Recently I was listening to the radio as I was driving and happened upon the program “Freakonomics.” The topic had to do with our seeming addiction to contempt; the sense that we have a “contempt crisis” happening in our politics and even in our daily lives. This sounded right to me as I listened and thought about how nasty and brutal our national discourse has become over the last several years.
Today there is little that remains of the moderate middle, meaning conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans. Currently everything is being funneled either to the very left or the very right, the very liberal or the very conservative. This is not necessarily a new thing, but what’s new is our unwillingness to be challenged with new information and facts or to consider anything that might suggest that we’re wrong, incorrect, hypocritical, biased, ill-informed, or deficient in some way.
In other words, when presented (not confronted) with new information or facts that challenge what I think, rather than being open to the idea that I might be wrong, hypocritical, biased, or ill-informed, I dismiss the information as “fake news” or “spin” and I hold the source in contempt. Once I think that someone or a group is deliberately trying to deceive or mislead or lie, then naturally they become the enemy.
From there, contempt hardens as we eliminate the possibility that someone expressing an opposing view is simply doing so because they’ve lived a different set of life experiences. In recent years, we’ve decided that we no longer need to listen or compromise or concede anything.
Yet, most people I encounter are tired of all the yelling, hatred, division, and contempt going on these days. The hard part is deciding how best to move forward; the answer is not obvious. I suspect that part of what would help is deciding to take a more charitable view of those who disagree with us.
Not long ago, I was reading a blurb about JFK’s American University speech given in June 1963. At the time, it didn’t get much attention in the U.S, but it did have an impact around the globe. In the years since, the speech has taken on greater weight in the context of the Cold War as it advocated a lessening of hostilities with the Soviet Union and suspension of nuclear testing.
What caught my attention was what JFK said about the Russians at a time when they were thought of as evil. In June 1963, he said: “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue… let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”
This was a radical idea in 1963, in some circles seen as blasphemy. But more than simply tolerating the Russians, JFK suggested something much more when he said “As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements—in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.”
In our current moment, let’s make our nation safe for diversity of thought and action and perhaps hail the accomplishments of our fellow citizens. It’s a start.