Lesson 6

Challenge the culture of contempt

Lesson 6

Challenge the culture of contempt


Explore the underlying psychology of why online conversations can be so toxic. Learn techniques to break toxic patterns of behavior and navigate online and in-person conversations more constructively.

Our Picks

Recommended Videos:

  • Be the change you wish to see, The School of Life (3:03). This video explains why “changing how you behave to others can be the fastest way to alter how others behave toward you.” Instead of trying to shape other people’s behavior, we can instead take control of our own actions and model the kind of behavior we’d like others to emulate.
  • Daryl Davis, What do you do when someone just doesn’t like you?, TEDx Talks (16:16). Black jazz musician Daryl Davis wanted to understand: How could a group of people hate him without really knowing him? In order to answer this question, David seized on an opportunity to speak directly with members of the KKK. To his surprise, he managed to develop friendships through these conversations, and gradually influenced many of them to leave the KKK.” Hate stems, I believe, from fear – from fear of the unknown,” Davis shares. In order to combat hate, we need to seize opportunities to understand each other as fellow human beings through respectful, open dialogue.
  • 3. Beyond bigots and snowflakes: The problem of excessive social penalties by Ilana Redstone (7:41). “While condemning speech that’s demeaning or offensive makes perfect sense in principle, what happens when what falls into those categories becomes too broad?,” asks sociologist Ilana Redstone. She argues that coming down too harshly on people who have made mistakes can have unintended social consequences. We need to think very carefully about when and how we dole out social penalties for bad behavior, so that we can preserve open dialogue around areas of disagreement.

  • Megan Phelps-Roper, I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left, TED Talk (15:10). Phelps-Roper shares the incredible story of how she left an extremist group, thanks to a group of Twitter acquaintances who treated her with kindness and respect as they challenged her views and inspired her to seek a better path. She encourages us to try “extending empathy and compassion to people who show us hostility and contempt. The impulse to respond in kind is so tempting, but that isn’t who we want to be. We can resist.” Lastly, Phelps-Roper outlines concrete steps we can take to motivate people to move away from hateful ideologies.

  • The backfire effect Adam Ruins Everything (uploaded by Erin Palette), (4:44). In this funny and informative TV segment, host Emily Axford describes psychological research which helps us understand why it’s hard to change hearts and minds by simply presenting facts. “When you try to change someone’s mind, the other person often feels attacked,” Emily explains. She articulates a number of reasons why telling people they’re wrong may backfire, leading them to cling more tightly to their existing views instead of opening themselves up to learning.

