Open discrimination is a rare enough occurrence for it to become a story to tell for years. It’s an origin myth; mutating, identity-forming.
A few weeks ago, I was standing in a rock bar in an American metropolis, with a boyfriend who wasn’t white, and we were the only patrons not being served by the bartender. This event left me upset. The last time I observed open racism against someone I was with was in 1999, in France. I had talked about it a lot in the past 20 years... The person I was in the rock bar with was less surprised because this had happened to him a couple of times.
The reason why we call certain types of injustice “systemic” is because they’re everywhere and invisible, and we don’t know what to say. We’re homo sapiens, built for holding forests and savannas in our line of sight, and so ill-equipped for stuff everywhere-and-invisible, unless of course we made that stuff up.
Not that we can stomach it better when injustice is here and visible. When the occasional head of the Hydra pokes out of the water, we are reminded of and confirmed in our unsayable assumptions, and we will, for sure, remember.
To some people, accepting that explicit, person-to-person, discrimination is few and far between means there is less opportunity to tackle urgent problems. They might try to broaden the frame of what we call “discrimination” or “explicit”, to have more examples to work with. I don’t share these ambitions.
I’m under the impression that the structural elements of discrimination exist in areas of life where no one bothers looking for them. It’s there in the private, the everyday — you’re told about it at sales training and couples therapy. It’s innocent, it’s visible, it’s everywhere; we all do it.
An impersonal social phenomenon may be the big scary monster under the water. We may be at a loss as to how to understand it better, and how to confront it together. As far as I’m concerned, a good first step would be to look around in our own homes, to check on our own dragon’s eggs.
Although I grew up in Pelevin’s 1990s/2000s Eastern Europe, in a show-business family entouraged by Playboy models and the mob, I experienced open sexism only occasionally. I saw it on TV and had it shouted at me from across the street, but it was never personal, never against me.
In the tribal setting which is the East Bloc, all the explicit discrimination I experienced because of my sex was intrafamilial, inside the family. As far as the outside world was concerned, I belonged to my relatively-powerful father’s clan, and nobody touched me. Even when a male member of my family would strike me in public, people rightly saw that that girl was already “being taken care of”, and stayed out of it as a sign of respect.
(It’s interesting to note that when this issue had grown beyond my abilities of self-delusion, and I decided to cut ties with my “clan”, I finally aroused public disapproval against my person. I guess no one likes to probe the causes of desertion, lest they find some at hand.)
When I moved to the UK my standing in society had drastically changed: five years ago I was the penniless just-off-the-boat nobody from that novel you like, handing out flyers in front of Old Street Station at 6am, with my three master’s degrees, and email-wooing low-level gatekeepers to please think I’m smart.
Now I got the British version of the treatment I would have been given in Budapest if I hadn’t had all that enviable dynastic glam. And some more.
Because of my experiences from back home I suspected that behaviours I was encountering in London, at job interviews and startup pitches and on Tinder dates, wasn’t sexism-as-a-dictionary-entry (if any such pure version even exists) but a type of dismissal perfected for a Second World woman who has nothing and whom nobody accounts for. An oddity. Or a prey.
The greatest paradox of discrimination is that when someone discriminates against you they imply that you are not discriminating — that you will, somehow, just take it all (or, as Eastern European women are assumed to, easy); that you’ve been taken care of.
I have to admit I’m not buying the antifragility thesis on such a close-to-the-bone level. I had always been strong, an athlete and a leader; I didn’t need either physical violence or the “UK immigrant experience” to be who I am today. I would give anything for not having had it; for not having been reduced to invisible and discarded in the prime of my life. I’m sure most people who have faced open discrimination and dismissal would happily part with these memories. (Resilience is a different matter. You gotta survive. But despite the advertising survival is a bittersweet line of business.)
Some readers might remember that for geographical, generational and professional reasons, I’ve long been fascinated by moments in history when the public and the private trade places: a digital broadcast tool that promotes the intimate as fame, public discourse that infiltrates the pillow talk, new parental habits that change how university students are given support…
I think my interest is justified. Humans as animals have no natural sense of privacy: we lived in shared spaces, in close proximity, for hundreds of thousands of years. The things you find embarrassing or disgusting make biological (epidemiologic) sense, but how you cope with those feelings and what they mean for your social standing are cultural:
Where the demarcation line on the scale between public and private is has always been temporal, contextual and a matter of habit and negotiation. Across the human eras, it has mostly depended on what amounts to reputation and how that reputation is protected. (Reputation, in turn, protects humans from violence.) And it has depended on what amounts to wealth.
The fact is, our urges, emotions and reflexes reverberate across this public/private scale unchanged. What today may manifest as impersonal, systemic, bureaucratic discrimination against an ethnicity or a sexual minority is there, in essence — in its chemical components, in its information bits — in our quietest, most manageable, most familiar, everyday relationships.
