‘Culture of contempt’ pollutes our public and private lives

LeTonia Jones
LeTonia Jones LeTonia Jones

A lot happens at first glance. In a millisecond we can find ourselves at home or immediately on defense. In what conservative Arthur C. Brooks calls a “culture of contempt,” I believe we find ourselves more often in the latter. I have been conditioned to be on defense most of my life. I don’t believe I’m alone. And so, I don’t blame anyone for this, including myself.

This is the house in which we all live. Our nation’s political landscape is corroded with an “us vs. them” mentality. Leaders at all levels are pitted as enemies, even ones with an earnest desire to serve. No one can explore. No one can make mistakes. No one has room for compromise. From all sides and in most areas of our civic and even social lives, the strategy seems to be humiliate, demonize, silence, and thus destroy. In a culture of contempt, compassion is suffocated. Without some deep soul searching, we will continue to find it harder to breath. A culture of contempt has never nor will it ever sustain us and so here we sit gasping for air.

In 1978 I entered first grade in Western Kentucky. By then, I had been identified a “very smart little girl”. My mother was advised to let me skip the 1st grade, but decided against it. I still remember the rules my mother outlined for me. She knew the world I was entering. She wanted me to be prepared. I’m not certain how my grandmother prepared my mother for elementary school in 1958. How does one prepare a 6 year-old-child to integrate a public space? My mother was among the first black children to attend her elementary school in Phoenix, AZ. And although 20 years had passed, by 1978, this culture of contempt breathed on.

My mother knew the names and racial stereotypes I’d be subjected to at first glance. She knew the risks for physical and emotional injury to me. She also knew they were risks she had to take for my future. So, she prepared me. I remember 5 rules. One, “Be polite”. Two, “Listen to your teacher”. Three, “Keep your mouth closed in class”. Four, “Keep your hands to yourself”. Five “If someone calls you a N-word, you look them in their eyes and tell them to get a dictionary and look it up. You tell them a N-word is an ignorant person. You tell them they are the ignorant one and that makes them the N-word, not you.” I repeated the rules to my mother until she felt secure I’d memorized them. So, I went off to school ready for battle. I was well defended, but didn’t even know I was to be a child soldier.

I was ready to stand up to “Someone” — a constant enemy — should they strike. And strike they did. Since I was 6 years old, “Someone” has inevitably called me out and mistreated me because of my race, because of my gender, or, later in my life, because of my sexuality. “Someone” would always be ready to deny me my humanity. This is how contempt works. For all of this, I was on guard, calculating my movements and navigating first glances. But this isn’t about my victimization. This is about the cost of defense. Today I am exhausted by defense. And exhausted, I’ve begun to identify my own contempt.

I often hear said, “The way I treat me is the way I treat you.” In my life I’ve tried to change hearts and minds about the way we glance at one another. I now see the only heart and mind I must change is my own. The way I treat you is the way I treat myself. I cannot afford to spend milliseconds strategizing ways “Someone” might hate me and the ways I must defend my humanity. I can’t keep sizing others up. Every time I do, I kill off more of myself. I treat myself with contempt. Today I choose differently. I commit to loving myself at first glance so that I might do the same for you. Perhaps only then, might we, together, love this world to health.

Western Kentucky native, LeTonia Jones is a social justice entrepreneur and writer in search of deeper truths about love and what is required to live fully human and be at peace.