Ooh, burn! That’s funny!

I keep seeing different nicknames bandied about. Among the reasons given are a) to avoid associating the word President with his name; and b) as a personal choice to not add value to his brand by using it.

Personally, I will do my best to not indulge in the use of derogatory nicknames. It’s my hope that enough people setting such an example will raise the level of discourse a bit amongst our social spheres. Some of us might even go so far as to gently encourage our overenthusiastic allies to follow our lead and tone it down a bit.

Or maybe not. Only person I can really hold to this standard is me so I’ll do at least that much. If I’m lucky, perhaps one or two people will follow my lead. If I’m not so lucky I at least know that reason, respect, and civility won’t make things worse. Hippocrates meets social media.

Why? Because I thought the popular nickname “Obummer,” and the plethora of others in the same vein, has been childish. I’ve said so publicly and often. Doesn’t that sort of name-calling sound like grade school playground bully kind of stuff? Does it belong in political discourse of grown adults? Or the campaign rhetoric of a certain candidate? If it’s so detestable, why would anyone in opposition indulge in that behavior? Since I’ve spoken publicly against lobbing childish nicknames at President Obama, it would be hypocritical of me not to call out the same behavior pointed in the opposite direction. But if and when I do I’ll try to do so reasonably, gently, and with respect.

If we have that conversation, I will probably argue that contempt isn’t subject to situational ethics. Some believe it is acceptable when directed toward people who are clearly deserving of contempt. People who are beneath respect. Those of such low character as to deserve any misfortune that may befall them so it’s OK to hold them in contempt, and even participate in harming them, because they had it coming. There are cases, the reasoning goes, in which it’s so obvious, so extreme, as to be indisputable.

But as much as we frame contempt in terms of recognizing another person’s seemingly obvious and indisputably low character, that isn’t actually how it works. Contempt is the act of assessing another person, or group of people, and judging one’s self as superior in the comparison. It is not a diminution of others but rather an elevation of self, and only with that understanding can we recognize contempt as an infection that erodes the character and soul of those unlucky enough to be afflicted by it.

Like an infection, contempt is aggressive in its assault. When we judge another as worthy of our contempt and that person has supporters, then they must also be worthy of contempt. Soon contempt becomes the lens through which the whole world is viewed. Anyone with differing beliefs is contemptible. Any news media that contradicts a deeply held belief is contemptible. With regular practice, confirmation bias becomes the sole metric of credibility.

In the advanced stages of the disease, any attempt to reconcile internally competing beliefs threatens to trigger self-loathing. When that occurs, principles are abandoned and beliefs transformed into loyalty to a group and its leadership. At that point it doesn’t matter if the leader espouses contradictory policies since there is no need to reconcile them personally. That’s the role of the leader. With contempt firmly entrenched as the primary guiding emotion, consistency in one’s loyalty to the party and the leadership is all the consistency needed.

As scary as that is, some people follow another, more dangerous, path. They adhere to principles over loyalty and object to irreconcilable policies regardless of which leader proposes them. They insist on a consistent shared reality. They follow objectivity and logical analysis wherever those lead, including when that means admitting they were wrong.

That willingness to negotiate and change a position based on new facts results in better outcomes over the long term whereas blind loyalty tends to be a destructive force over time. While that belief may be quite defensible, the temptation to use it as the basis for judging relative worth of human beings is a step too far.

“Ol’ Prune Tang campaigns on ‘drain the swamp,’ crucifies Hillary over ties to Goldman Sachs, then appoints no less than five Goldman Sachs people to top posts! The guy is completely devoid of integrity and will say anything and not even bother to walk it back when he reneges, which he eventually will.”

And it seems so obvious, right? He so out-extremes the most extreme Republicans as to make them look tame by comparison. Contempt for reasonable people is unreasonable. Contempt for extremists is the exception that proves the rule. But extreme is in the eye of the beholder. It is relative. If one group can justify it, all groups can.

“We’re inclusive, we’re tolerant, we’re progressive, we value all human life as worthy of dignity and respect, but he’s so far beyond the pale, such an outlier even among black swans, that he’s the exception that proves contempt is situational. We’re tolerant but even for us, that guy’s fucking insane so it’s OK to call him Nacho Nazi, The Orange Menace, or Don The Con, yeah? Damn straight. It’s a bit out of character for us because we hold the moral high ground but under the circumstances it’s warranted. Hell, it might even wake some folks up in which case it nets out to a Good Thing.”

The thing about situational ethics is that anything can be justified. The rationalization doesn’t have to be logical. It just has to be plausible enough to allow suspension of disbelief long enough to devise the next rationalization. Each one builds on the last as the crazy slowly ratchets up.

People think the moral of the boiled frog story is that we are naturally blind to slow incremental change. No, the moral of the boiled frog story is to learn to recognize what a kettle looks like from the inside. Contempt is recognizing someone else’s kettle from the outside and having a good laugh at their expense, unable to resolve the shape of one’s own kettle from the vantage point of hanging on the rim looking out.

“And check this out — his supporters don’t see any of this as a betrayal. They don’t see the blindingly obvious inconsistency there. What the hell did they think ‘drain the swamp’ even meant? They apparently don’t care about what he does, only that it’s him doing it. What a bunch of morons!”

And there it is. Turns out it’s impossible to look down on people from a safe vantage point. Gotta venture waaay out on that slope. Little further. Can almost see them. Another step. Keep looking for the lesser humans. Ignore that feeling of free-fall induced nausea. That’s just disgust. Perfectly normal under the circumstances.

“Looks like idiots dead ahead on the horizon. Yup, accelerating toward them brings them into better resolution. May even pass them on the way down if it goes badly. Oh yeah, it’s definitely confirmed. Those deplorable clowns got conned into voting against their own interest and they are taking the country and the world down with them in the process.”

The ultimate irony is that contempt in the hearts of others is the character defect used to justify holding them in contempt. Compounding the insult with self-righteous bullshit about moral high ground and rationalization isn’t some kind of alchemy that turns contempt into truth. It turns self-loathing into self-delusion though, and for many that’s good enough. Contempt justifying contempt? That’s some seriously twisted shit if you ask me, straight out of the MC Escher school of philosophy.

That said, some of these nicknames are admittedly funny and some of the behavior is hard not to mock, so in unguarded moments some of these get past my filter. (My last Facebook post inspired this essay, for that very reason.) After decades applying the science of human cognitive bias to marketing, practically every message we see is designed to bypass our rational mind and trigger a knee-jerk reaction.The best of these are said to “go viral” because they are the memetic equivalent of biological viruses. No wonder we re-post so much bullshit.

Of all the varieties, a nickname that eloquently paints a charicature is the quintessential meme. It is so compelling that in our eagerness to share we forget to run it past our filters. If I screw up and let one past me, and you hold me to account on it, I welcome your caring guidance. If you consider mine from time to time as well, then I expect our online acquaintance will endure. Character isn’t defined by the absence of error but rather in the recovery. Aspiring to high standards doesn’t mean we always attain the goal and holding ourselves or each other to impossible standards makes that even tougher.

But we can, I sincerely hope, demand better of ourselves than to indulge in contempt. We can never rise above our current circumstances, individually or as part of a community, by looking down on others. The only person we need to be better than is the person we were yesterday.

WebSphere MQ security guy! My Tweets/views are my own. Also blogging at http://ask-an-aspie.net and http://tdotrob.wordpress.com

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T.Rob

T.Rob

WebSphere MQ security guy! My Tweets/views are my own. Also blogging at http://ask-an-aspie.net and http://tdotrob.wordpress.com

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