KIE scholar scrutinizes contemptuous political discourse

The New York Times published a hard-hitting op-ed by KIE Senior Research Scholar Karen Stohr today.

The article appears in The Stone, a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless, moderated by philosopher Simon Critchley.

Stohr presents the 2016 presidential election as an opportunity to examine the climate of current political discourse through a philosophical lens:

Gone are the days when contempt for political rivals and their supporters was mostly communicated behind closed doors, in low tones not meant to be overheard. Whatever veneer of unseemliness we associated with contemptuous public speech has been stripped away. We are left with everyone’s raw feelings, on all sides of the political spectrum, exposed and expressed in contexts ranging from social media and public protests to confrontational signage and clothing.

Stohr develops these observations into an argument for rejecting public displays of contempt, citing the act’s peculiar ability to dehumanize its target, and how this disregard for the respect of others can (and perhaps has) become a problem at a societal, rather than individual, level.

Contempt functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency. This is how contempt accomplishes its dehumanizing work — by marking its target as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community.

In an environment where contempt is an acceptable language of communication, those who already lack social power stand to lose the most by being its targets. The only real defense against contempt is the consistent, strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.

Widespread public contempt has the potential to undermine the moral basis of all human relationships and, indeed, of human community itself.

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