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The Worst Is Contempt

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We are polarized as a nation and as a culture. This is not breaking news. Many blame social media for amplifying divisions that were already present. Significant empirical evidence supports this suspicion. But what exactly is it that’s being amplified? What specifically is so corrosive?

A recent study on marriage may give the answer. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, this study created a model that could predict whether or not a marriage would end in divorce. The model has a remarkable success rate of 94%. One trait above all others was found to be the most deadly to a relationship. That trait? Contempt.

Contempt is the worst.

Researchers evaluated married couples as they discussed things about which they disagreed. The topic didn’t matter. 16 different emotions were scored and tabulated in the mathematical model. Consistently, in case after case, contempt acted as a lead weight that pulled marriages into a downward trajectory.

I suggest something very similar is happening on social media platforms with our hot takes, reactions, performative outrage. Let’s face it: we need an editor between our thumbs and the send button. The report puts its finger on how contempt acts as a truly toxic component to any discourse—private or public. It has a poisonous effect on all parties—the speaker, the recipient, and everyone who scrolls through the comment section.

Contempt is the worst.

When disagreements are no longer about differing opinions but about scorning those beneath consideration, then contempt has taken control of our motives. When shaming and derision is the order of the day, then we are at risk of becoming as those who pilloried those held in stocks. We may not throw rotten eggs and vegetables, but we too often show the same level of disrespect and disregard. Don’t get me wrong—occasionally public denunciations are in order. But those times are rare.

The report has some good news. Volatile marriages were found to be surprisingly stable (that is, as long as occasional passionate disagreements did not descend into endless bickering). Again, I think this finding transfers readily into any public discourse. Vigorous debate can be a good thing.

Humor also is a positive. But, “they both have to be laughing together. A lot of contempt happens with one person laughing and the other person looking stunned. That’s a [big] minus….” The humor must be good-natured.

The researchers recommended, “Face each other when talking. And acknowledge your role in the dispute.” It’s a strategy I have begun to try. Lately when a social media conversation seems to be going in a bad direction, I offer to discuss the matter further in person on Zoom. I can’t claim a 100% success rate, but I can say that it’s made a real difference. And if someone is not willing to talk in person (at least virtually), then a disagreement shouldn’t be continued on social media.

Statements and claims on social media are fair game for critique. But rarely, very rarely, should God’s image bearers be held in contempt.

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Ken Keathley

Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture

Ken Keathley is Senior Professor of Theology, occupying the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina where he has been teaching since 2006. He also directs the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, a center that seeks to engage culture, defend the Christian faith, and explore its implications for all areas of life. Of his writing projects most notably he is the author of Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (2010), co-author of 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (2014), co-editor of Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos (2017), and editor of The Historical Adam and Eve: An Evangelical Conversation (forthcoming). Ken and his wife Penny have been married since 1980, live in Wake Forest, NC and are members of North Wake Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina. They have a son and daughter, both married, and four grandchildren.

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