“Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”
– George Bernard Shaw
Shaw’s words likely resonate painfully with many Americans, regardless of political affiliation. Over almost half a decade of cultural civil war, we’ve all endured the same miserable experience. No one asked for this; no one got what they wanted or needed. And it’s highly likely that every one of us, at least once, has spoken or acted out of sheer malice for our countrymen, and endured their cruelty in kind.
No human being can thrive in such a poisonous environment. You get sick; you spread that sickness; you sicken yourself. You are made complicit in a state of psychic violence. It gets inside you.
The depth of these wounds, the universality of the experience, may be partially attributed to the human animal’s remarkable emotional intelligence. One of the most potent tools of that unique intelligence is its power of imaginative empathy. In Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, Keith Oatley writes that “empathic mirroring of emotions suggests a perspective on perceiving others’ emotional experiences not as states that one simply sees out there in the world, as one might see a tree or a lamp-post, but as empathic ways of attuning to others… It is central to social life.” This is normally an adaptive, even healthy, ability. Empathy is a huge part of what makes us human.
But empathic connection can make social interactions feel hyperreal, even more vivid and valid than our actual personal experiences – to the point that they subconsciously shift our sense of reality.
Daniel Kelly writes that empathy can be “not only automatic but unconscious as well, and thus one can become ‘infected’ with another’s emotions unknowingly. When this kind of ‘emotional contagion’ occurs (Hatfield et al. 1994), a person may enter into an emotional state of the same type as the person she is interacting with, even if the infector isn’t aware she is in or is expressing that emotion, and the infected isn’t aware she has empathically detected the expression and come to share the emotion” (Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust).
Spend enough time interacting with another person, ally or enemy, and they get in your head. Discourse shapes our thinking. I’m sure many of you have experienced the horrifying realization that, after an especially deep social media dive, you’ve actually started thinking in Tweets: Incomplete sentences. CAPS LOCK! And Buzzwords that are Randomly Capitalized for no apparent Reason [1/1]
And when the emotions involved in social empathy are ugly, so is the internal experience. Disgust makes us feel both disgusted and disgusting. Hate makes us hateful and deserving of hate.
Or consider contempt, a complex affective state that Gershen Kaufman in The Psychology of Shame defines as “a blend of dissmell and anger, is the communicator of and is also experienced as rejection. By distancing the self from whatever arouses that contempt, it also elevates the self above others. The object of contempt, be it self or other, is found offensive, something to be repudiated. Contempt adds punishing anger to distancing dissmell.” And yet the experience of such a negative emotion is not entirely unpleasant. In fact, “[c]ontempt can be quite an enjoyable emotion” (Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed).
Looking down at a defeated and degraded enemy, especially an ideological rival, is a dangerous high. Total victory is far more than an affirmation of our superiority; it provides an illusion of something like omnipotence.
Thus the experience of contempt – of orienting and defining the self in terms of its superiority to a perceived adversary – also relates to the pathology of narcissism, and the damage inflicted by narcissistic injuries. In The Atlantic Monthly, Olga Khazan observes “narcissistic rivalry, or the wish to dominate others” was found to be mutually exclusive with intrinsic self-worth: “those with narcissism see the world as a zero-sum game. Only one person can be the best, they think, and it must be them” (“The Self-Confidence Tipping Point”).
So whenever our self-worth is threatened, or even when we are merely denied an expected moment of contemptuous superiority, the narcissistic impulse is to lash out at our perceived enemies. Michael Kernis et al. observe that for “individuals with fragile high self-esteem, positive feelings of worth often depend on matching some criterion representing what it means to be worthy… To ward off such drops, individuals with fragile high self-esteem often overreact to perceived threats to their self-worth by becoming angry and either criticizing or attacking the source of the threat” (“Secure Versus Fragile High Self-Esteem”).
Contempt, narcissism, and frailty are the building blocks of what Friedrich Nietzsche called a politics of resentment. Nietzsche believed that resentment is experienced by “creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge.” Resentment is an ideology built, not on the positive or affirmative values of the self, but on opposition to the values of a perceived adversary. “Every sufferer, in fact, searches instinctively for a cause of his suffering… a sentient responsible doer… something living, on which, either actually or in effigy, he can on any pretext vent his emotions. For the venting of emotions is the sufferer’s greatest attempt at alleviation, that is to say, stupefaction, his mechanically desired narcotic against pain of any kind” (The Genealogy of Morals).
A culture where discourse is defined by rigid power dynamics and binary outcomes, where empathic imagination generates a feedback loop of personal loathing and the loathing of the people you loathe – the psychological harm, both collectively and to the individual, is incalculable. The whole world is defined by the people you hate – ideological disagreement becomes a brutally tug of war, a zero-sum contest that totally validates the ideology of the winner and annihilates the loser.
The contempt experienced in victory is empowering, intoxicating, but that means that the consequences are even more devastating when the tables are inevitably turned. When you’re winning, you’re laughing at the loser. When you’re losing, you feel even lower than the people you were just laughing at.
We’ve spent four years in that tug of war. We’ve all tasted the mud.
Americans have spent almost half a decade honing the weapons and armor needed for psychological warfare; these swords won’t easily be made into ploughshares.
If the process of disassociating from such degradation was fast and simple, you would have done it already. The self is a complex system that slowly, incrementally, integrates new resources and rebuilds around damaged structures; new habits that magically become second nature, seemingly inexplicable moments of insight and catharsis, are in actuality the products of months of painstaking labor in the subconscious. I seriously doubt that anything I write here will meaningfully accelerate this process, for anyone. All I can do is hope is that, for a few of you, it might help to ease along some of those incremental changes.
You are still a valuable and worthwhile person. You are better than your own worst impulses. You are smarter than your least intelligent arguments. You are kinder than your capacity for cruelty and the cruelty you observe in others. But you can be a better American by committing, right now, to a better, saner America. And if you can accomplish that, then as far as I’m concerned, you deserve total absolution from all the shame and spite and constant dehumanization of the past four years.
That’s what I keep reminding myself, at least. I still haven’t totally internalized it; I still have plenty of those all-too-familiar moments of outrage, anguish, futility. But when those moments occur, I do my best to take a breath, and then I try to reorient myself toward the process of recovery. The processes of restoring the self and building a better world for everyone are inextricably intertwined. We all owe that to ourselves, and to one another.
Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2021