The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Contempt is Sneaky!

Contempt is Sneaky!

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

A few months ago, a video of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker was making the rounds.

A post shared by @untamedhero

It was a section of a larger commencement speech.

The larger speech is filled with the usual life inspiring and directive kind of language that commencement speeches often have.

It is telling that the smaller section is what caught fire on the socials. You can find multiple YouTube videos entitled “How to spot an idiot,” quoting the opening line of the clip and sharing Governor Pritzker’s concise formula.

The formula presented is simple. The idiot is the mean person who is unkind and not compassionate. They are they ones that come with fear or judgment. Governor Pritzker goes so far as to describe kindness and compassion as evolved states of being.

At the surface this proposition seems to make a lot of sense. It is easy to see why such a simple formula would become popular. Who doesn’t believe that being mean, unkind, or lacking compassion are negative characteristics. Said another way, it is very easy to want oneself to be on the side of kindness and compassion. Cheer for the evolved state. Boo at the mean-spirited among us. Call those on the other side of this, “idiots.”

Wait, isn’t that mean? To call someone a name? Contempt is super sneaky, and that’s what I’m exploring this week. I don’t know Governor Pritzker and know nothing of his politics. I’m only picking up on what he said, and the social response to it, because it is a concise example of how sneaky contempt is in our current cultural moment.

In a world that seems to be fighting over what is right, good, beautiful, even true, it is really easy to begin to use language to leverage one position over another. This kind of fight isn’t new. The methods being employed today to fight for a variety of positions are old, too. The thing that strikes me is that few people are talking about the dangers of the methods from a formative standpoint. Who do we become if we resort to using language for leverage over our fellow person?

Governor Pritzker’s framework resonates. Mean people are not good. People who are afraid of change go against the high cultural ideal of innovation. Folks who are unkind aren’t fun to be around. We also seem to agree that compassion is necessary for the world to be good. We should find a way to identify these people that we dislike, and aren’t good for our continued progress. We will call them, “idiots.” But why? Why call the folks you dislike, disagree with, or want to change, idiots? Are we so much better than the next person that we should publicly ostracize them?

Language is a powerful means of applying social pressure. It always has been and has only gained more traction with the amplification of language that social media provides. Campaigns of all sorts know the power of language. Writers of all kinds know the power of language. Whether writing talks, or shows, the amount of time that I spend over word-choice, word-order, and the rhythm of the line, is more than one might expect.

Even deeper, the language that we use – that comes out of us naturally, and that we are okay with writing and repeating – is a reflection of our interior landscape. Someone acts without compassion, and we are okay with condemning them to the position of idiot. We name them, and so they are. Of course, we might say that they don’t have to take on that name. We might even say that someone who resorts to calling us names is an idiot. But now we are caught inside a never-ending loop. We might think we can say whatever we like – target someone with our language – and our target should be strong enough to take it or reject it. But, if they retaliate, they are now confirming their idiocy by being mean to us. But who made us judge and jury?

Contempt is the simple position of considering someone else lower than ourselves. To have contempt for another is to think less of them – not in time but in stature. Dumb, stupid…idiot, are all good words used to demean someone. Bestowing this kind of name upon someone makes them “less than.” When the name is adopted and used by the entire community the person in question is ostracized. Or, worse, it becomes acceptable to blame that person for the ills of life that we may experience, even to take our anger out on them. Why? Because they are the idiot. Apply this dynamic on the abstraction of an entire people group and you have a recipe for disaster.

Two Quick Things

Calling someone an idiot is an attack on their intellect. Since when did intellect become the cornerstone of character development? Being smart does not ensure that someone is honest, gentle, or loving, for example. This is extremely important in a culture that celebrates invention. Just because someone can create, market, and acquire wealth or notoriety does not mean that they have a character that is pervaded by love. Notably, creating, marketing, and acquiring wealth and notoriety are powerful skills to have, and not inherently evil in any way. They simply aren’t reflective of one’s character. What is reflective of one’s character is how they might create, market, acquire wealth or notoriety.

Secondly, calling someone an idiot is very different than making a judgement call about their action. Thinking that what someone is doing is dangerous, problematic, or even evil, is a necessary (might I even say advanced) state of being. To have good judgment is the gift of good teaching, learning and experience in life. To act on that good judgment is to have an integrated person.

It is imperative, especially as we yearn for a kinder more compassionate world, that condemnation and judgement are not conflated. Condemnation is a final judgment – with no possibility of reversal, redemption, or reconciliation – often towards a negative end. You’d rarely hear someone say that they had been condemned to spend the rest of their days in paradise. Judgment alternatively, is the ability to discern, to make a call, as to what something is – the reality of a situation, action, even person. We can aspire towards good judgement without becoming the kind of person that condemns others.

Moving Away From Contempt

If we believe that contempt creates dangerous social dynamics that can open the door towards violence, then we may want to explore ways to move away from any pattern that encourages it.

If we find the pattern within our selves, practices of interruption can be helpful. Once we find ourselves slipping into the pattern, just change the subject. Walk away from the engagement. It’s okay to be the interruption – even beneficial for anyone else involved. At the same time, finding a way of thinking about our fellow persons such that the glory that they carry is amplified is helpful.

Moving away from contempt is not a solution to all the challenges of the world. The fact that we desire things to be different and also often resist change may remain. The fact that we will see others as blocks to our own journeys may remain. There will be mourning for the reality of the world – with all its evil. There will be sadness at the resistance to change. There will also be the realization that everything our eyes are open to externally is operative internally. We all carry the same stuff.

That’s where the real journey begins. Try to become the kind of person for whom contempt is not a natural response (towards ourselves or others), and we will have engaged in our own spiritual formation. On the way, we will have to contend for what we believe is true about how people change, what change is good to aim for, and what has to be true about the world for any of it to work.

This is the greatest work anyone can commit themselves to, for in the end, the greatest gift we can give to the world is the person we become. Our gift would be lesser if our person was full of contempt.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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