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Deacon Kyle Eller: Overcoming our ‘culture of contempt’

“No one has ever been hated into agreement.”

Back in early 2020, I remember hearing the buzz about a speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. The speaker was Arthur Brooks, a Catholic academic and former president of a conservative think tank whose work has focused on economics and culture. His message was straight from the words of Jesus himself — “love your enemies” — as he argued that the biggest crisis facing America and many other countries is “the crisis of contempt.”

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

It is a message he had already written about in a New York Times op-ed about a year earlier (that’s where the quote I began with came from) and one which he expanded on in his book “Love Your Enemies,” which I have been reading.

The instant I read through his prayer breakfast remarks as they were circulating through social media, I knew that he was articulating very well something I’ve been trying to say for years.

It’s important to understand what he means by “contempt.” As he makes clear, it is not a matter of disagreement (disagreement can be good) or even of anger. Borrowing a definition from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Brooks called contempt “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of the other.”

When we come to a place where many people have abandoned persuasion and consider their political, ideological, or religious enemies barely human, even monsters who only deserve destruction, that’s contempt. Rolling our eyes and utterly dismissing people is contempt.

That’s where we are, and it’s not unique to any one political persuasion but to large elements of all of them. About 15 seconds reading comments on any controversial news story on social media is enough to overdose on contempt.

It’s not the worst example, but one that bothered me a lot was during the debates over hospital vaccine mandates and the things that were said about the health care workers who objected to them. To me it seems clear why it’s a difficult issue. There are significant goods at stake that stand in tension with each other, and people understandably have strong feelings about them. Public health experts, relying on the best available science, tell us that getting as many people as possible vaccinated will help alleviate the pandemic and all the death and other suffering that has come with it, and we all want that. On the other hand, the right not to be forced to act against your conscience is also serious business. For that matter, so is having a legitimate say in what’s injected into your body.

So I get why people disagree strongly about it and get angry about it. But cheering when people lose their jobs in the middle of a pandemic? Contemptuously proclaiming that professional health care workers “don’t believe in science” if they have any hesitancy about a vaccine in these extraordinary circumstances? These are people that just months ago everyone was rightly hailing as heroes who had risked their lives to care for us.

It’s logically possible to believe vaccine mandates are good policy and still have sympathy for those who are put in a difficult position by those mandates and wish the best for them and want to see them land on their feet. Some people did that. But many did not. For them, the erstwhile heroes became Public Enemy No. 1, to the point of publicly wishing them harm and cheering if they were ineligible for unemployment.

As I said, this is just one example, and not even the worst. Doesn’t contempt play overwhelmingly into the political violence, at times deadly, we have witnessed over the past two years? Isn’t it a root of “cancel culture”? Isn’t it at the heart of our intense polarization that is even splitting apart families?

And can’t we see its effects all around us, even in the church?

Brooks cites psychological and social science research suggesting all this contempt is really bad for us, not just in the sense that it doesn’t convince anyone and is tearing us apart socially but in a personal way — that we suffer deeply when we are treated with contempt and that we even damage ourselves when we treat others with contempt.

It’s nice to have the scientific validation, but it’s something we already know at some level without even being told.

However, there are things we can do. In his book, Brooks echoes an experience similar to ones I’ve had. A previous book of his had attracted more readers than his academic works had, and he started hearing from more readers, including one who wrote a long, detailed email ripping his work to shreds.

Brooks said that in that moment, instead of getting angry, he found himself grateful that the person who had written to him had read the book and taken time to give detailed feedback. So he responded with gratitude instead of anger, and his correspondent’s tone immediately changed, and the conversation turned friendly.

I’ve had that experience too. It definitely doesn’t always happen, on my side or that of people who are upset with something I’ve written, but it does happen often. This, too, is biblical wisdom. One of my favorite passages from the Book of Proverbs is “A mild answer turns back wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

No one has ever been hated into agreement. The idea that we have to act this way to “win” our cultural battles is a lie — it’s not just morally flawed, it’s a losing strategy.

“Love your enemies” is not a suggestion, it’s a command of Jesus, and one we can’t safely ignore.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].