Contempt Fuels Culture War
How we got to 'shrill women' and 'mansplainers.'
Posted June 17, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Contempt is an emotion of moral superiority that thrives in America's ‘outrage industrial complex.’
- We harbor contempt towards people or parties, but also qualities and traits connected to masculinity and femininity.
- The buzzword ‘toxic masculinity’ is unhelpful and overlooks the influence of underlying contempt residing in men.
- Contempt, like masculinity, isn’t inherently toxic, although our relationship to this emotion may be.
Contempt may be the unofficial emotional sponsor of partisan America, a feeling of moral superiority that fuels our fantasies of ‘owning,’ ‘trolling,’ ‘dunking on,’ and 'throwing shade’ at adversaries. Contempt thrives in this ‘outrage industrial complex’ and hits home, creating an icy silence at kitchen tables across the country.
While disgust protects humans from pathogens and anger can inspire us to advocate for values or repair relationships, contempt—a mix of the two—is uniquely social and hierarchical. At its best, contempt cools a rage or generates brilliant comedy. Mainly, it inspires defensiveness in others—a counter-contempt—that stokes hostility and corrodes cooperation. Contempt is a disowned part of being human.
Contempt is seemingly everywhere yet remains under-researched in the social sciences and underused in our vocabularies. Academics speculate that contempt sounds too similar to “content.” Despite its decreasing usage over centuries, it’s time we call it by name to help break our addiction. But that’s not easy. Our “culture of contempt,” a phrase author Arthur Brooks offers in his book Love Your Enemies, finds cover behind virtuous group affiliations; it’s built upon and camouflaged by fear, hopelessness, shame, and...self-contempt.
Humans unknowingly harbor contempt towards themselves, other people, parties, and ideas, but also towards the qualities and traits connected to masculinity and femininity. It seeps into everyday language.
Contempt Towards Pink and Blue
Contempt towards femininity leaks out in the mockery of shrill women, ‘cat ladies,’ and ‘drama queens,’ ‘bimbos,’ and ‘gold diggers.’ It’s easy to punch down at people who don’t neatly fit into pink or blue gender boxes or offer outrage at how masculine physical features influence athletic fairness.
Racism and sexism are symptoms of underlying contempt, and #MeToo has been a righteous response that reflects the persuasive power of anger in the face of contemptuous male behaviors. But in more covert ways, gender superiority motivates the attempt to govern female bodies, and maneuvers its way into regressive workplace policies, unfair division of household labor, and prejudices about the inferiority of women’s time relative to men's.
“Men’s time is guarded as a finite resource (diamonds) and women’s time is abundant (like sand),” especially during parenthood, wrote author and activist Eve Rodsky, in her book Fair Play (p. 53).
“We’re contemptuous of ‘lazy’ poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of ‘distracted’ working mothers. We’re contemptuous of ‘selfish’ rich mothers,” writer Kim Brooks noted in a New York Times piece. In contrast, fathers often get praised for merely showing up.
In opposite-sex couples, it’s easier to hurt a partner with negativity than to make them feel good with positivity, according to research conducted by psychologist John Gottman and his team. This study found evidence of the reverse in same-sex couples, where there’s often less status hierarchy and more focus on fairness and power-sharing, both safeguards against contempt.
Men in opposite-sex relationships don’t generally present to psychotherapy with the issue of contempt. Yet, below the surface, it permeates their view that their partner’s femininity is synonymous with fragility, over-emotionality, manipulation, or that female tears are irrational, attention-seeking ploys.
No wonder women have countered this slow-drip disdain with righteous feminist movements and counter-contemptuous language (Stein, 2011).
It’s hard to differentiate the buzzword ‘toxic masculinity’ as a valid critique of males’ toxic cultural programming from its use as a contempt grenade hurled at men overall. Either way, many men tend to absorb this term as slanderous to their healthy self-reliance, courage, or risk-taking. It steers men towards counter-contempt rather than allyship. It also mirrors the entertainment industry’s outdated, cynical portrayal of men as incompetent, abusive, or emotionally unsupportive, overlooking their caregiving identities.
We still condescend to 'doofus dads,' snarkily question if men are “necessary,” emasculate ‘soft’ men who don’t meet masculine norms, reduce muscular guys to ‘meatheads,’ and scoff at ‘Chads,’ 'bros,' and ‘mansplainers.’ We roll our eyes at emotionally illiterate men who attempt to fix too much and listen too little. We colloquially equate ‘boys club culture’ with being exclusionary or ‘locker room talk’ with misogyny instead of camaraderie, just as men face an unprecedented crisis of disconnection and suicide.
Under the influence of contempt, we become uncurious and miss minutiae. And when we peer out from our home office windows at laborers descending into sewers or ascending skyscrapers, we see only blue-collar workers—not the concept of masculinity.
“Our culture often treats a man’s vices as the result of his masculinity,” observed author David French in an essay, “while viewing his virtues as the result of his humanity.”
Masculinity and manhood now face a reckoning. Some argue that masculinity must return to its ancestral roots; others that masculinity ought to be reinvented. When you call in your contempt instead of calling the other side out, you discover that the middle ground between extremes offers wisdom or that tapping into your anger is more productive in achieving a goal.
Freeing from Contempt
Contempt, like masculinity, isn’t inherently toxic, although our relationship to this emotion may be. I believe that observing contempt and disassembling it into its ingredient emotions is a first step to recognizing the unwelcome inner experiences that it often conceals.
The next is making an earnest effort to understand one another’s values or moral foundations, as defined by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. To do this requires ignoring insults and mockery and appealing instead to one another’s instincts towards caring, fairness, loyalty, and authority, and then dialoguing about the narratives and histories connected to these moral underpinnings.
Gottman and his research team labeled contempt the “sulfuric acid of love.” And while the lovestruck phase of romance erodes with unchecked sighs or sarcasm, so does our capacity for love, respect, and the higher view—the ability to look up to the humanity in our spouses and neighbors with curiosity, despite differences.
Let’s start by noticing contempt before it burns a hole, and perhaps progress will follow.
Brooks, A. C. (2019). Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. Broadside Books.
Rodsky, E. (2021). Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) (Reprint ed.). Penguin Publishing Group.
Stein, A. (2011). The Utility of Contempt. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 47(1), 80-100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00107530.2011.10746442