The Participation Blog

Getting Beyond Contempt

As you’re reading this, the fall campaign cycle in the U.S. will be in your rearview mirror, although I’m confident we’ll still be knee deep in the nasty aftermath. This will likely go down as the ugliest, most vitriolic campaign cycle in recent memory and it’s widened the gap further among us. Where and how does that end and when and how does that ever heal? How will we ever engage people across the chasm? For your consideration, here’s a place to start.

Erica Etelson is the author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide. She explains well a point that we make in our training classes and consulting around managing public opposition and outrage for practitioners of public engagement. That is that you can’t allow simple disagreements to devolve into personal disrespect and humiliation. The feeling of humiliation is a mixture of shame and anger. German social psychologist Evelin Lindner calls humiliation “the nuclear bomb of the emotions.” By stripping away the other person’s dignity, humiliation inflicts a mortal wound, leaving the humiliated mind to convince itself of the need to inflict even greater pain on the perpetrator. Lindner identifies horrific spirals of humiliation on the genocidal histories of Germany, Somalia, Rwanda, and Serbia, where she learned the Somali proverb, “Humiliation is worse than death; in times of war, words of humiliation hurt more than bullets.”

I’m not suggesting that there’s no difference between right and wrong and that evil shouldn’t be challenged, it can and must, but we’ve gotta get a handle on how we handle basic differences of opinion. Way back in 2016, Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post (also formerly at the New York Times, that other liberal rag) told journalists who are today still trying to figure out how to cover and write about Donald Trump and his followers, “Lose the smugness. Keep the mission.”

Abraham Lincoln figured that out a century and a half ago.