Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement

Free speech is supposed to be facilitate human progress. In its ideal form, it enables debate and causes us to iterate better political policies, better cultural outputs and a better society.

In reality, the marketplace of ideas, if it exists at all, is corrupt and monopolised by those with money and power.

One aspect of freedom of expression I think about a lot is the way in which disagreements happen. I’ve expressed dismay at how some free speech advocates seem remarkably uninterested in listening to other points of view, and only really care about their own right to offend. And I’ve noted how many spats seem to disintegrate into a competition over who can first reach a place of unassailable piety.

I have also argued (mainly with friends, and mainly on social media) about the degree to which we should ‘bother’ trying to persuade people who hold bigoted views to change their minds. I tend to hold that it’s always worth engaging with hideous people. But a friend of mine recently told me that this looks like I “care more about the racists than their victims”.

I also often encounter the (persuasive) point of view that transphobes and racists should not be debated because they deny someone else’s humanity in a way that should not be condoned through engagement with them. And Nazis should be punched.

This discussion between Arthur Brooks and Ezra Klein offers a useful response to the vexing issues noted above.

Brooks notes the difference between anger and contempt.

Contempt is the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another person. Anger leads algorithmically to reconciliation; contempt leads to permanent enmity.

It’s OK to be angry in political discourse (and indeed, as Brooks points out, in friendships and marriage). We should see anger as a positive, because ‘anger means you care.’

This is quite a satisfying approach. It’s compatible with my instinct to engage people with a horrible opinion, in the hope we might persuade them to a less horrible opinion! But in permitting people to disagree angrily, Arthur Brooks approach avoids the wrenching requirement that we be respectful to people who don’t respect us.

One Reply to “Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement”

  1. I think there IS a market place of ideas but agree it can be corrupted. I also think too little attention has been paid to contempt because it is such a dead end. We need to think about it more as its such a destructive emotion and denies the humanity of the other person . It is always worth engaging with people who hold bigoted views although it may be a waste of time as this is not inevitable. Please continue to do so whatever your friend thinks it ” looks like”. Anyone who knows you would not think you care more about the perpetrators than the victims. And punching is never right except in self defence. By the way when can I see you blog about Sajid Javid ? I am very upset about him and cannot believe what he has agreed.

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