In his book, Blink, well known staff writer with The New Yorker magazine Malcolm Gladwell explains a concept called ‘thin-slicing’, the ability that humans have to size up a situation or person in a matter of milliseconds based on their deep, often unconscious, relevant knowledge of the instance. Gladwell refers to a long-term study of married couples done by John Gottman, University of Washington Professor Emeritus of Psychology, the findings of which allowed Gottman to predict with remarkable accuracy which marriages will last over time and which will end in divorce.
Gottman does this by analyzing very small moments between couples during the course of normal conversations that were filmed. What the regular observer cannot see but what cameras caught for the purpose of intricate analysis were the small quick unconscious facial movements and vocal tones made by couples in conversation with each other. That is where the clues become apparent about whose marriage will last and whose won’t. And it might not be whom you think.
It is not necessarily the couples who argue passionately or the ones who don’t talk to each other. According to Maxwell, Gottman identified the “four horsemen” of relationship break down as “defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt”. He found that above all it was ongoing expressions of contempt that played the largest part as the precursor to marital breakup.
Gottman puts it this way: “Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community.”
The word contempt was the standout term in bringing down the Harper government last week. So just to be a bit old school, look at the definition, which we know to begin with does not have a positive meaning. The definition most closely related to the basis for the vote of non-confidence by Opposition members of Parliament against the governing Conservative Party which has brought the Canadian electorate to its fourth election in seven years is: “Open disrespect or willful disobedience of the authority of a court of law or legislative body.” Regarding this aspect the Harper government has made history by neglecting to thoroughly answer questions about spending on military jet fighters and law-and-order initiatives.
But anyone who has worked in a toxic workplace with a demeaning co-worker knows that at the real base of this rejection of the Conservatives by the Opposition is the other definition of contempt: “The feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, despicable or worthless; scorn.”
If you haven’t yet read Globe and Mail public affairs columnist Lawrence Martin’s book Harperland, it is worth doing so since it is a very through exposé on the character of the man who is asking the country to return him to the job of prime minister on May 2, this time with a majority vote. Word is that up close Stephen Harper is quite personable and it can reasonably be argued that as prime minister he has been very competent.
But when it comes to leading his party, he is single-minded in his partisanship, which includes an unveiled contempt of those who call themselves Liberals. So that, despite what he and his party have done to bolster the economy during hard times – and it could easily be argued his government has been benefitting from the Liberals’ hardnosed actions under Paul Martin to rein in the deficit, which then gave the Conservatives a structure and a budget surplus to work with – Harper’s unbridled contempt for Liberals and Liberal philosophy is what has him repeatedly leading a minority government.
While his passion focuses on attacking Liberals, the greater Canadian population suffers under this caustic discourse. We find ourselves agitatedly caught up in this negativity.
So while some in the Opposition rejected the budget presented last week, even as it gave a number of relatively small sums to many specific, some say targeted, groups, it was their attitude of contempt that finally broke down this administration.
The lesson here: You get what you give.
A note on the absence of contempt…
In the face of strong resistance, criticism and attempts to undermine his efforts, Black community activist Dudley Laws, who died this week, never engaged in contempt.