As an organizational psychologist, one of the things that is of concern to me as I have perused social media and other media in the past few years isn’t the divide among right and left in political opinions, it’s the contempt that one side often shows for the other. I’d like to compare this state of affairs in U.S. politics (and this may be true of other Western democracies) to a marriage gone bad.
You might ask, what does organizational psychology have to do with either politics or marriage? Well, those who study organizations look at them from a systemic perspective, often using as a basis the study of family systems, which includes marriage. Nations, and their politics, are also systems, and so we can examine through a systemic lens how people develop political opinion and how they approach various circumstances within national culture and throughout their daily lives.
That makes the comparison of politics to marriage worth exploring, since so many of us work and live and worship and interact with each other daily. And even when we don’t interact directly, people within a set of borders are invariably interconnected in economic, political, and social terms.
Sadly, it is the media we consume that often fuels contempt. How does it do that? It foments misinformation about the opposing side. The truth is that there is a “perception gap” between what you think the other side believes and what they actually believe. And, according to a study by More in Common, a group that studies political polarization, that gap in perception is wider among those who consume more media:
“People who said they read the news ‘most of the time’ were nearly three times more distorted in their perceptions than those who said they read the news ‘only now and then.'” (Source: More in Common.)
It’s even worse for those who post political topics in their social media feeds. Just 26% of Americans report sharing posts on social media about politics, but those who do have a higher perception gap than the national average. (Source: More in Common.)
If misperception is what breeds contempt, then what is it that contempt actually does once it exists? In keeping with the comparison to an unhappy marriage, I cite University of Washington psychologists John and Julie Gottman, whose studies have indicated that the most reliable sign that a marriage will end is when at least one of the partners shows contempt for the other.
Why is that? In close relationships, people often become frustrated or angry. That’s normal. But contempt is different, because it’s comprised of a mixture of anger and disgust toward another person, and those feelings quickly become toxic to the relationship. Furthermore, when you feel contempt, the attitude behind it is one of superiority. Your partner is no longer your equal, but is suddenly beneath you. To you, that person may no longer be worthy of your love or even your consideration.
When we feel contempt for our fellow citizens, in essence we are saying within ourselves that they are no longer worthy to be treated as well as we expect to be treated ourselves. We are better than they are. Yet, doesn’t that fly in the face of everything we stand for as Americans? Especially in a nation that holds sacred the belief: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal.”
There is an antidote for the “poison” of contempt: Respect. That doesn’t mean you have to respect someone’s bad behavior (if we did that, there would be no prisons) or their viewpoint (if we did that we would have only one political party). But to avoid contempt you have to value someone as worthy of the same rights and privileges you believe you are worthy of yourself. You have to see them as an equal despite your differences.
It’s also important to speak about (and to) people respectfully. If you speak about someone with derision rather than arguing against their ideas or behavior, then you are showing an attitude of superiority and contempt. And you certainly close yourself off from any possibility of an honest exchange of ideas and the opportunity of learning something from a fellow human being.
For example, I have friends on multiple sides of the political spectrum, and I have seen social media posts from conservatives and liberals, right and left, that have seemed gleeful at the idea that people on the other side might be hurt by the results of the current coronvirus pandemic. I have seen both sides use dehumanizing insults. Yet when your discourse is reduced to name-calling rather than attacking ideas or behavior, you are not only showing yourself as contemptuous, but you reveal your own attitude of superiority.
There is still another antidote: Empathy. Put yourself in someone’s shoes, understand their circumstances, feel their feelings, and you’ll have a much harder time feeling superior to them. You might even develop compassion for the person toward whom you once felt disgust.
For example, people on the left have vehemently expressed contempt for those who are protesting stay-at-home orders. Yet if they met one of the protesters in person and discovered that she ran a business that was considered nonessential, one that she had built over the course of 20 years, one that she had poured her life into, one that employed and fed 100 families in her small community until the COVID-19 shutdowns, a business that is now in danger of dying without ever being able to recover, they might have sympathy instead of contempt. Or, people on the right who have vehemently expressed contempt for those who have insisted that the shutdowns save lives might feel differently after meeting a teen whose beloved father, a bus driver and the main provider for their family, had died because riders on his bus refused to wear masks or follow basic sanitation guidelines.
There is a happy truth in all of this. It is that we actually have more in common with each other than we have differences, and when we have differences they are not as extreme as we think they are. Those people with whom you disagree so vehemently about politics want the same things you want: a safe home, a clean environment, to make a decent living, to provide a good education for their children, to worship the God of their understanding in peace, and often even to make a positive difference in the world.
The unhappy truth is that it isn’t the people you view with contempt who are putting the national “marriage” at risk of breaking apart. It isn’t the people to whom you respond with hatred, disgust, and rage who are doing that. Much like it is the person who feels the contempt who puts a marriage in mortal danger, it is, in fact, you who are holding fast to your superiority and your contempt who are putting our nation at risk.
There is a time to condemn certain kinds of speech and behavior. The choice is in the way that you choose to condemn it. People who argue against bad rhetoric and behavior with reason and civility are much more likely to win in the court of public opinion.
My suggestion is that the next time you decide to post (or share) something to social media or write an opinion that shows contempt, first take a long look in the mirror. And think carefully about what your post is actually saying about you.
Brodwin, E. (2015, January 28). Scientists say one behavior is the ‘kiss of death’ for a relationship. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/one-behavior-is-the-kiss-of-death-for-a-relationship-2015-1
Newport, F. (2020, May 15). Gallup: The Partisan Gap in Views of the Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/311087/partisan-gap-views-coronavirus.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_content=morelink&utm_campaign=syndication&fbclid=IwAR0_ryKAYn0CZMIinADhvLqfNNe1kf-uHmEorLQftRvWeW-r45zgzAu7aZE
The Gottman Institute. Marriage and Couples. Retrieved from https://gottman./about/research/couples/
The Perception Gap. (2019). Findings. Retrieved from https://perceptiongap.us/
In searching for a focus for this blog, I finally alighted on the idea of WORDS. For a site called “Áccent on Words,” it makes sense. As an editor and writer, I work with words for a living. Words are important to me. But really, they’re important to everyone, and even more so in an age when we’re constantly bombarded with them and continually consume them through social media, television, radio and what we choose to read. My aim is to choose a particular word or phrase as the focus of each new blog post and talk about why our words matter. — Deborah Jackson