It is not our differences that are undermining our society but our growing contempt that cuts us to the bone. Think about it. What most agitates and animates you in your differences with others over politics, religions, or social policy? Is it that someone has a different view point? Usually not. It is this awful dance of contemptuous arrogance where one or both parties – take on an elitist tone, acting like they are more “learned” or morally superior to their dance-partner, who knows nothing – is nothing.
Contempt is the deadliest form of relationship cancer. So says John Gottman – the famous marriage guru (chronicled by Malcom Gladwell) who with just 15 minutes of observation predicted with 90 percent accuracy whether married couples would be together 15 years later. Gottman defines contempt as trying to speak from a higher level while attempting to push another down to a lower level. Contempt – closely related to disgust – is all about hierarchy and wielding elitist power to hatefully exclude another from the community.
Contempt cannot be trusted. All of us have experienced decent, credible people corrupted by its deadly poison. It has been disturbing to watch people or whole news organizations become deranged over President Trump and before him Hillary Clinton or President Obama – clearly there is market-demand for contempt. Or, closer to home, to see a couple of executives or board members become the very thing they hate in a turf battle.
Hate distorts reality, prioritizes confirmation over truth, occupies and traps us in negative emotions, hollows-out, makes awful judgments, weaponizes power to destroy others. Hate is selfish, self-serving and destroys our conscience. Haters become what they hate. Extreme hate actually winds up empowering and aiding the other side. Off-the-rails hate has probably helped prop up Trump – by contrast making him look nearer normal. Hate can be trusted – to be absolutely untrustworthy. No one damages us the way we damage ourselves with hate-based contempt.
When Contempt Becomes a Cultural Riot
Our growing contempt feels like a cultural movement that is causing us to exaggerate our differences, join tribes and go-to-war with each other. We are not just angry at the other side, we wish to disassociate. Fifty percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats say they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party – up from five percent in 1960. Segregation is the historic word used to describe the shameful practice of separating oneself from an “inferior,” unworthy other group.
This tribal segregation, fed by growing partisanship and a narrowing of beliefs, is further fracturing our institutions: marriage, political parties, universities, church denominations and even brands we purchase – CNN vs. Fox on news. No surprise that 42 percent of Americans now describe themselves as political independents or “none-of-the-above” (versus 29 percent Democrats, 27 percent Republicans) up from 32 percent in 2004. No surprise, that the percentage of religiously unaffiliated or “nones” has doubled in the last 18 years and is the fastest growing religious category. We increasingly define ourselves by the relationships we do not have – not married, not engaged at work, not Democrat or Republican, not religiously affiliated. Communities are a basic building block for a society and yet in becoming so toxic and hate-filled these groups leave people with two dysfunctional choices – unconstructively alone or destructively together.
Colleges and Churches: When Institutions Become Instruments of Contempt
Where is this rising contempt coming from? Clearly, today’s internet and social media provide a way to weaponize, communalize and scale-up contempt like never before – immediately, emotionally, globally and anonymously. Technology surely helps explain low-cost, efficient delivery of contempt. But what about the manufacturing side – what have we learned and what values have we absorbed that makes us want to impose our views so powerfully, self-righteously and destructively on others? There is a term for forcing other to conform to our views: fascism.
When I was in graduate school back in the 70s, I thought that education was our great hope. I thought that once we as a society became more educated, we would have more aligned views and more civil discourse on controversial issues.
Unfortunately, the result has been just the opposite. Research shows that as our levels of education rise – so does our intolerance for those with whom we disagree. For example, new research indicates that a college education may make people more tolerant of demographic diversity like race, but LESS tolerant of political diversity. It helps explain why 58 percent of Republicans say colleges have a negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. – up from 32 percent in 2010. A recent study of the political registration of full-time Ph.D.-holding professors in top-tier liberal arts colleges found that 39 percent are “Republican-free” – having zero Republicans. Remember the famous line by then-candidate Ronald Reagan: “I did not leave the Democratic Party, it left me.” Many Republicans believe academia has left them.
A similar case could be made about the loss of progressives from certain faith-based communities. Today 73 percent of the Republican Party is white-Christian but just 29 percent of the Democratic Party identifies this way. Progressives often feel the harsh, narrow tone of faith has “left-them” – or at least is not relevant for them in a post-modern world.
College and church*: Two key institutions that educate and shape our values and hold such promise for tolerance and acceptance – have too often narrowed their base, their beliefs, and headed in the opposite direction. Many have become more contemptuous, excluding of “other” and even engaging in militant cultural warfare. Ironically, so many of our great, traditional universities and most of the Ivy League schools have origins tied to churches: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Oxford, to name a few. Universities that felt stifled by the narrowness of founding church sponsors – have become more like them – often excluding and condemning those who do not adhere to their prescribed beliefs.
We worry about concentration of wealth, but we should also worry about highly concentrated and partisan sources of learning and values. What happens when we get our news and views from highly one-sided sources: like Fox or MSNBC for news, academic research from politically segregated universities, movies and comedy from a Hollywood that leans heavily left, and faith that leans heavily right. We become a culture of contempt – rioting with dimly lit torches, weaponizing rusty pedagogical pitchforks.
Relational Learning – That Sustains vs. Destroys
Learning at its best and highest is relational. We learn from others, with others and for others. Relational learning is designed to impact others positively – especially those who are apart, different or not inclined to hear.
Constructive relational learning seeks a scalable, sustainable approach that honors what we have learned but also stimulates us with humility and curiosity to expand our awareness of what we do not know. It seeks to grow the learning pie – and the community of learners by inviting those who share our views and especially those who do not. It acknowledges how susceptible we are to dogma and zealotry. As Richard Rohr puts it: Poetry doesn’t claim to be a perfect description as dogma foolishly does.
The old model is teacher/learner and answer. The better model is learner/learner and mystery. The credentialed one who “knows the answer” is dependent on the “unlearn-ed” one to teach her to make learning clear, relevant and to understand how the ignorance of the “unlearned” actually informs “learn-edness.” It is why teachers usually learn the most in interactions with students.
Destructive learning by comparison, sees knowledge as finite and exclusive, accessible by the few – the tribe. It values certitude over curiosity, seeks to silence dissenters and seeks an answer that ends the discussion. It sees other points of view as threats that warrant being suppressed. In sum, it destroys the very diverse relational community that offers hope for more learning. Too often our institutions of learning have become elitist sanctuaries whose culture and brand has become contempt – where power is used to exclude “others.”
It is time to revisit how these two key institutions address their mission of learning and advancement. It seems they have fallen in love with having and being the answer; and have lost the mission of enabling a learning community that seeks the answer. Relational learning is a process with no finish line, that welcomes strangers and engages “other.”
Relational learning is a key source of hope and opportunity in countering a culture of contempt.