The Psychology of Contempt

What do humans despise about each other?

Posted Sep 06, 2020

Contempt is defined as a hostile emotion that combines disgust with disrespect. But what is the cause of contempt?

This question may appear trivial, as common answers include: “I despise others for what they are.” Or, “I despise others for what they think or do.” We are commonly persuaded that we have contempt for the essence of others, or for their actions.

However, there is a short story called The Form of the Sword by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges that challenges our common beliefs about the nature of contempt.

The protagonist of this tale is having a conversation with a man who has a story to share about the scar disfiguring his face. He would narrate it only on one condition: His interlocutor must show no mercy on him. He says he was a rebel who participated in the civil war that took place in 1922 for Ireland’s independence. One day he met a comrade, named Vincent Moon. Moon was a fervent communist, who firmly believed that revolutionary actions would lead to victory. And yet, he wouldn’t act as though he trusted his own thoughts. He was a coward who simulated a fever and not take to the streets – the man told the protagonist. They spent 10 days together, sleeping in the same house. One day Vincent Moon sold him out over the phone. Before the soldiers could arrest him, the man gripped a scimitar and scarred him.

The narrator asks him what happened to Vincent Moon. He looks up at him, declaring: “It is I who am Vincent Moon. Now, despise me.”

This short story forces us to ask ourselves: Are we able to have contempt for those who, publicly, recognize themselves contemptible?

Immediately before the opening of his tale, Vincent Moon subtly tells us that he is fully aware of his amorality. He provocatively invites us to condemn him, but because he declares himself guilty, we are emotionally unable to despise him after his final revelation. This psychological condition reveals what people despise about each other. These are not someone’s essence, thoughts or actions per se, but rather the intentions carrying them.

This is indeed very human. Contempt is orchestrated by dynamics of group identity. As recapitulated by Frank McAndrew, people create positive illusions about their ingroup and negative illusions about outgroups, and perceive their own group’s moral principles as more desirable and superior to those of others. While an ingroup is a social category with which an individual strongly identifies, outgroups are conversely social groups with which they do not. And here Vincent Moon steps in, dismantling the very essence of group identity: if we can’t point at someone’s firm morality and posit that ours is better, does contempt survive?

In this context, contempt is changed into pity. As readers of Borges’ short story, at best we can have compassion for Moon, who – to our eyes – is now a forgiven repentant soul. He is no longer an unforgivable sinner.

This revelation highlights two facts: one about reality, and the other – which derives from this one – about humanity.

Because reality appears meaningless to humans, humans give it a meaning. As I have described elsewhere, this meaning changes over time as humans change. At first, Moon is a regrettable man, whose actions have to be condemned. At the end, Moon is a reasonable man, whose actions are deemed as past memories. Neither of the two versions is the correct one, as they are both human interpretations of social phenomena.

Humans cannot escape the burden of interpreting such meaningless events. Their tendency though is to interpret them in a biased manner, as humans always feel the need to satisfy their ingroup morality. And herein lies the danger.

In fact, at the end of Borges’ narration, Vincent Moon is a forgiven, repentant man. Not only have we accepted the nature of his actions, but we are also convinced that he is now a changed man, that he will behave differently in the future, according to our ingroup moral expectations.

But what if Vincent Moon was instead insincere, a liar who adopted this strategy in order to confess his crimes without being socially condemned?

References

Borges, J.L. (1944). The Form of the Sword. (Published in Ficciones)

Giles, H. & Giles, J. (2013). Ingroups and outgroups. In A. Kurylo Inter/cultural communication (pp. 140-162). 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781544304106.n7

Redaelli, S. (2018, Nov. 2). The cultural fluidity: is history static or dynamic? Culturico. https://culturico.com/2018/11/02/the-cultural-fluidity-is-history-static-or-dynamic/