Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond

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Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent essay “Thank You For ‘Condescending‘” (published in The New York Times Magazine’s excellent First Words column) stirred up some thoughts about the American concern with status. Appiah argues that we have forgotten the old meaning of “condescension” (which Samuel Johnson defined as ““Voluntary submission to equality with inferiors”). Over time, “condescension” has taken on negative connotations; today we resist the notion that there are superiors and inferiors in the first place. Yet hierarchies persist, says Appiah, whether we like them or not–and so condescension, once honorable, has degenerated into “its curdled opposite,” contempt, which now fills the political sphere. I support this argument and the reveille it brings; I would offer just a few complications.

When thinking of the benevolent kind of condescension, I remembered the Swinburne poem “To a Cat,” which begins:

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
      Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

The poem expands in thought over its eleven ;stanzas it contemplates distant past and far future; near the end of the first part, it asks the cat, “What within you wakes with day / Who can say?” It is worth reading in full, many times. I think I first read it–or maybe just the first few lines–in a cat book, as a child. I remember being struck by the word “condescend”; I knew I had not  heard it in that way before. The poem stayed with me because of it.

Appiah says that condescension (in its old, kindly meaning) “denies distance; contempt asserts it.” I would add that condescension of this kind recognizes the unknown in others, whereas contempt denies it. To have contempt for another is to believe that you have summed the person up, that nothing exists beyond your own assessment (or that if anything does exist, it isn’t worth your time).

Moroeover, he suggests that contempt–and its counterpart, resentment–may arise from our insistence on erasing or ignoring the visible markers of status. In pretending to be equal (in fact as well as in principle, in specifics as well as in general), we put ourselves on edge, suspecting a hidden hierarchy behind the ways of the world.

I find this resoundingly true but would add a few caveats. Yes, hierarchies persist and make themselves known, often surreptitiously–through subtle cues, gossip, and such. Many Americans seem intensely interested in knowing who is who. If you go to a wedding, for instance, and someone even mildly famous or wealthy is there, you will hear about it (maybe in a whisper). When I was a student at Yale, someone would often point out someone and say, “You see her? She’s always going around in jeans, but she’s a multi-millionaire.” Or “He’s the son of so-and-so.” I continued to see this tendency later on, in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

In addition to pointing out hierarchies (in undertones), people would also try to act as though they didn’t exist. When the boss drank with the employees–on the job or at a bar, sometimes late into the night–it could seem that there was no hierarchy at all. But part of the point of such drinking is to get employees to work longer and better. While seeming “cool” for hanging out with the lowly programmers–and perhaps being genuinely affable and appreciative–the boss has a specific agenda. Drinking on the job can also foster an “in-group” by excluding those who for cultural, religious, medical, or personal reasons do not drink (or prefer to spend their time in other ways).

Unspoken hierarchies exist in schools, too. I have heard–but have not verified–that when parents pay steep prices (through real estate or tuition) to send their child to a school, they may come to view the teachers as their own employees. In addition, with the rise of “helicopter parenting,” parents are more likely to supervise and judge the daily classes and activities in their children’s schools. The reverse, though, can happen as well: teachers may view parents as their assistants–not as well versed as they are in the subject matter but capable of, say, reading to the child before bed or making sure the homework gets done. While parents and teachers would like to view each other as their equals, they do not always accomplish this.

But let us distinguish between two kinds of equality: basic human equality and provisional, specific equality (say, in athletic competence or language proficiency). It is possible to believe in basic human equality–the idea that all of us have dignity and deserve basic consideration and respect–without believing that we all have the same abilities, attainments, virtues, or even, in some spheres, rights. In our zealousness for affirming basic equality, we have often confused it with the specific kinds; we fear to admit that some people have more musical ability than others, that some are more mathematically inclined than others, that some write better than others (at a given time or over a lifetime), or even that some exceed others in courage. Everyone is supposed to be equally special and capable, ever growing. Everyone’s voice is important.

Only we know that’s not so. Not only differences in ability, attainment, and circumstance, but differences between the “somebodies” and “nobodies” keep resurfacing. Media like Twitter reveal, on the one hand, the principle of equal participation (anyone can join the conversation!) and the blatant divide between those with thousands of followers and those with fewer than thirty. There are those whose every word gets attention and those who write for friends and occasional passers-by.

If you are perceived as one of the “nobodies,” especially online, you can be sure that someone will remind you of this–regardless of the quality of what you do and what you have to say. (“Why pay attention to you? Your comment has only two likes.”)

But there is yet another complication. A person can have higher status in one area and lower status in another. Also, people can be simultaneously each other’s superiors and inferiors. Consider an editor (of a well-regarded publication) and a writer. In some ways, the editor has higher status (through acting as gatekeeper, for instance); in others, the writer does (through creating a work that an editor might covet). The relationship may change over time. So status is more complex than it looks on the surface.

I have often felt uneasy among people obsessed with status–but I recognize that status is there, whether we like it or not, and that it takes myriad forms. I see Appiah’s argument that disavowed status leads to anxiety, contempt, and resentment.  So how does one acknowledge status without letting it dominate one’s life?

Perhaps that is precisely it: by acknowledging it, one does not have to worry about it. One does not have to put so much effort into detecting and interpreting social cues. Criticism can be more frank and at the same time less loaded; the recipient, knowing what it contains, can then choose what to do with it. This will allow not only for clarity and learning, not only for condescension (in the generous sense of the word), but for better sleep and waking.

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I took the top photo in Szolnok (near my apartment building) and the bottom one in Baja by the Danube.