Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens, Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy (Quarterly Essay 87, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 88
Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens are co-hosts of the ABC radio show and podcast The Minefield, on which they set out to negotiate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life. Their unscripted chats don’t shy away from big words like ‘epistemic’ or ‘teleological’ and refer frequently to philosophers ancient and modern, with occasional insights from the Islamic tradition. There’s usually a guest who has expertise in the topic of the week. There’s banter, an occasional malapropism, and usually – the main source of pleasure for me as a listener – a sense that no one knows quite where the conversation will go. One of the recurring motifs is the importance of thoughtful, deliberative communication, of which the show is a fine example.
Of necessity, in this Quarterly Essay Aly and Stephens speak with one voice – no mutual demurs, no pricking of pomposities, no license to meander. It’s not as much fun as the podcast but, especially when read along with the correspondence in QE88, it’s a stimulating and challenging essay.
The essay begins with a description of much current public conversation:
It is now entirely common for each of the opposing sides of a vociferous debate to consider themselves shamed and silenced, unable to speak without being branded in some malevolent way.(Page 1)
Their diagnosis is that people on all sides of hot-button topics see the others as acting in bad faith, as tools of oppression, or perhaps as deluded fools – and the debate descends into mutual contempt. It’s not the readiness to be outraged or the short fuse to anger, but contempt that puts an end to any useful dialogue.
The essay then falls into four sections. First, some moral philosophy, which proposes some definitions of contempt and describes recent defences of it as a moral virtue. Second, some history: contempt as the air we breathe as fostered when the great US press barons of the 19th century realised that their profits would grow if their newspapers stirred up emotions, of which contempt was a real winner. Capitalist commodification of emotion reached an extreme with social media, particularly with Twitter’s retweet button and Facebook’s like button, both of which make it possible to broadcast an opinion to the world without any mental effort. Third: how this plays out in politics. The essay distinguishes between ‘thin’ democracy – in which people get to vote and that’s pretty much it – and ‘thick’ democracy, ‘which imagines society as a more dynamic organism where people can have their preferences and interests changed by interactions with others’. This is familiar ground to The Minefield‘s listeners. The final section, titled ‘Democracy as Marriage’, is a call for us to be more attentive to each other, including those with whom we disagree, and perhaps especially those with whom we disagree passionately.
As well as drawing on a wonderfully broad range of cultural touchstones – from Godard’s movie Contempt to George Floyd’s brother Philonise, with Simone Weil and James Baldwin featuring prominently – the essay draws heavily on recent events in the USA, because of its global cultural dominance and because it has gone further down the contempt road and so shows what can happen.
This Quarterly Essay featured in a special edition of the podcast, which originated as a session at the 2022 Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney. You can listen to it here.
I can’t have a closer look at page 75* as there are only 64 pages to the essay. On page 47 (chosen because I was born in 1947 – is that arbitrary enough for you?) the essay is engaging with the argument in favour of ‘upward’ contempt as a way of doing politics. Quoting US philosopher Amy Chua, it argues that ‘to aggregate and compare … the average earning capacity of white and non-white families’ and similar statistics may be useful but it overlooks differences among white people, particularly class:
Many working-class whites clearly felt alienated from the culture and institutions that surrounded them. Few people with any mainstream cultural or political power seemed to take that alienation seriously. It’s easy to imagine that working-class whites felt themselves to be objects of contempt. And in an environment where such emotion can be commodified and turned into profit, someone like Donald Trump was always liable to come along.
The politics of contempt is what enabled the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism. This leads into the beginning of the most interesting section of the essay, four pages in which James Baldwin is invoked. His body of work, the essay asserts, ‘stands as a monument to the refusal of contempt. It is shot through with sensitivity to its danger and warnings of its self-sabotage.’
So that’s page 47.
Leaping ahead to the correspondence in QE 88: it kicks off with a long essay by African-Australian Nyadol Nyuon, which argues with lawyerly precision that Aly and Stephens have missed the main point by apparently assuming an unreal symmetry between social groups struggling against oppression and those who are enforcing it (those are my terms: she is much more specific than that). In particular, she challenges their reading of James Baldwin. It’s a powerful piece of writing, and anyone who reads the original essay ought to read it. And not only it but the seven other thoughtful and not entirely supportive correspondents. And Aly and Stephens’s final reply.
Taken together, this is an inspiring example of serious conversation about real things. People misconstrue each other, but its generally in good faith. There’s an occasional sarcastic gibe, perhaps some defensiveness (if Nyadol Nyuon went after me I’d be a lot more defensive than thee authors, who hold their ground but remain genuinely respectful), some interesting anecdotes that are tangential to the topic, maybe a little self-promotion. But it’s a conversation, rich, thoughtful and mutually attentive.
* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.