In an interesting piece in the NYT’s The Stone this morning, Karen Stohr (Georgetown) discussed the nature of contempt as it pertains to Trump and his recent protesters. She claims that contempt is different from anger, insofar as contempt is global, targeting the whole agent. “If I express anger toward you, I am engaging with you. If I express contempt toward you, I am dismissing you.”
She then draws from P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” to suggest that, while anger represents what we are susceptible to as part of interpersonal relationships and the participant stance, contempt moves us to the objective stance. From the participant stance, we see one another as accountable, and we “regard them as fellow moral agents.” From the objective stance, we view others as objects to be “managed or handled,” in Strawson’s words. One of Stohr’s points, then, is that contempt “functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency.” She then argues that contempt in the public sphere is perilous, especially for those not in power or marginalized in various ways. Only those in power can benefit, as only they are able make good on their dismissiveness by pushing the vulnerable even more to the margins. We need to maintain mutual respect, she thinks, and so push public contempt back into the closet.
There are many aspects of the view one might engage with, but I’m most interested in the moral psychological claim about the nature of contempt, that it shifts the relationship one has with the target from participant to objective. But I don’t believe this is what Strawson had in mind (so it’s not quite right to draw from him to illustrate the idea), and, further, I don’t believe this is the most accurate characterization. To have contempt for someone is of course to look down on him, to view him as worse than you, in some respect having to do with his practical agency or, most often, his moral character. This response may or may not be merited. But some people are surely contemptible (do I really have to point to various Nazis, old and new, to illustrate?). Contempt for them is fitting. But why? It’s precisely because they are our moral fellows, that we are stuck with them in the moral community (as our moral equals), and their failures at living up to the task of being morally good or just minimally morally decent is, well, worthy of contempt. They have failed miserably at being the type of person we care about their being. They thus matter to us personally in a way that we often can’t help but respond to. Our response is an appraisal of their failures as fellow members of the moral community. It is maintained precisely because it doesn’t shift them anywhere.
Those we think of as objects, as “things,” the subject of treatment, to be “cured or trained,” do not matter to us in this way. We may be repulsed by them or fear them, but we cannot have (apt) contempt for them. Imagine contempt for a grizzly bear, or for a truly psychotic killer. Contempt fails to get any traction, given our inability to be morally engaged with them. Pity, or a kind of love, maybe; contempt, no.
Because it seems that one remains morally engaged with someone one has contempt for (even though one hates to admit it, the contemptible agent is still “one of us”), its expression may well be apt compatible with holding the contemptible person accountable and demanding better of him. The better worry, then, may be that the contemptible agent may not be responsive to certain expressions of contempt, as it may tend to undercut further meaningful dialogue or moral improvement, or it may cloud the message of appraisal of poor moral agency, seeming very often as if it is more like hatred or shouting down. But there is one way to express contempt that may be quite effective, especially with respect to the powerful: ridicule. And I’d hate to lose that in the public square.