Recently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that Representative Ilhan Omar has “undisguised contempt for the United States and for its people.” Omar responded that, “Not gonna lie, it’s kinda fun watching a racist fool like this weeping about my presence in Congress.”
In the same week, messages internal to the UK Foreign Office were leaked in which Foreign Minister Kim Darroch described President Trump as “inept,” “insecure,” “incompetent” and “uniquely dysfunctional.” In response, Trump called Darroch “wacky,” “a very stupid guy,” and “a pompous fool,” and asked for his resignation, and so it went.
We see these types of exchanges reported in the media every day. Do they sound like elementary school to you? Why do we talk that way with each other, and why does the media cover it? The culture of contempt is growing, and it’s dangerous for several important reasons.
First, contempt dehumanizes the adversary by sending the message that the person is crazy, worthless, or otherwise beneath our consideration. It communicates superiority so great that you can dismiss the other completely, and who would want to be inferior? It feels good to be on the right side of contempt and just awful to be on the wrong side. But that feeling is very dangerous. Messages of contempt invite retribution, and you may make a permanent enemy. You may feel great to have slung your fair share of mud, but it will almost certainly come right back at you.
Second, contempt can damage relationships beyond repair. Professor John Gottman has done research for decades by observing married couples. He can predict future divorces with 96% accuracy, and the most corrosive factor is the expression of contempt. That is, communicating to your spouse with disrespect, disdain, mockery, name-calling, aggressive humor and sarcasm make it very unlikely that spouses will stay together. There is a lesson there for all relationships, not just marriages.
Well, who cares, you might ask? Ilhan Omar and Tucker Carlson do not have a relationship anyway, nor do Trump and Darroch. But all Americans mustlive together in the same country regardless of our disagreements, and the United Kingdom and the United States have been allies since World War II. Those relationships are important, even if the primary actors, in this case, speak as if they are not. Moreover, the insults spread. Carlson’s contempt for Omar implicates the people in Minnesota who voted for her as gullible or unpatriotic. Omar’s contempt for Carlson implicates his viewers as racist themselves. It is not said, but it is implied.
The Trump/Darroch incident also raises issues of free speech and restraint. “I have the right to call you anything I want,” says one reaction to politically correct speech, and, yes, you do – in private. You are entitled to your private opinions about Omar, Carlson, Darroch and Trump, and one could even argue that you have a responsibility to share them when decisions must be made. When it moves to the public sphere, however, we expect rational arguments, verifiable evidence, and some degree of emotional restraint. In public, damage can be done to reputations, and so we have laws against defamation, slander and libel.
Third and most importantly, exchanges of contempt divert us from the actual issues. Does Carlson have adequate reasons and evidence to claim that Omar hates America? What might she have done that would justify such a sweeping generalization? In what context did it occur? What was her justification or response? If there might be reasons, shouldn’t we be addressing them? If Omar claims that Tucker Carlson is a racist fool, we should ask the same questions about reasons, evidence, context, justifications, etc. to be able to decide for ourselves.
For example, we heard one TV commentator mock political candidates who claimed that climate change was as big a challenge to the U.S. as World War II. What a ridiculous and contemptible position! Who but an idiot would think that? Well, 97% of the world’s climate scientists think that, and they have the evidence.
Argumentation in the public sphere can devolve into “who hit the hardest?” or “who came up with the cleverest insult?” and even threatened or actual violence (as it sometimes did on the playground). It can make for entertaining TV, as reports of the debates of presidential candidates remind us, but the consequences are not so amusing. What exactly have we learned about the candidates’ proposed policies? Do we want to make decisions that affect all of our lives in profound ways based on a boxing match? As long as we keep filling the reservoir of contempt and continue to be influenced by clever and nasty sparring, that is what we will get as public debate.
We can do better. Do not engage in contemptuous messages yourself; instead, call out the contempt as a diversion from the issues. Ask why it is so important to dismiss an adversary instead to listen and respond? If you are the target of contempt, use your best emotion management strategies not to fall for being belittled, and respond knowing that you deserve a real voice on the issue. If you are a witness, do not get drawn in. What may at first seem amusing may have ripple effects that can do lasting harm to our society.
Cheney and Planalp are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. In expressing their views, they are not representing the university or any other institution.