It just has a different name. Contempt.
In its full-blown form, humans have no idea how to deal with contempt either.
It’s like a synthetic ingredient you can’t digest that just keeps circulating in your blood, and then won’t decompose even after you’ve died.
The ability to deal with contempt is the opposite of what we humans are good at. That is why it’s such a powerful weapon, so utterly debilitating and memorable — a Sisyphean load someone dumps on you and then has got somewhere else to be.
When we think about contempt we think about faces. A side look at your face shot from another, or a scanning of your body. A movement in the edge of the mouth that is not a smile. A scoff. The frown of a protester above his mask, raising something that breaks things... It’s someone turning their well-known back to you — taking their face away from you.
The animal in us, which reacts whenever we face a problem our smarts aren’t enough to solve, knows that contempt has something to do with communication, that it is an injury to it, a fracture. The animal knows it has been invoked because we’re somehow no longer in human territory (where communication lives).
In the human world, on the see-saw that is our built-in sense of fairness, we expect to be punished for things in proportion to our wrongdoing. But contempt seems to reject us not for one act but as an agent. It shrinks us to something not even deserving to be looked at. It’s too much; we can’t feel response-able for that. Because contempt is always a greater and more holistic punishment than whatever we think we may have done, we don’t know how to engage it in communication. There’s no way to amend or repent.
Contempt is, somehow, outside the system, and we never understand how we got there... Contempt just doesn’t digest in the communicational metabolism that is human society.
During my Catholic-school years I learnt a lot about shame and scorn (somehow always from young nuns you could easily make blush), but it wasn’t until I became an overbearing existentialist teenager that I first gave contempt a serious thought.
I was in my Moravia phase of course, so I read Il disprezzo, which was about filmmakers hating each other and themselves in that intrafamilial way, so I could really easily identify with the characters.
I didn’t go back to thinking about contempt for a good 10 years — not until the post-Recession political turmoil took off in Hungary in earnest, led to the breakdown of the society I thought I knew and my family, and then to my immigration.
With the metastases appearing both to the East and West of where I’m from, I had become much interested in overall models of contempt and dehumanisation, and whatever can be understood about them beyond space and time.
That is how I learnt about the aptly lovable John Gottman, a relationship doctor from the old school, who identified the presence of contempt in intimate relationships as not only one of his Four Horsemen, but “the” surefire sign that a relationship is about to fall apart. I was curious why he’d think that — there are louder and more aggressive events in a relationship than contempt.
What is it about this sentiment that makes it the cyanide capsule of any union of two humans? Is it just the — literal — silent killer of marriages, or does its poison work on the larger scale too?
As things politique had caught up with me in the West, I was discovering important cross-disciplinary research into the topic. We now know that dehumanising and moralising language on social media around an issue — that tone that distances one group from the rest of “us” and denies them human consideration — means an upcoming demonstration will likely be physically violent.
I have studied and built projects to tackle domestic violence, and discovered, to my horror, the well-researched and well-defined choreography called the “cycle of abuse”, a sequence and repetition of events familiar to anyone who has been through it — a simple algorithm that makes you scream: “Hey, that's MY LIFE!”
It’s one of those things that are so simple, and yet no one knows.
As a kind-of Classical Liberal I am conflicted whenever someone cries: “Words are violence”. My personal experience, and my scholarship into the question, taught me that while words are not violence there is no violence without words. Good luck with that statement in 2019 politics…
But the fact is, whether it’s a war between nations, a town-hall demonstration where kids have brought Molotov cocktails, or someone pushing you against your fridge, violence never started there. It started much earlier. It started with a look of contempt — and then came the bad words, then the deprivation of good things, then the throwing of bad things, and then just body against body and you can’t win that.
I do think dangerous ideas should be discussed. (I hope my writing this essay will stand as one example of many.)
I do not think words equal violence.
I think about words — our art, our philosophy, our debates, our thought experiments — as a free trial, a controlled explosion, a pressure valve, or a playground. Magic spells to build realities with.
And I do know that all human violence starts with words. I hope in the next years we will be able to explore the complexities of these facts more patiently and more honestly.
Contempt is hell but what the hell is contempt?
Imagine someone saying to you, seriously: You are being an idiot. It probably doesn’t feel very nice. You are offended. You argue back. Slam a door. The other person apologises or is out of your life for a while.
Now imagine someone saying to you: You are an idiot.
We can assume you react with very different hormones to this statement. Your blood pressure goes up, your muscles stiffen, and all of a sudden you find yourself at a loss for words... You are furious and scared. Your head is buzzing. You have been threatened.
So how do you respond to that? What do you say, as a person, when someone rejects your person? In the secret substrate of you where we’re all beasts, your fight or flight instinct is at full throttle. You have not been treated as an individual, so how could you respond as one?