Essays and Articles
  • The dark psychology of social networks by Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell (2019). Haidt and Rose-Stockwell retrace the developments that have allowed social media to “[turn] many of our most politically engaged citizens into…arsonists who compete to create the most inflammatory posts and images.” They recommend three types of reform for social media: (1) reducing the frequency and intensity of public performances, (2) reduce the reach of unverified accounts, and 3) reducing the contagiousness of low-quality information.
  • The importance of withholding judgment by Peter Economy (2015). In this concise essay, Economy urges us to be proactive about withholding immediate judgment of other people, before we’ve gotten to know them. “Next time we find ourselves carelessly thinking negatively about someone we have just met, we should stop and question whether our opinions have been formed with enough background.”
  • Bipartisanship isn’t for wimps after all by Arthur C. Brooks (2016). Brooks argues that the increasing polarization and contempt between the political right and left is not only problematic from a social or philosophical perspective, but it is also a practical impediment to American progress.
  • The respect deficit by Richard V. Reeves (2018). Reeves hypothesizes that the stark divisions with our nation are sustained through mutual disrespect – an unwillingness to see each other as equals. To think of ourselves as a unified collective, we need to treat each other as equals instead of looking down on people who are different from us. Reeves dives into historical debates about how to understand justice and equality among diverse people.
  • Escape the echo chamber by C. Thi Nguyen (2018). How do you reach through to someone who seems to have been indoctrinated into a hateful ideology? Philosopher C. Thi Nguyen assembles evidence that the key is to resist the temptation to shame and condemn them, which usually makes things worse. Instead of giving up on people who seem to be stuck in an “echo chamber” and closed off to opposing views, we can try an approach inspired by the philosopher Rene Descartes. By withholding judgment and extending goodwill, we can help people feel comfortable reconsidering their deeply-held beliefs and starting fresh with a new outlook. 
  • How the internet has changed bullying by Maria Konnikova (2015). Konnikova discusses research findings on why seemingly mature and sensible adults can shame and harass each other online. One factor is that when bullying takes place through devices or screens, “consequences often go unseen—and that has made it easier [for bullies] to deceive [them]selves about what [they] are doing.” When bullies aren’t confronted with evidence of how shaming and condemning people affects their victims emotionally, they’re able to “see themselves as righteous crusaders” who are doing the right thing by calling others out.
  • The psychology of online comments by Maria Konnikova (2013). Ever wondered why people can be so cruel in internet comments? This article explores some explanations, including the impact of anonymity, which allows people to behave without fear of repercussions for bad behavior. 
  • How to talk someone out of bigotry by Brian Resnick (2020). Resnick explains a research-based method of steering people away from intolerant views through nonjudgmental conversations. According to studies by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, “if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic.”
  • Science explains why it’s so easy to get sucked into fights on the internet by Brian Resnick (2016). This article explores why we may express intense moral outrage over issues that don’t affect us personally. It discusses a hypothesis for why people sometimes “pile on” to internet strangers with an avalanche of shame: “When we punish a moral failing, we’re broadcasting the fact that we, ourselves, are moral.” Our instinct to assert our moral values can do a lot of good, but psychologist Jillian Jordan warns that this can fuel a “mob mentality” that can cause serious harm.
  • Politics and the practice of warmheartedness by Matthew Lesh (2019). In this review, Lesh summarizes the central ideas of Arthur Brooks’ book Love Your Enemies. Brooks argues that we need to reject forces that divide us and conspire to hate those who are different from us. To do this effectively, we must be proactive about embracing people with warmheartedness and acknowledging their common humanity – even if we despise their ideas and views. 
  • To argue productively, meet in a neutral space, excerpted from Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement by Buster Benson (2019). Benson explains how our environment influences our chances of having a constructive disagreement. He gives tips for how to establish a “neutral zone” where we feel comfortable speaking to each other as equals with mutual respect for one another.
  • The audacity of talking about race with the Ku Klux Klan by Conor Friedersdorf (2015). This article shares the inspiring story of Daryl Davis, a Black man who motivated many KKK members to renounce their hateful views. Davis’ method was to listen and establish goodwill with these individuals before challenging their views “politely and intelligently.”
  • Moral outrage overload? How social media may be changing our brains by Saralyn Cruickshank (2019). This article summarizes recent research by the lab of Molly Crockett, a psychologist who studies what goes on in our brains when we proclaim moral outrage, especially on social media. It addresses how social media reinforces our outrage habit, and explores what could be done to break this cycle.

  • Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from Our Culture of Contempt by Arthur C. Brooks (2019). Conservative economist Arthur Brooks makes the case for why we should show warmheartedness to others – even when we vehemently disagree with them. He diagnoses many of our contemporary social problems as symptoms of a “culture of contempt,” where outrage and animosity prevail over the exercise of basic human decency. But Brooks is hopeful that we can change our culture, by choosing to break the vicious cycle that keeps contempt in motion.
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1946). In this astonishingly moving book that marries philosophy with memoir, Frankl models how to embrace the power to choose what kind of person we’ll become and what we’ll make of our lives. Frankl shares an epiphany he had while experiencing the unimaginable – being imprisoned and tortured in a Nazi concentration camp. He determined no matter how cruel others are to us, we always retain the freedom “to choose [our] attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose [our] own way.” He demonstrates that we aren’t doomed to respond to hatred with more hate: We can rise above the impulse to retaliate, and choose to uphold the dignity and value of each and every human life – even that of tormentors and oppressors.


Academic Articles
Other Sources
  • The Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky (2012). Research shows that shoving facts in someone’s face rarely changes their mind: in fact, it often has the opposite effect of reinforcing their view. So what can we do to encourage people to reconsider their beliefs? This handbook summarizes research-based tactics to debunk mistaken or misinformed views effectively.
  • The Reckonings Podcast. This podcast explores stories of individuals who changed their minds in surprising and radical ways. It seeks to answer the question: “What moves us to shift our political worldviews, transcend extremism, and make other kinds of transformative change?”