Several readers flagged for me this nicely done column by philosopher Karen Stohr (Georgetown) on the subject of "contempt" (it appears at the usually unreadable "Stone" blog at the NYT). It is well-written, smartly invokes some relevant philosophical concepts, and is broadly accessible to an educated reader.
I do think Prof. Stohr is largely wrong, however, and for reasons that may be worth explaining. I like that Prof. Stohr describes herself--no doubt accurately, but unusually honestly--as "a Midwesterner by birth and moral instincts." What I like about this confession of the relativity of moral sentiment is that it helps explain her column and makes clear that if you share her sentiments, then her points are probably compelling, otherwise maybe not. I would encourage lots of other philosophers to be as honest as Prof. Stohr: we are well past the point when kids whose parents were pastors, or kids from Toledo or South Dakota, should be able to pass off their local etiquette norms and associated feelings as morally obligatory. (Readers here know my moral sentiments: I'm from New York, I don't suffer fools or charlatans or "posturing preening wankers" gladly, and I enjoy a good evisceration of scoundrels and miscreants. I'm allergic to Kant, and an equal opportunity critic of anyone who enters the public sphere. But none of it's personal, it's all "business"!)
The difficult with Prof. Stohr's approach is that its argument rests on "armchair political science," a much feebler discipline than empirical political science. She is right, of course, that contempt generally "is directed at the entire person," and so involves "dismissing" the person as not worth engaging with. (How much it has in common with Strawson's "objective attitude," as she suggests, is an interesting philosophical question, which I will bracket here.) But she goes on to claim that:
Contempt expressed by the socially powerful toward the socially vulnerable is a much greater moral danger than contempt that flows in the opposite direction. As president, Trump occupies a position of exceptional social power. Contempt bolstered by such power becomes far more effective and hence, far more threatening to our grounding democratic values....
Trump’s [mocking] imitation of [disabled journalist] Kovaleski reinforced a specific social inequality that most people now recognize as morally abhorrent; namely, the marginalization of people with disabilities.....
It may seem as though the best response to Trump’s contempt is to return it in kind, treating him the same way he treats others. The trouble, though, is that contempt toward Trump does not function in the same way that his contempt toward others functions. Even if we grant that Trump deserves contempt for his attitudes and behaviors, his powerful social position insulates him from the worst of contempt’s effects. It is simply not possible to disregard or diminish the agency of the president of the United States. This means that contempt is not a particularly useful weapon in the battle against bigotry or misogyny. The socially vulnerable cannot wield it effectively precisely because of their social vulnerability.
If there is empirical support for these claims, I am not aware of it and none is cited. Take Trump's pathetic mockery of the disabled journalist: it damaged Trump, not the journalist, so much so that even Trump and his supporters had to deny that he was really mocking the journalist. Kovaleski was not marginalized, he won support from all corners and across partisan lines. Prof. Stohr's characterization bears no relationship to what actually transpired in the court of public opinion, as best I can tell.
And how does Prof. Stohr know that the relentess contempt expressed towards Trump--on social media, in op-eds, on television (think of the debiliating effect, even on Trump, of the relentless Saturday Night Live mockery of him and his henchmen and henchwomen), even on his own Twitter feed--is not in fact undermining and delegitimizing him? That remains to be seen, but insofar as it emboldens his political opponents (even within his own party), it is serving precisely the purpose Prof. Stohr denies, from the armchair, is possible.
Even if the empirical suppositions about the effects of contempt are implausible, or at least unclear, none of that affects Prof. Stohr's core Kantian intuition "that everyone has a right to basic respect as a human being." I might even share that moral feeling, it depends on what such "basic respect" is supposed to require. I am on board with the fact that basic respect demands that no one be tortured or punished without due process, for example. The idea that "respect" for Trump qua human being, however, means he should not be contemptuously ridiculed is, to my ears, nothing more than a Midwestern etiquette intuition that I see no reason to share, though I have no reason to want Prof. Stohr to abandon her local tradition: diversity after all! But from where I come from, someone as unredeemably awful and harmful as Trump--a man with literally no redeeming qualities--is fit only for ridicule and contempt.
So let me conclude, then, with two very funny twitter accounts (thanks to Jerry Kirschner for the pointer) devoted to giving the awful man what he deserves: