Contempt Culture


What It Is And Why It Matters

Opposition politician Charles Yeo is no stranger to the public. The young chairman of the Reform Party gained a strong social media following after his campaigning during the recent General Elections. Just last month, he raised controversy again – this time in a public spat with famous blogger, Wendy Cheng, known better as Xiaxue. This time, after criticising Xiaxue’s legal action against a detractor, he attacked her looks, calling her “the epitome of ugly Singaporean,” among other insults. She responded by labelling him “a classic old school hater,” before displaying his taste in skinny, scantily-clad women. None of their comments were relevant to the initial disagreement over Xiaxue’s legal action.

Such exchanges on social media are commonplace. Many respond to disagreement with vulgarities and personal attacks that are irrelevant. This is what we call “contempt culture,” a way of engaging that ignores the substance of disagreement and seeks to win at all cost.

Believe it or not, this article was written well before our recent encounters on Instagram. But we suppose that just speaks to the relevance of this article.

Familiar Feeling?

Why does it seem as if contempt culture is on the rise? That might be due to increasing political polarisation in the US, which influences global attitudes in a way that few other nations are able to. In fact, Ezra Klein co-founder of news site Vox,  says that the situation in the US today may be the norm, with low levels of polarisation the historical aberration.

Another, more basic reason is simply that holding those who disagree with you in contempt feels good. This may even explain Klein’s analysis that the world has historically been polarised. To be fair, at times contempt may even be the right response. A person or group of persons may hold beliefs which are so beyond the pale that none other would do, such as pedophilia.

However, if contempt becomes the cultural norm when navigating most ideological or political disagreement, then multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies like Singapore’s may be at particular risk. Worryingly, Klein cites a working paper which found some evidence that rising ethnic diversity correlates with more polarisation. Singapore’s diverse and relatively peaceful society may not be the natural state of things after all.     

Many respond to disagreement with vulgarities and personal attacks that are irrelevant. This is what we call “contempt culture,” a way of engaging that ignores the substance of disagreement and seeks to win at all cost.

Clearly, overcoming contempt culture and the polarisation it breeds takes effort. Indeed, many may dislike contempt culture but end up succumbing to it for the thrill of defeating their ideological opponents. It may seem that  contempt is a pit that is easy to get in and harder to get out of. For the love of Singapore society, we have to find ways to respect, and even love those who disagree with us.

To that end, here are five ways to check and cancel the culture of contempt adapted from Arthur Brooks’ suggestions

Rule 1: Don’t be duped by manipulators

They turn you against others for their own gain. They affirm your views as the “only right way”; any valid disagreement is evil. They do not broaden your horizons. Avoid such people. 

Many of them are on social media. It enables these attitudes as engagement levels, which lead to ad revenue, climb with the intensity of outrage. Provoke, and earn money.  We should avoid this. 

To this end, we should also confront people in our camp who insult the other side – fighting contempt culture is a team effort.

Rule 2: Escape echo chambers

Consider opinions you disagree with. Vet your assumptions about the other side. Interact with reasonable folks from the other side; these people can help you see your blind spots.

Focus on commonalities. Don’t label yourself and revel in it – it may enhance belonging and power, but it also emphasises our differences.

The friendship between Calvin Cheng and Pritam Singh is a prime example. Their different political convictions did not stop them from having a discussion and finding common ground.

Old friends: Rivals, not Enemies
Credit: Calvin Cheng FB

Rule 3: Disconnect from unproductive debates

You don’t need to be there all the time to get the big picture. Take breaks and live a well-rounded lifestyle.

Such practices refresh us, give us new perspectives and detach us from toxicity and social media algorithm-curated echo chambers.

Taking a step back helps with setting sensible boundaries, and being more selective in picking battles. 

Rule 4: See the ideological landscape as a healthy contest of ideas; work towards that

Some people have different views. Many times, that does not make them our enemies. Engaging them helps us to discover who we are. We have to overcome our desire for uniformity if we are to progress on this front.

Disagreement is a competition of ideas. Competition should always be welcomed if it is proper and respectful. We must not avoid engaging with ideas perceived to differ from our views, even before we are sure.

Some worry that we can end up tolerating intolerance in the name of tolerance. Factoring in perceived power dynamics, we become divided over what counts as “valid” or “hateful”. Many feel that foisting their beliefs on others is the only way to uphold their version of good. Generally, that’s going from respect to contempt; free will is disregarded.

To address this, we must set unanimous rules that establish what is actually valid, hate-free speech. Then, we must participate in the debate.

For example, people on both ends of the political spectrum can agree that Nazism and racism are hateful and should be discouraged. This does not mean we cannot examine such ideas and their consequences. It also doesn’t mean that we should shut down any concepts likened to Nazism or racism. Every claim should be scrutinized. 

Rule 5: Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s hard

Treat people not only as independent agents who can make up their own minds, but as possible wells of knowledge. Avoid manipulation and admit when you are wrong. If you are shown contempt, resist reciprocating to stop the vicious cycle.

Contempt often sidelines compromise – people place defeating the other side over the common good. They do not seek areas where their value sets overlap. We see the other side and their opinions as less than, when in reality, all of us must answer to each other. This builds barriers and makes the respect for another’s personhood subjective. Then people feel unimportant and the resulting negativity feeds the vicious cycle.

But why fall pray to base nature when rising above is an option?

Friendships across ideological spectrums exist. Disagreements may remain, but both parties learn from each other through respectful engagement. After all, reasonable people generally agree on the fundamentals; most disagreements lie within the specifics.

Returning to the example of Calvin Cheng and Pritam Singh. In the face of their common support for moderate, pro-Singapore politics, their differences become opportunities to sharpen, not destroy each other.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this is what supplants the current culture of contempt?

It would take every one of us on every ideological spectrum to come together. It would take compromise, receptivity and honesty. It would take multiple paradigm shifts. But if we manage to nip the growing culture of contempt in the bud, we may be able to defy the historical inertia of polarisation.

Preserving Singapore’s society—isn’t that a cause worth fighting for?

Check out Arthur Brooks’ TED Talk. We thought it was great.

Share this article

Recent posts


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Recent comments