As Thanksgiving approaches, how are you feeling about the conversations you will have around the holiday table? In my family, and perhaps yours, there are some topics we’ve been avoiding since the 2016 presidential election. Political scientists at the University of Southern California have found that since then, 1 in 6 Americans have even stopped talking to a family member. Their research shows that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. Many of us only have friends who think politically the way we do. Most of us are likely to watch either MSNBC or Fox, but not both. Our Facebook feeds also reflect our own biases. We seem to have lost the ability to communicate with others who see the world differently than we do.
Worse yet, our public discourse is dripping with contempt, unraveling the social fabric that holds us together as one nation. At heart, contempt is a spiritual issue. It is the act of holding another in disdain, of despising someone, of showing a lack of respect and reverence, of looking down at another person or group. Contempt is a toxic energy that not only divides us one from another, but pits “us versus them.” Our democracy is not served when journalists are called “the enemy of the people” or successful business people are judged as “the corporate elite.”
John Gottman, the director of the Seattle Marriage Project, writes, “Contempt ... is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her.” No wonder there is such gridlock in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Susan Heitler notes “The more expression of contempt, the less caring for and about each other.” This is why public language is so important. When a public figure speaks contemptuously of others, this is an invitation to not care about them -- to behave as if this other group is somehow less than, somehow not deserving of equal rights and treatment. Taken to the extreme, contempt can devolve into demonization, which leads to justifying violence against those “other” people. The more powerful the leader is, the more dangerous the language of contempt.
To make matters worse, in our polarized discourse, each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred — and is therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise. This is called “motive attribution asymmetry.” Boston College professor Liane Young and two colleagues have found that the average Republican and the average Democrat today suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis.
As our country is in the midst of the sticky thicket of impeachment proceedings and enters what is liable to be another highly charged presidential election, contemptuous speech is likely to escalate. In a system that is divided into “Republicans and Democrats,” or “conservatives and liberals,” the language of contempt will be used to try to score political points. As not only consumers of the news, but as citizens of a democracy, it’s up to us to pay attention and question those who speak contemptuously of others for their own personal or political agendas. Let’s not be swayed by language that attempts to divide us. For the sake of the nation, it’s important to remember that we are all Americans, sharing a common destiny.
When you gather with beloved friends or family this Thanksgiving, especially if there are those around the table with whom you disagree politically, remember to presume their good intention. Remember the bonds of love that hold you as family together. Take the opportunity to try and understand a perspective other than your own. Rather than making an argument for why your perspective is the right one, consider listening with an open mind and an open heart to why your beloved family member or friend thinks the way they do. Seek common ground. We are one nation, not merely two parties.
The great challenges of our day: climate, economic disparity, health care, addiction and more will not be solved by one party or the other. We will only progress if we find ways to leave contempt behind and join together. As Americans, it’s time to listen to one another, to try and understand one another. This is my prayer. If we do this, we could celebrate a truly happy Thanksgiving.
The Rev. Sue Koehler-Arsenault serves the Cape Ann community as a “minister without walls” and is on the faculty of One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York, New York. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.