I was on a TV show a few months ago when another panel member mentioned something he'd read, that you know a marriage is headed for divorce when the spouses speak to each other in public with contempt. I'm not sure why this struck me so hard, but it did. It also made me think that a lot of the behavior we see online and in real life - the social media mobbings, the picketing of the homes of people whose politics we disagree with, the calls on Twitter to have your coworkers sanctioned and worse - are manifestations of contempt, engaged in by people who presumably see no danger in hurting others. I’m not so sure. I see such actions more as suicidal, the cutting remarks preprogrammed to reverse direction. Certainly being the target of a contempt campaign can be upsetting, but I think even the targeted have compassion enough, at least for a while, to realize the person trying to do them harm is in fact bleeding out in front of them.
We saw this happen two weeks ago at the Washington Post, when reporter Felicia Sonmez launched a crusade against her co-worker Dave Weigel. If you're not familiar with the story: Weigel retweeted a sort of lame joke that Sonmez, apparently eagle-eyeing her coworkers Twitter feeds, took offense to. She did not, as we might expect a grown-up to do, bring the matter to Weigel; did not shoot him a text saying he was a jerk and she wanted to tell him why over drinks that he would buy. She instead expressed her contempt for him, and for the paper that employed them, in a tweet.
Sonmez might have had the perspicacity to realize, things this time would not go her way; that sounding the rallying cry, as she had once, twice, thrice before, would not bring the same people running to help; that repeated assurances of "we are so sorry this is happening to you..." would one day become enjoinments to stop tweeting.
Sonmez did not stop; she kept up the contempt for her colleagues, her employer, for a world that did not deeply enough appreciate the barrage of hate she was having to endure, not apparently herself appreciating she was fanning this hate, was inviting it in, and I saw her, in my mind, in the hold of a darkened ship, running from peephole to peephole, looking for any available site from which to fire off another shot.
Or maybe she appreciated all of it. Maybe she was shooting through the hull. Maybe she was casting herself adrift.
People cheered when the Washington Post, after a week of in-house drama, fired Sonmez. I did not cheer. Not that I thought Sonmez should not be fired. Had I been her boss I would likely have done so sooner. I am further no fan of Sonmez's predilection for attacking others while claiming she's the one under attack. I have written about her destroying Jonathan Kaiman's life, and I'll say for the record I don't believe Sonmez was a victim of sexual assault, at least not any Kaiman was involved in. She achieved a vaunted status as a victim and as such, expected to be treated with certain considerations, considerations, as far as she has shown, she did not extend to colleagues.
And still I did not cheer at Sonmez’s downfall, and I did not because as critical as I have been of her, I could not take pleasure in watching her meltdown before our eyes, in watching her, at least to my mind, stab herself in the gut over and over.
"She is clearly going through something and it’s apparent that she does not have anyone in her life who loves her enough to tell her to just stop and step away," said someone Sonmez had hurt deeply, two days before Sonmez was fired. "Yesterday was her 40th birthday and she spent it tweet-raging."
I had seen the tweets. Had seen what a professional job Sonmez had done, curating the mean things people wrote about her, pasting them just so, cascading them on her Twitter feed. Is this something we should ghoulishly feast on? Should stand on shore laughing as one of us is swept to their doom, even by her own hand? That Sonmez had done this to others - had, in the case of Jonathan Kaiman, "excised him to being adrift at sea; the farther you drifted out, the harder it was to get back" - seemed to me the information we needed to not do this to her, or to anyone.
Of course we have become addicted to destroying people with a click, to standing behind a scrim and flinging figurative poo; to forgetting about the casualties once they are out of view. This all strikes me as criminally juvenile, the unwillingness to look others in the eye, to walk across a newsroom floor and state your case, to have the maturity and stamina and curiosity to talk out a position (or not talk at all; always an option), to instead fashion our insecurities and failings into contemptuous remarks, little slicing tools that they are.
After hearing the comment about contempt and divorce, I thought about the end of my first marriage. I was not yet thirty years old. I don't remember either of us saying mean things, not with the intention of wounding or derailing the other, but if we did, they were not enough to poison the family waters, and anyway, we had a toddler; what would have been the point? Making his life worse, or making him feel bad about himself, just the idea is getting me emotional.
Instead we became "BFFs," according to our daughter, then age 27 and home as we nursed her dad through terminal cancer. This man, so sick, yet sitting without complaint everyday on the couch drawing, a book about our lives when our daughter was very young, and yes time heals, and yes memories soften, but I can tell you he drew us in radiance, and with everything antonymic to contempt: love, affection, patience, care. And when he died in 2019, I washed his body, and it was my honor.
Complaining and contempt seem to me luxuries for people with time, for those looking for a shortcut to getting their way, to appear heroic or even exalted, to Rosie Ruiz their way into people's hearts. It won't work.
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The bit about contempt and divorce comes from John Gottman's work; contempt is one of the four horsemen that indicates how communication between two people has become so disrupted that it cannot be repaired, and hence is a key indicator of a couple who will eventually divorce.
I heard an interview with Mark Andreessen today where he remarked on how the sorts of people who are good at building successful companies are used to always being right, and that partnerships often foundered during growth if both co-founders couldn't find a way to let others be right sometimes. Our online twitterverse is populated by people who have something to say and believe their opinion is valuable/the correct one, and then given that journalists make their career knowing more than the rest of us/telling us how it is, it's no wonder many fall prey to the perils of contempt like Sonmez.
Thank you for sharing your bittersweet memories and your daughter's father's artwork with us, it is an anecdote for contempt imho.
Thank you, and yes, always more pie xxx