A crime against humanity is sometimes described as a large-scale act that violates an intrinsic quality of humanity. Ethnic cleansing violates such an intrinsic quality: humanity is by nature racially, culturally and linguistically diverse. That is who we are.
On the micro-scale contempt goes against our diversity as individuals: our beautiful complexities, our contradictions, our many roles and hats, our constant changing... The extraordinary combination of ordinary elements that makes each of us, both biologically and intellectually, unprecedented.
The same way as a genocide reduces a complex, vibrant, evolving community to just “Jews”, “Tutsi” or “Rohingya”, you are also not, as an individual,“a [one quality as a noun]” with nothing left to talk about.
It is in this sense that contempt is, at any scale, the opposite of communication.
It is the opposite of any form of communication between humans — from engaging in transatlantic trade, to performing chamber music, to having sex.
Contempt isn’t condescension. It’s not — or not usually — about feeling you’re better than the other person. It goes above comparisons: you are not like the other person [because you are a real/normal person and they’re not].
They are no longer in your group where you keep your persons.
I think about Kundera’s Agnes who hates confrontation, which is also a form of communication between humans, because it would create a union between her and her opponent which she doesn’t want. The unbearable (sorry…) thing about someone not entering a conflict which should be had, together, is exactly this non-engagement: an opposite to communication. In any kind of relationship, respectful fights are a great way to avoid the appearance of contempt.
In my personal experience, we’re all hypersensitive to signs of contempt — which is quite logical. Our emphasis on open faces, eye contact, smiles and affirmative nods seems to serve as a continuous reassurance that “I don’t feel contempt for you”. When signs of contempt do appear, women seem to more often react with depression and men with anger (which in my view is partly due to the fact that women are conscious of their physical powerlessness and it makes us go from mad to sad). The internet has of course opened great new avenues for the expression of these feelings.
Humans use contempt as some evil Joker card in the game that is our cohabitation of this planet. We resort to expressing contempt when we feel there is nothing left to feel. When we decide we have nothing left to do with the other person.
The problem is that, just like in a round of cards, the game most of the time goes on. You have expressed your contempt and thus, congratulations, single-handedly transferred yourself and at least one other person onto a dehumanised, non-communicative plane of existence.
Sometimes contempt is disguised as humour. It is for this reason that some groups active in the public arena have become suspicious of comedians. I think of comedy as an Eco-esque life-saver — we laugh best at things we hold dear, as a way of coping with our fear of losing them. Our in-group, our loved ones, women, God and Country... We laugh so we won’t cry.
There are of course forms of humour designed to dehumanise. Many people since the Enlightenment have given a thought to how comedy works. (Even poor Kierkegaard which is in itself funny.) I wasn’t too interested in this until I first familiarised myself with the emerging trend of “trigger warnings” a few years ago.
One of my main arguments against trigger warnings was that I really liked Sarah Silverman. I come from a family of Holocaust survivors and so happening upon an old tape of the original The Producers and then seeing Silverman’s Jesus Is Magic were totally liberating experiences in my twenties. We can laugh at that!!!
I thought my feeling relieved when watching Mel Brooks’ insolent musical or enjoying Silverman’s jokes proved all of trigger-warning-culture wrong. But then I remembered that, okay, I, the third generation Holocaust survivor, love this stuff, but the part of my family that actually made it through that period couldn’t make it through Schindler’s List beyond the opening scenes, even though some of them contributed to Spielberg’s documentary library with their interviews. So I’m a bit more careful nowadays when I think about who is triggered by what and whether I’m qualified to make decisions for other people (the answer is no).
I recently read Katharine Graham’s excellent autobiography and when she described how Philip Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, abused her for decades, first through seemingly innocent jokes, but which then got harsher and harsher and more and more public, I thought about my mother.
I remain intrigued by humour as a public form of contempt, and whether there is something useful to learn there. In the first part of the year, when I was in my Ken Burns phase and watched all of his documentaries, two film clips struck me, a strange pair of insights:
One was a clip of Adolf Hitler making a joke of FDR’s warning letter to him; reading it up, ridiculing the American President, in The Roosevelts.
The other clip was in Prohibition, where Roosevelt joked with the crowd at the end of the alcohol ban (and the beginning of his presidency; not a coincidence) that they all seemed to be in an awful rush to go and get a beer. In FDR’s case, too, everyone laughed. At themselves.
Contempt removes the other person — or people — from the group we are in. It moves them outside city walls where there is no order and no mercy. That is how violent acts can befall those who have first been pushed outside the line of defence, outside the line of civilised decency, outside the line of sight! That’s why our ancestors guarded their reputation, literally, with their lives.
