is being unable to live through others’ experiences. It’s more than claiming to be open-minded; one has to listen in order to understand a person’s motives and how their actions and the world’s reactions connect. And to listen, one has to step outside their echo chamber and talk to the people they once criticized from a distance, protected from their backlash. Looking inside myself, what I say and do does not occur in a vacuum, so why frame others in my own simplistic template? Most importantly, it’s okay to be wrong. One who believes they are always right believes they never need to change. It is by making mistakes that we grow and adapt.
I recently realized that when thinking of Stephen Harper’s supporters, I am incapable of seeing their motive in a way that isn’t condescending, and only reading and listening to other left-wing sources feeds contempt. And while I am incensed by his actions, I cannot assume that everyone else shares his motives. And so, I too have a lot to learn. I hope we all can realize the ways contempt manifests itself and work together for a future in which empathy dominates our human interactions. Someday.