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Curated & Moderated by:
Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou

Contempt: The Overlooked Challenge of Our Time

June 12 2024

For years, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation has supported Special Olympics International’s effort to expand its Unified Sports programs in schools around the world.  The program, “Unified Sports” is designed to enable children with and without intellectual disabilities to play together and by doing so, to learn to live together too.  The lesson is as simple as it is profound: everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and when that happens, everyone benefits.

Today, that lesson is important not only for people with intellectual disabilities but also for the rest of us. There’s a new issue in our politics, but it hasn’t yet captured the urgent attention it demands.  We debate immigration and reproduction; we challenge each other on issues of education and law enforcement; we voice powerful ideals around war and peace.  We labor over the future of our planet and the sources of our energy.

These are indeed enormously critical issues, but what’s hiding in plain sight is the one issue that’s keeping us from being able to address any of them: our pattern of treating each other with contempt and robbing each other of their dignity.  In community after community, in state after state, in religion after religion, we’re being torn apart not by our policy or religious values or differences but by the devotional anger and addictive virus of contempt.  It’s not that we disagree that’s problematic; it’s how we disagree.  And when we disagree with hatred and contempt, we make it impossible to solve the very problems that we claim to want to solve. 

Contempt seems to be everywhere.  Data shows that the majority of Americans believe politics is “toxic and divided.”  More than 30% of us have ended a relationship with a close friend or family member because of political or cultural issues.  Close to half of us “self-censor” what we are willing to say among friends and groups because of our fear of hateful attacks. Social media and the tech companies’ algorithms have become “key players in killing our comity and stymieing our politics, our government, our social fabric, and most of all, by seeding isolation, outrage, and addictive behavior” (Swisher, 2023).  Contempt contributes to violence, divisiveness, and paralysis. And it’s everywhere.

Figure 1: “The Problem”. Adapted from Pew Research Center (September 2023), Luntz (March 2024) and YouGov (February 2024).

In most times, treating others with contempt is seen as a weakness, but it’s now become a boast.  We brag about how we ridicule the other side.  We become popular when we can humiliate and dehumanize those who think differently than we do.  We’re celebrated when we can find personal flaws or weaknesses in others and exploit it for our side.  Contempt makes us famous and popular and even wealthy. 

It also makes us miserable.  Treating others with contempt hurts “us” as much as it hurts “them.”  The culture of contempt is a major reason that almost half of young people report feeling they don’t matter.  Similarly, more than half of all Americans believe we can no longer solve our problems.  Cynicism, loneliness, division—they combine not just to make us miserable but also to make it impossible to achieve any of the goals we so deeply believe to be important.

The philosopher Rene Girard saw this phenomenon arising almost a century ago when he discovered what he termed “the scapegoat mechanism.”  Girard noticed a pattern that seems to be a constant in human societies:  human beings gather into communities to support basic needs, but tensions arise because of the tendency to imitate others and envy others too.  This tendency easily escalates into demonizing and violence, and so scapegoating occurs: we band together to blame the “other” and believe that by crushing the other, peace can be restored. When societies lack the rituals or values necessary to reduce the tension and anger that lead to scapegoating, dangerous levels of blaming and shaming surge. That’s us today - blaming and shaming at a scale and depth that threatens us all.

At UNITE, we believe that the crisis of contempt can be healed, and we’ve been inspired not only by the courage of the athletes and volunteers of Special Olympics, but also by countless Americans who want to bridge the gaps in our culture and make contempt backfire.  Across demographic groups, significant majorities report a widespread hunger for change - they’re looking for a way out.  And we believe the way out is simple: it’s dignity. 

Dignity is a new term to some but as old as culture, religion, spirituality, and psychology too.  Dignity is our inherent value - our worth as human beings.  Treating someone with whom you disagree with contempt implies that you’re better than the other; treating them with dignity means you can see yourself in the other.  To treat another with dignity is to recognize that no matter how much we may disagree and no matter how painful our relationships may have become, we can still recognize the worth of the other.  Contempt demeans and destroys; dignity uplifts and heals.

For all these reasons, our work at UNITE has led us to seek strategies for awakening citizens to their capacity to be agents of change by treating others with more dignity.  It was this search that led us to create the Dignity Index.  The Dignity Index is an 8-point scale that measures the language we use in moments of conflict, revealing how we treat each other when we disagree and how we respond when we are angry or hurt.

Figure 2: “The Dignity Index”. Adapted from The Dignity Index.

Treating the other with dignity is often mistaken for excusing injustice or compromising on values.  It is neither.  Treating another with dignity does not require avoiding complex problems or shrinking from debate.  Quite the opposite.  Treating others with dignity allows new ideas to be expressed and heard.  Treating others with dignity doesn’t stymie accountability; it makes it possible.  Treating others with dignity doesn’t diminish passions: it allows them to be expressed freed from personal or vindictive attacks.  Dignity is a path to change and problem solving while contempt is a path to paralysis and the status quo.

There are simple ways to practice disagreeing with dignity.  When disagreeing, for example, it’s always valuable to find inner calm and to self-regulate.   It’s valuable to be curious not reactive - to listen to understand not to attack.  Better results are achieved when one argues for principles, not against people.  Our efforts encourage debate but suggest assuming positive intent.  We remind activists to try not to slip into hatred; it will destroy the person who hates more than the one who is hated.    

Figure 3: “Building skills: the dignified disagreement”. Adapted from The Dignity Index.

If we don’t solve the contempt problem, we can’t solve any of the biggest challenges facing our country.  And if we don’t solve the contempt problem, we’re headed toward a disaster that some may think unimaginable, but which has been an existential threat since the beginning of American democracy:  we may arrive at a time when Americans have abandoned the ideal of one nation committed to liberty and justice for all.  And with the loss of that ideal, we risk the loss of the country itself.

So, we invite citizens - young people in schools and on university campuses - to be revolutionaries for dignity. We invite political leaders and business leaders too.  We invite all Americans to become a part of a dignity movement.  In ways small and available to all - be a person who offers others a lift by limiting contempt and increasing dignity.  If we need role models, we need look no further than the young leaders with and without disabilities who are playing unified in our schools.  They deserve to have their compassion and courage matched by adults, and now is the time to do just that.

We believe deeply that change is possible because we believe that we are hungry to bring compassion and love and justice to the world.  Deep down, we believe we are made to share our life and our gifts and our goodness with others.  We are made to shine.

And so is everyone else.