The Use of Contempt

I find that I experience more negative emotions toward other people than I once did. There are many people whom I do not like. Toward a large subset of this group I feel something like contempt. I’ve been trying to determine where this contempt has come from. It didn’t exist before. What about me has changed?

My best guess is that I no longer suppress the negative emotions I feel toward other people around me to the degree that I once did. I have become more comfortable with my judgments, more confident. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. I don’t want to have contempt for all the people around me, but some behaviors and ideas are truly contemptible. The difficulty is figuring out where to draw the line between self-serving contempt and just contempt. I know for sure that a great deal of the contempt I feel is manufactured by my ego for the purpose of elevating myself in my own eyes, relative to other people. This is the kind of contempt I want to minimize.

At the same time, however, a person who finds nothing contemptible will find it difficult to hold any values seriously. Shouldn’t we regard Richard Spencer with contempt? Probably. We need to express moral judgments on the actions that people take and the ideas they subscribe to, and contempt is the proper way to express judgments upon contemptible actions and ideas.

But I want to be as charitable as possible. In this context, this means that I want to direct my contempt toward actions and ideas and give people the benefit of the doubt insofar as I am able. No one is beyond hope. We have all said, thought, and done terrible things, and none of these mark us as permanently contemptible beings.

The best way to practice this, I think, is to turn your contempt inward. Pay attention to what you find contemptible in others and ask yourself a hard question: Do I adhere to the same standard I’m applying to this other person? Often, the answer will be no. This is where contempt becomes particularly useful. You can direct it toward your own vices and weaknesses and strive to become a better person. You have an ideal for yourself, even if you ignore it. The contempt that you sometimes feel for other people can tell you how you are failing to meet your own standards.

For the most part, it’s not relevant to you if other people aren’t measuring up to your moral ideal. You can’t do much about that. The best you can do is tell them that you think they’re wrong. But how likely are they to listen to you, especially if you yourself are engaging in equally contemptible behavior? Hint: they will not take kindly to it, unless they are remarkably humble and gracious human beings.

Your own behavior, however, is directly relevant to you. To an extent, you have control over it. If you are doing things that you despise when other people do them, then stop. Don’t do things that make you have contempt for yourself. Pay attention to the gap between who you aspire to be and who you actually are, and do everything you can to close it. Obviously, you can’t. But what else are you supposed to do? Lie to yourself about who you are? Better to honestly confront your wretchedness than to ignore it.

Contempt can be a manifestation of God’s grace, because it reminds us of the moral standards we hold and exposes our hypocrisy. When my moral sense has grown dull in relation to my own actions and thoughts, it remains sharp against those of others. For a moment, then, I can see what is right and what is wrong, and by God’s mercy, I see all the ways that I have sinned against God and against even my own comparatively lax standards. My contempt drives me to repentance, for it reminds me how truly contemptible I am, and how powerless to change my behavior.

But God does not leave us to drown in our self-contempt and guilt. God gives us sight so that we can see our own sins, he gives us a heart of repentance so that we ask forgiveness, and then he forgives us and strengthens us by the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. He works miracles within our souls every day by the power of his Holy Spirit to make us fit for life in his Kingdom. Any contempt we have for ourselves is immediately overwhelmed by gratitude, by awe, by love for this God who has adopted us into his household to serve him forever.

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