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Want Someone to Agree With You? Don’t Humiliate Them

Why are we becoming more polarized? Contempt creates walls that block progress.

Key points

  • Condescension, contempt, and humiliation are uniquely damaging interactions in relationships.
  • These hostile types of communication have become common in political discussions, which drives people apart.
  • Choosing reconciliation and respect is much more likely to lead to understanding, and perhaps even connection.
Source: Miroshnichenko/Pexels

Co-written by guest author Danny Frost and Jason Whiting

Political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote, “It is in our nature to endure patiently the necessity of things, but not the ill-will of others.” Humans are exquisitely sensitive to being looked down upon. Condescension predicts divorce in marriage and is a prominent feature of American politics, which is suffering from a crisis of contempt. There is no shortage of ill-will between political parties, and it is doing damage. A survey from the Pew Research Center shows sharp increases in the percentages of people in both major parties who view members of the other party as “dishonest,” “immoral,” and “unintelligent,” among other unflattering descriptors.

The Politics of Humiliation

Instead of dialogue and compromise, leaders have embraced a mutual hostility that we’ll call “the politics of humiliation.” The politics of humiliation seeks not only victory but also the debasement and public shaming of the opposition. The politics of humiliation cheers when the other side suffers misfortune or loss. The politics of humiliation is fundamentally oppositional, fundamentally against another party or movement, even if this opposition undermines its own interests or aims.

Right-wing political commentator Matt Walsh gave voice to a version of the politics of humiliation, stating, “Convincing the other side is not my primary objective . . . my goal is to defeat and humiliate and demoralize them.” Similarly, contempt from the Left was shown in Hillary Clinton’s comments in the 2016 presidential campaign: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it . . . They are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.” Both sides view the other with disgust, and this feeds a cycle of escalating disdain, as biases and emotions become more entrenched.

Humans are wired in a way that fuels this divide. We are finely attuned to social position and disrespect, and indifference can be felt, even if not stated. Humans read and misread body language, tone, and the intent of words, and this invites communication breakdown. Further, perceived disrespect often invites retaliation—as Nelson Mandela once said, “There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated.”

The politics of humiliation has a way of becoming more intransigent and bitter as time goes on. Every strong denunciation, every “sick burn,” communicates that “they” are not just wrong, but evil, vile, irredeemable. You can’t hope to reason with them. Vanquishment is the only option. The other side feels this lack of basic respect and responds in kind. It’s a vicious cycle with no obvious solution. So, what can be done?

Less Humiliation, More Reconciliation

The history of human relations does have another strand of moral engagement, one with less damage and more success than the politics of humiliation. Let’s call it “the politics of reconciliation.” The politics of reconciliation does not mean abandoning your ideals or ignoring injustices. Rather, the politics of reconciliation means recognizing the basic dignity of your opponents and respecting their thoughts, needs, and well-being. It means trying to dialogue with them rather than embarrass or scold them into submission.

The politics of reconciliation is not easy. Some might even say it is beyond human nature. But many people have practiced it and found success in changing opinions and fighting for justice. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., faced overt and violent racism but still found a way to offer a hand of reconciliation to the people he opposed. In one speech he said,

“I like to say to the people in Montgomery: ‘the tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory, it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.’”

King also said that nonviolence “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding . . . The end is redemption and reconciliation.”

Gandhi also could have fought bitterly against those who treated him with racist and oppressive abuse but, instead, taught that fighting with “truth and firmness” could occur through respect, love, and resisting the urge to demonize those you disagree with. He insisted this begin with each person and invited us to be the change we want to see in others. When people apply these principles in intimate relationships it increases the health of the couple, and when they apply these principles with political opponents, it increases dialogue and can lead to solutions.

Abraham Lincoln also found a way to extend compassion across deep and violent conflict. Looking back over several years of war with hundreds of thousands of causalities, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address concluded, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us . . . bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

King, Gandhi, and Lincoln were confident about their aims and commitments. They believed that they were on the side of justice. But these convictions did not lead them to discount the basic humanity and needs of the people they were in opposition to. They were working toward reconciliation, not humiliation.

Perhaps the easiest way to know if you are practicing the politics of reconciliation is to ask yourself this question: Does “their” pain matter to you? If the answer is no, then don’t expect them to be receptive to your message. Even if you are convinced you are right (and you just might be), you are wrong in the way you are treating them. If someone’s pain doesn’t matter to you, you aren’t treating them as a person, but as a contemptible object, and your arguments and attitudes will be tainted with injustice and condescension.

The politics of reconciliation might sound idealistic to some, even fantastical. But we would ask: How is humiliation working out? A rush of anger might feel good in the moment, but when you fling mud, you lose a lot of ground, and everyone is worse off for it. Instead, hold conversations that respect the dignity and opinions of others and see what happens. It’s time to give peace, and reconciliation, a chance.


Ellie Lisitsa. The Four Horsemen: Contempt. The Gottman Institute.

Katie Reilly. Read Hillary Clinton’s ‘Basket of Deplorables’ Remarks About Donald Trump Supporters. Time. September 10, 2016.

Oprah Talks to Nelson Mandela. Oprah.

Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches. HarperOne. 2003.

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