Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

In Praise of Contempt
by Jeffrey Perren

Contempt: The feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, or worthless.

- American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

The fine art of contempt has probably never in history been so looked down on as it is today.  Some of the greatest thinkers or writers in history displayed this attitude openly, even proudly: Aristotle, Moliere, Swift, Ayn Rand.  (Of course, there have been pockets where this attitude has been anathema: 19th century Quaker settlements in Pennsylvania, Maoist era Chinese re-education camps, Japanese corporations circa 1975, and others.)

But in the last few decades, most notably within large corporations, the freedom to regard someone as 'inferior or worthless' has come under severe attack.  To be as generous on the matter as possible, this may be due, in part, to the anti-royalist, American view that "I'm as good as you are!".  In part, it may come from the pragmatic view that it's unhelpful to damn a man's character or even his idea.  The preferred course is simply to rebut the specific idea and leave it at that.  It may even be the result of the view that expressing contempt always entails an ad hominem.

But, in the culture at large, it stems undoubtedly from the skepticism/moral relativism/egalitarianism mixture that has been poured over American culture like a suffocating syrup.  Aiding and abetting this loathsome philosophy, which regards everyone regardless of inherent potential or personal achievement as equal in value, is the contemporary view that common decency requires that we all be perpetually nice.  Nothing could be further from the truth, literally.

The doctrine of equal individual rights, under the law, practically guarantees that everyone will be unequal in several important respects.  (Just to name a few: level of developed talent, economic reward, quality of worthwhile output.)  In a society where individuals are left free to pursue their talents, unequal outcomes are inevitable—and devoutly to be wished.

It's simply undeniable, by anyone with a shred of respect for observationally available facts, that individuals are born with different potentials, develop in different circumstances, and pursue activities with differing degrees of passion and mental clarity.

It's a short logical jump from there to the view that some will have practically no talent, no opportunity, or no interest in achieving anything worthwhile.  Nearly every data set of human attributes describes a bell curve more or less.  Some will necessarily be at the left end.

When individuals stay, for extended periods, on the leftmost portion of the curve through choice, it becomes appropriate to regard such persons with contempt.  If, as is certainly the case, one is to regard heroes with respect, admiration, even awe then justice dictates that one be free to look upon those who've made no effort to strive in the direction of that state with contempt.

Economics teaches, among other valuable lessons, that capital tends to flow in the direction of valued goods and services.  By corollary, capital always being in limited supply, (other things being equal) it will flow away from things regarded as inferior in value.

Biology, not to mention our own pleasure-pain mechanism, shows clearly that a healthy, unrestricted organism will move towards things giving value and away from things giving pain.  One of the emotional/intellectual mechanisms aiding the awareness to do this is the state known as 'contempt'.

Examples need not be multiplied ad nauseam.  People naturally want to express contempt for things they regard as bad.  It is only through considerable social pressure, in contemporary life provided by the ever squabbling partners of religion and collectivist political correctness, that most individuals learn to suppress this.  (Observe, for example, the difference in the way a man talks at work versus what he says at home to his wife.)  In the world of today, one pays a heavy price for remaining true to one's honest opinion.

Now a word of warning for those who see the above as a license for unbridled disdain.  Focusing exclusively for long periods on persons and products that are contemptible is not healthy.  Nor is regarding everyone and their actions with contempt in one's self-interest.  One can wield a hammer to great effect, but swung wildly and at random it is not an efficient tool with which to drive nails.  And it's hard on the thumb.

Further, the expression of contempt for certain people (and, by extension, their products) who are genuinely deserving of it is not primarily for the purpose of correcting their behavior.  Apart from the fact that their character is not your responsibility, it simply doesn't tend to change people in a society where so much is pushing the other way.  The primary purpose is much more selfish than social change, important as that may be these days.  It is, rather, one good method for putting your values in to the world.  A way of announcing, "This is what I value."  And that is a very healthy act.

One more word of warning, which is unfortunately needed in the world of today.  The culture extant when this is written will not take kindly to expressions of contempt—no matter how roundly deserved.  (Unless you are a Republican at a Democratic 'I hate George Bush' rally, in which case you get a free pass by the guardians of socially correct behavior.)  You will pay a heavy price—in disapproval, in social ostracism, in potential income—for committing what the contemporary world regards as a very black sin.  Only you can decide whether and when it's worth it.

One thing I can promise you.  Done appropriately, with due regard to the facts and a proper evaluation of the person or phenomenon at whom it is directed, at the end of the day you will feel good inside your own skin.  That's what having integrity and a sense of honor does for you.
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