I love an exaggerated eye roll, a vicious tongue slashing, a verbal rollicking lightly peppered with inflammatory language…..I know I know….not something I should be proud of though in fairness I’m pretty effective at being contemptuous….
Cost centre 3 has contempt down to a pat. Hand on jutted hip, a simple throw back of her head and a devil may care laugh are all it takes to put me in my place. Cost centre 2 is even more skewering with a piercing gaze and sombre silence. Both ageing me before my time; cementing me to my silliness. Sometimes I wonder if children are the most sophisticated of contempt bearers.
I try to be aware of my contemptuous nature; hold myself back when I can. But it is incredible how your actions seep into your children and replicate. Listening to Cost centre 3 bandy freely her dismissal of those around her for the most minuscule of reasons feels mean. Wrong. Surely that isn’t how a generous person is meant to behave. What is she learning from me?
Psychologist Paul Ekman explains contempt as one of our basic emotions along with joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. He assesses these seven feelings to be building blocks because each delivers unique facial expressions, physiological responses and action tendencies that can be found across almost all cultures. Transversing the globe and through social strata’s, it is perceived our brains process emotions uniformly and although we each feel a sentiment distinctively (for example certain cultures gauge their emotion through the impact on themselves and others in relation to their community) we project visually in a similar fashion so that the expression of joy for example is universal.
It’s a curious thing, labelling emotions, but we desire to — both ours and of others. Being around individuals, It helps us acknowledge our state or place another person in order to consider our manoeuvre of the moment. We know the familiar sentiments. Flippantly I’d declare they are plain vanilla; with little depth or nuance compared to the sensation contempt. Now that is a rock and roll emotion. It is real but an embarrassing cousin and not generally spoken of in polite company. But somehow it is an important feeling to be aware of because it can be corrosive and stultifying for the contemptuous and the object of their attention.
How would you define contempt? I have heard it described as anger but that is a limited description. I consider It a feeling of superiority or a dislike or exasperation over another’s actions or words. On the website paulekman.com, it mentions that contempt is not the same as disgust although they too share resemblance. Disgust can relate to objects and does not generally encompass the notion of ascendancy. Although we might regard it being asserted by those who identify as superior, it can be exhibited by those who feel insecure or subordinate to others as an expression of the botheration of their social position and status. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer describes contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” I observe that contempt is a combination of anger (or vexation) disgust and frustration.
Its manifestation is where it gets interesting because dependant on whether it has been forged through slow fusion or a momentary adrenaline spike it can present in either a fiery or cold manner. It is often directed at the whole of a person rather than a singular feature or trait. I am easily pleased, so a clever ‘put down’ is a sophisticated declaration of contempt and many is the time I have wished to be so skilled. Who hasn’t walked away only to surmise the perfect rejoinder when it is too late? People who are contemptuous have a tendency to look down on, derogate, or distance others whose values or comments aggravate them. If you stretch the analysis, you could say that racism, sexism are forms of contempt; an expression of primacy due to colour or gender.
Kant believed, that we all have a basic right to respect. That mutual respect is equalising; allowing each of us to accept our differences whether we choose to change our stance or not. So I’ve mulled why Nature has thought contempt a necessary feature of our ilk. I’m curious if it has emerged from our tribal nature as contempt can be used as a way to ward off those who don’t fit with our community. You could argue that contempt is needed to balance our societal personalities; ensure the arrogant are put in their place; the ridiculous think more carefully, the hypocritical are shamed. It offers a vent for our own frustrations which could present more dangerously if it wasn’t for this emotion so perhaps it is an imperative mechanism at the individual level.
But I wonder today if it is a sentiment which has been elevated beyond this simple need. In today’s world of easy social media and the flooding of intolerance around many facets of our difference but also in our ability to speak up, Is contempt a more pervasive emotion than ever? That to trample others opinions and feelings or those with differing ideologies to us is normalised because contempt is a more powerful tool to cut someone down than violence. In its wake perpetuating grievances and shutting down free speech. Words matter. The political stage seems riddled with contempt fuelled by the polarisation of society and so we get what we have encouraged from those who should be improving our lives. Contempt. Make no mistake. Contempt is not a harmless sentiment particularly when practiced on a grand scale and perhaps why we should all take a moment when you feel that hip jutting take hold….though if you find a really good put down let me know…