On a road trip with my former spouse, we were listening to a book on tape: The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, by the relationship guru Daniel Gottman. We chose the book out of an excess of maturity, we thought. Everything is fine, but we’re really on top of this relationship thing, so we’ll read a book and get even better at it.
Gottman worked with a technique called thin slicing — taking video of people’s faces while they talked to each other, then pulling out still shots of micro-emotions. Gottman believed that, while we are good at pretending to be happy, or calm, or supportive, our faces tell the truth for a split second before our intention to pretend takes over. In tiny slices of reactive time, he thought, people are unable to mask their real emotions with more socially acceptable ones. The trick was to film them and then look at those still shots amidst conversational volleys.
What has stuck with me from that ride in the truck was this revelation: Gottman said that whenever contempt shows up in those thin-slicing photos, he accurately predicts divorce. Contempt, or scorn, implies that the person you face is worthless, below you, deserving of scorn. Relationships rarely heal once contempt is in the picture, because one party (or both) has already made it clear they don’t believe the other is worth working for, Gottman said. A fundamental judgment has been made.
“Oh,” I thought. “I know what contempt looks like. We do that to each other all the time.”
Gottman was right about that marriage. The destruction had already happened.
Since then, you better believe I’m highly attuned to what scorn looks like when it’s aimed at people I care about. When contempt comes at me, it still hurts, but I have a name for it and a set of tools for responding. The question now, in my mind, is whether I’m attuned to the ways contempt comes from me.
Much has been written about the role of contempt in getting us to this political situation. Most of what I’ve seen has been about the contempt of privileged, coastal elites for those who don’t see themselves in that category, who might have voted for the current president. That’s a narrative that serves particular political purposes, a narrative that stands on an unveiled heaping dose of contempt.
I believe that how we communicate now has everything to do with whether we are rising to the moral occasion/crisis before this country or perpetuating it. For whatever cross-party social media contacts remain: I believe that how we communicate now has everything to do with what reconciliation can look like on the other side.
For activists, speakers of truth, and certainly for preachers of the Gospel, the challenge is about how we speak truth clearly without heaping contempt upon those whose actions we judge. When you communicate contempt, you make it very hard for those who find themselves on the wrong side of your story to come toward you. Why would they, when you’ve denounced them as sub-human, stupid, worthless, amoral?
The very premise of the long, unglamorous work of reconciliation stands on the premise that people are fundamentally worth working for, worth loving, able to live lives of decency and generosity and truthfulness and kindness. We have to believe that they act out of deeply held values. You can be a realist about human nature at the same time, based not only on reading the news, or some exposure to Christian concepts of original sin, but mostly on your own experience of self-deception, anger, fearfulness, and judgment. Great: keep your realism. I certainly will. But if we don’t defiantly claim a shred of hope that our neighbors are just as worthy of respect as we are, we doom ourselves to fear rather than connection. Why tell the truth to someone you believe isn’t worthy — or capable — of hearing it?
As W. H. Auden put it:
You must love your crooked neighbor
with your crooked heart.
This moment calls us to unvarnished clarity. Speak the truth, name racism and abuse of power for what it is, call out lies, demand accountability, pursue justice. And attend to scorn. You can call out an action without publicizing your inner thoughts about the state of the actor’s soul. While his behavior must be called out for abuse, narcissism, bigotry, and gaslighting, I wonder how insulting him (not the same thing as naming actions) in public communicates to those who voted for him.
All of that.
But this too: I’m doing my best here to attend to scorn because I believe the spiritual position of putting myself over someone else comes with an inner price to pay for me as well. I’m already paying it. In the case of that marriage, the scorn was a big fat red flag, one that followed a long series of red flags, that things were in trouble. We parted ways. In the case of our country and our planet, parting ways is not an option. A post-publishing edit: a friend asked me to clarify here: Perhaps a divorce from the current president is entirely in order. But divorce from our fellow Americans isn’t an option. We belong to each other. And I want to be better than that.
Something much bigger than a marriage is at stake here for all of us.