Danielle McLaughlin: Happy marriages and the politics of contempt
OPINION: About the time you read this, I'll be in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, arriving to the wedding of two dear friends.
Marriage has been on my mind this week – because of the Berkshires nuptials (and a much-relished weekend away on bikes and hiking trails), but also because of its interesting analogy to our relationships with our political leaders.
Here in America, with a president only about 35 per cent of the country approves of, and a Congress at an abysmal 16 per cent approval, you might say our marriage is on the rocks.
Marriage counsellors will tell you the most dangerous emotion that can enter a marriage is contempt. The word originated in 1393, from the Latin word contemptus, meaning scorn. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "the feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration". It has been explained by John Gottman, a world expert on marriage, as the feeling that fuels actions that communicate arrogance.
Gottman warns that contempt is the opposite of empathy. Empathy – the ability to understand and share another person's emotions and experiences – is vital to keeping people in relationships feeling safe, and for the survival of the marriage itself.
The US president's contempt for his enemies, perceived and real, was on full display this week in a rage-filled 75-minute rally in Phoenix, Arizona.
Trump railed against the media's coverage of his response to Charlottesville, engaging in a little revisionist history as he left out his controversial "on many sides" statement in reciting his earlier remarks back to the crowd.
In fairness, the media had focused on his failure to be morally unambiguous when equating the white supremacists with the counter-protesters, but it gave little weight to his clear denunciations of white supremacy and Nazism.
Trump told the audience that the "fake media" was turning off their cameras mid-speech (as we watched the late-night rally at home on CNN and MSNBC). Without saying his name, he denigrated Arizona Senator John McCain, currently undergoing cancer treatment, for voting his conscience on a ham-fisted attempt to repeal Obamacare. Even though Trump's off-the-cuff remarks were interspersed with a teleprompter script, it was, at its core, a divisive, reckless, and scornful performance.
But he's not the only one. It is becoming increasingly clear that some in the media, and some in politics, tired of the relentless attacks and the behaviour they just cannot square with the obligations of the presidency, are starting to show their own contempt for Trump.
It began with over 60 Democratic congressmen and women boycotting the Inauguration. After Trump's Phoenix rally, CNN's Don Lemon described Trump as "a man who is so petty that he has to go after people who he deems to be his enemy like the imaginary friend of a 6-year-old".
It is hard to imagine a cable host saying that about any prior president, just as it is hard to imagine Obama or any of his predecessors delivering the kind of speech Trump did in Phoenix. Just last week, a Democratic State Senator from Missouri, Maria Chappelle-Nadal, wrote on Facebook that she hoped the President would be assassinated. She apologised, but many, rightfully, have called for her resignation.
In marriage, as in life, well-meaning people can disagree. But the descent into contempt is dangerous and destructive. William Shakespeare, in Anthony and Cleopatra, perhaps put it best:
What our contempt often hurls from us,
We wish it our again; the present pleasure,
By revolution lowering, does become
The opposite of itself
Certainly, the president is beloved by some. They embrace the belligerence he directs at those in media and government who wonder out loud whether Trump has elevated himself the way the presidency demands. But the numbers show that most Americans are concerned about his fitness to lead, and worried about where this marriage is headed.
The survival of this marriage will require not only less contempt, but also less criticism, and more communication – particularly more truthful communication. It will also require respect on all sides for the institutions – the courts, Congress, and even the free press – that hold us all together.
The president has to learn how to model this behaviour. If he does, the rest of us will surely follow.
I walk into today's wedding full of hope. Hope for our beloved friends, for the longevity of their marriage, for shared empathy and mutual respect and for the clouds of contempt never to threaten their union.
I wish the same for this country.
- Sunday Star Times