Contempt Is a Bitter-Tasting Word

Contempt. It is a word that tastes bitter when you say it. But it is a word that has been much on my mind lately.

Language has always mattered to me. Perhaps it is because my mother was an English teacher; perhaps because I could read long before I started school; perhaps because I was the youngest of five articulate siblings, and my father, a machinist, was as well read as all the rest of us.

But I really think words matter to me because I was bullied as a child. My schoolmates mocked me and said I had cooties. No one played with me or invited me over. My teachers made fun of my stammering when I read out loud or tried to recite the poem I was required to memorize. Thus it was clear to me at a very early age that words do hurt, and the damage can last a lifetime—or more.

This is why I was especially drawn to the Religious Society of Friends. As Quakers, we are called to find that of God in everyone—a difficult task. I spent years trying to find that of God in Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s henchman and Donald Trump’s mentor.

I also spent most of my legal career protecting First Amendment rights. I am clear that I protect the rights of people with whom I may or may not agree. My understanding of the First Amendment coincides with Justice Robert H. Jackson’s:

But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

To me, this is the essence of finding that of God in everyone.

A Friend asked me, “Are we being tested?” “Yes,” I answered.

About ten years ago, Paul Wolfowitz, a neoconservative then in the middle of his scandal-ridden tenure as the president of the World Bank, came to Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.). The World Bank and this meeting work together each year to raise funds and put together and deliver thousands of shoeboxes with gloves, ponchos, and other gifts for the homeless at Christmas. Friends whispered to each other, “How should we react to him?”

I suggested he was there for the photo opportunity and would leave. I was wrong. He pitched right in working as hard as everyone else (and he had a broken arm!) and stayed to the end.

A Friend asked me, “Are we being tested?”

“Yes,” I answered, and I was reminded: there is that of God in everyone.

Through the very deliberate actions of a few to dismantle our country’s progress toward equality and justice, and with the inadvertent help of technological people with good motives, we have undergone a careful dismantling of the connective tissue of this country. No longer do we get our news from the same sources and our education from mostly public schools. We don’t even watch the same entertainment. And it is only getting worse with the algorithms and matrices of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other technology companies. They not only help you find things you are interested in, but also screen you from information with which you disagree. We have been put into our silos by these forces, and they are making sure we do not get out.

And we Friends help them every time we write “tRump” or “the orange man with the small grabby hands.”

Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, a Libertarian think tank that started the careers of many climate-change deniers, recently stated that the biggest problem with American politics today is contempt. We no longer view those with whom we disagree as people having many things in common with ourselves. We hold contempt for them; we believe in the utter worthlessness of people with whom we disagree politically.

But there is that of God in everyone.

Don’t get me wrong. I get that the political system is broken. In many respects, it has been broken since the first European set foot on this continent. But while it has never been a perfect system, it was—for most—a functioning system. Increasingly, it is a system that functions well for a few, and some of those few play at being benevolent to those in need, as long as the beneficiaries don’t make waves. It is a system that functions adequately for the slightly affluent, assuring them that they can stay in relative safety and comfort provided they don’t rock the boat, although some do. But for increasing numbers, it is a completely dysfunctional system.

You cannot find that of God in everyone if you do not talk to everyone.

How do we change that? I have been working hard for the political candidates of my choice. I have gotten up early, standing in both the cold and the heat, to provide support for voters through Election Protection, a program sponsored by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. I hold monthly “Get Out the Vote” postcard writing parties and help with voter registration.

But I have increasingly been thinking again about the power of words, including the words that aren’t being said. So I have been trying to encourage conversations with “the other.” How do we break out of the silos and go back to communicating with people with whom we disagree?

Some of my Friends say, “That’s what we need. How do we reach out and persuade the others that they are wrong?” And I say, “All I am teaching is how to have a conversation. Persuasion may come, but it is not the goal. The goal is to rebuild community among people who do not agree.”

Others of my Friends say, “You can’t persuade some people with facts. You are wasting your time.” And I say, “All I am teaching is how to have a conversation. Persuasion may come, but it is not the goal. The goal is to rebuild community among people who do not agree.”

Both groups show a level of contempt. One group of Friends shows it in a patronizing manner, assuming that all Friends have to do is get the facts to those ignorant people and they would all agree with those Friends. The other shows contempt in assuming that the people with whom they disagree have no ability to learn—or to teach.

But you cannot find that of God in everyone if you do not talk to everyone. You cannot find that of God in everyone if you hold many in contempt.

It is not about agreeing: It is about setting aside our contempt and listening. It is about realizing that there are things upon which we can agree, even if they are as mundane as agreeing that we need rain, or that growing a garden takes work.

Finding this common ground that we all share is the best hope for our nation and, indeed, the world. It is a physical manifestation of our belief that we find that of God in everyone. Finding that of God in everyone should not be an abstract idea best practiced at a distance. It should be concrete actions that build the cornerstone of our beloved community.

J.E. McNeil

J. E. McNeil is an attorney and a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) with a master’s in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University. She has trained thousands in different matters around the country and is currently providing training by request on “Conversations with the Other.”

3 thoughts on “Contempt Is a Bitter-Tasting Word

  1. Thank you JE. This is a topic that has been weighing on my mind for some time now. I think we became trapped in a Catch-22 of our own making – on the one hand the tech companies precisely capture our behavioral DNA on the pretext of trying to understand us better and those very companies turn around and sell our DNA to marketeers willing to pay as they are for profit corporations that must serve their stockholders. How can we resolve this conundrum?

    First, we must take ownership of our actions and hold ourselves accountable at an individual level (Integrity at the individual level). Inadvertently, we seem to have handed our autonomy to these for profit companies. We have lived for many years without social media and we can continue to do so – social media is not a necessity. The tech companies have done a fantastic job of duping us into believing it to be so.

    Next, we must initiate that conversation with the others even if it is bound to fail – as we have to make that honest effort to see that of God in everyone. Your article is an excellent and timely one. Its worth could be further increased if you could also provide some practical techniques on how to initiate that conversation – or as you say ” how to see that of God in others”. I have heard some radio commentary on practical tips relating to converse with those who disagree with us. Perhaps, that is a subject of a full-length article in itself.

    Thanks you for the article.

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