The Personalist Project

Some fortunate souls have mystical experiences. I'm not one of them. But all my life I've been subject to profound "moral experiences"—occasions I can only describe as dramatic breakthroughs in my understanding. Some come very suddenly; others are more gradual. They are existential in character, by which I mean, they're not a simple resolution of an intellectual difficulty, but a kind of illumination of my life and self. They are always accompanied by pain—the searing pain of humiliation—of realizing I've been wrong, and in the wrong. That passing pain is soon followed by a a lasting sense of liberation and peace, and an awareness of interior gains. One of the most significant came several years ago, out of the blue.

John Barger, founder and (then) publisher of Sophia Institute Press sent around an email inquiry to a number of fellow disciples of von Hildebrand, asking whether any of us knew if he had ever discussed "the corrosive vice" of scorn.

The formulation took me aback. "Corrosive vice"? I didn't see scorn as a vice; I thought of it as the due response to whatever is contemptible. I said as much to John Crosby, my number one philosophical mentor. To my surprise and chagrin, he didn't side with me. He didn't exactly say I was wrong, but he gently pointed out that scorn is a great temptation, and that it's never okay to direct it at another human being.

He might as well have stepped into a backroom of my soul and flipped on a light switch. There I sat, exposed and ashamed. Scorn on the table before me; scorn on my plate and in my cup; scorn dripping from my mouth. Also, it was in all the cabinets. I'd been feeding on it. And disgorging it.

I saw in a flash, too, that I had been fed on scorn all my life. Scorn was the atmosphere of my childhood. In my family and my extended family, and in the wider world of the northeast—or at least in the New York area, where I grew up—scorn was chronic and habitual. (Was it an Irish thing? A Jewish thing? Those were the predominant ethnicities of my world.) How do you establish your place in the social pecking order? You mock and humilate others. You make them feel small in comparison with yourself. Sometimes it was done light-heartedly, but more often not. More often, it was meant to wound, and it did wound, though the wounds were quickly covered over and denied.

I had noticed that the habit of scorn was at least partly a regional phenomenon when I went to college in the midwest and realized that not everyone did that. In other parts of the country, it was apparently normal to be kind and complimentary and encouraging toward others. I noticed the difference even more when I traveled and lived in Europe, where I encountered the habit of scorn still less. I stopped using it as a mode of humor, conversation and debate, but I held on to it in my moral rhetoric and in my parenting, where it often seemed called for. "Shame on you!" 

Until that moment when John Crosby implicitly agreed with John Barger that scorn was a corrosive vice, I had thought it was a normal and necessary part of life, especially of moral pedagogy.

Now I saw it was a problem, and a very serious one. I saw that it was of a piece with the master/slave hermeneutic of the fall and a psychic disaster, especially for children.

Alice Miller's book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Childrearing and the Roots of Violence, convincingly connects the dots between the systematic shaming of children and the violent, de-personalizing ideologies of the 20th century. 

Someone who has learned at his or her peril to obey unwritten laws and renounce feelings at a tender age will obey the written laws all the more readily, lacking any inner resistance.

It's not only Germany. Spend any time in a 12-step program on this side of the ocean, and you find yourself confronting its damaging effects in countless lives.

Scorn is both offensive and defensive. It puts me above the other, and it prevents the other from gaining an advantage over me. It disallows the vulnerability which is the sine qua non of authentic interpersonal communion. It is the attitudinal prelude to manipulation and abuse, the opposite of love.


Comments (2)

Marie Meaney

#1, Nov 10, 2014 5:07am

Excellent piece, Katie! I find it interesting that you haven't encountered scorn that much in Europe (France comes to mind, though there's it's perhaps more a cutting irony -which is at its core also a form of contempt). Every country has its virtues and vices, and some vices are worse than others. But I'd have to search far and wide here in Europe to find the kind of warmth and kindness one encounters in the Southern States (don't know the Midwestern ones).

Alice Miller's take is very interesting. I'm working on totalitarian evil from the perspectives of Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt. Looking at the spiritual roots like Weil does (seeing in ideology a form of idolatry) would therefore not be enough, but one would need to take into consideration the wounds making us more likely to fall for this kind of evil. So I take it you highly recommend Miller's book?

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Nov 10, 2014 9:14am

Most of my time in Europe was in Austria and Holland, where there was nothing like the blantant scorn that was omnipresent in my upbringing. But, now that you mention it, I agree that cutting irony is cut from the same spiritual cloth.

I do highly recommend Alice Miller. Her Drama of the Gifted Child is also excellent.

She's not perfect. She seems to have a naive idea of the natural innocence of children—as if there were no such thing as original sin—and a too-optimistic theory about our being able to access all our childhood experience. But those are minor flaws in her basically true and illuminating account.

She reminds me of the talks about love that Maria Fedoryka gave for us. Parents (and others) mediate to a child her sense of self. As persons we rely on others to "give us" our being in very substantial ways—not only physically, but spiritually too.

If we get from our parents fundamental affirmation and respect for our individuality, we will grow up whole and secure. If instead we get scorn, we will grow up dis-integrated and insecure in our selfhood, which has terrible consequences for our ability to relate well to others.

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