This “distancing” is present in humour whenever we laugh at someone else. It is not there when, as FDR did, we use humour to caricature ourselves and each other, together. When we admit we’re all imperfect and yet still hold some things dear. That we have mercy on ourselves and one another.
FDR remains popular.
For some time in my life I thought contempt was the shadow of passion. That it was impossible to feel deeply, or want strongly, without contempt, as a comedown, being part of it all, to show up when things have cooled off.
I thought it was the necessary evil for those who seek real love and pure desire. The ultimate hangover.
I see things differently now.
There’s nothing “cooled off” about contempt. Nothing resigned or satisfied. It may be a silent state— often literally: as in someone not talking to you, or even looking at you — but it is an active state. If passion wants to devour the other person hook-line-sinker, then contempt wants to retch them all up.
You can’t get rid of another passively… Nor will you try to.
The antipole of passion, it seems to me now, is friendly camaraderie. No conflict, no interest. Netflix and chill. The IKEA commode.
The antidote of contempt, on the other hand, seems to be reasonable conversation. Conflict, interest, and negotiation until compromise. Democratic filibuster, why not. Coexistence — diversity — the secret sauce of humanity.
Some time ago one of my favourite people on the internet, Nerdwriter, made a video ostensibly about Jack Nicholson but really about the nature of anger.
Thanks to some of my life experience, anger used to be a close friend of mine. Thanks to some other life experiences, it no longer is. I was naturally intrigued when this video came out, and I still use it as a reference point.
Nerdwriter basically argues that anger is not a feeling. That it is a stand-in feeling for other feelings. For fear and dejection and humiliation. For outrage over injustice. For impatience. For incredulousness over a betrayal.
Recently, I’ve been wondering if the same can be said of contempt.
What does a community really feel when it rejects and dehumanises a group that’s part of it? What does a member of the family feel when they turn on their own blood? Disappointment? Dominance? Competition? Sadness…?
What would you be feeling if you didn’t happen to be feeling contempt?
What do you feel when you feel contempt and what makes you feel it?
What caused it? Could you have stopped the feeling from being triggered?
Is your contempt a stand-in for something else? Disappointment? Envy? Too powerful feelings of love and dependence? Are you… sad?
If you could be feeling something other than contempt, why aren’t you feeling that? What stops you?
Answer me this:
How is it that in contempt we — finally, uniquely — feel we have understood another human being as a whole only to then reject them as a human being, as a whole?
Can we only relate to the fragment of another human as a human? The incomplete puzzle, the unbreakable code, à la Proust…? Can we love only that?
Do we, in general, use communication to solve the puzzle that is each other — and so when we feel someone has been “figured out”, there simply is nothing left to say (and we hate that)?
Or do we see ourselves as fragments, and so we can’t stand it when someone else will just up and walk around as a complete being?
Does someone’s assumed completeness make us feel powerless ... or, just, less?
We must find it difficult not to communicate with a human we think we understand so well. Contempt may be the practical shield, preventing any future communication — or temptation thereof — from happening.
I want mercy.
I often quote the Hungarian philosopher Éva Ancsel who said, “A person is an adult when they no longer ask for mercy.” But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I want to bring back mercy as a possible feeling, a possible state of mind, for our secular era.
We really miss it.
The mercy of God, and the mercy between humans, used to be dead serious business in the long period of Western theocracy. Mercy is sharply differentiated from forgiveness. Emphasising forgiveness in Heaven and on Earth, the Pater Noster says “et dimitte nobis debita nostra” — literally: let go of our debt, please — which might remind you of our earlier discussion of fairness and proportionality.
Mercy is totally disproportionate. It’s inviting someone back inside — your home, your circle of defence, the group where you keep your persons. It’s irrational. It’s the prostitute walking with your disciples. Mercy is as needlessly gargantuan as contempt.
And so I think it’s the only possible antidote.
Expressing mercy on each other and ourselves, and accepting the mercy of others, doesn’t need a god to facilitate. You already feel it. Give it a name.
Mercy is less exhausting than love and less reluctant than forgiveness, and so there should be an endless supply.
Forgiveness forgives something — mercy simply accepts a person as a person. It isn’t about act but agent.
Mercy is when we can both stay behind the city walls, within the communication that is our coexistence.
Forgiveness assumes something wrong has been done which both sides are aware of. Contempt has no one cause and therefore it cannot be accepted as justice by the “wrongdoer”. Contempt is two-sided only as in it one-sidedly removes both sides from the framework of exchange. Fittingly, mercy can be one-sided too but affect both sides. And it doesn’t need one cause.
Mercy isn’t about charity (which is often asked-for) or about giving up (which is rarely asked-for). It doesn’t absolve you: it unsubmits you.
Once you have understood that there is endless mercy for you, you will be able to generously show mercy yourself.
You may also feel mercy for animals and the nature that surrounds you. I get it; it’s a pretty cool place to live.