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3 Ways to Confront the Culture of Contempt

June 5, 2023


Catholics and Contempt

The following is an excerpt of pp. 274-277 from Catholics and Contempt by John Allen Jr. (Word on Fire Publishing).

Light a Candle

As the oft-cited Chinese proverb goes, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” In general, when faced with a choice between attempting to tear something down or to build something up, experience tells me the latter is almost always more satisfying in the long run, even if it’s far harder, more expensive, and requires greater personal commitment.

What we really need are competitors to the purveyors of contempt on both the left and right, which can raise the questions and give voice to the concerns of the same groups of people, but without venom, character assassination, and manufactured “news.” We need a thousand flowers to bloom, including individual blogs, start-up video and radio platforms, creative websites, compelling books and magazine pieces, and much more beyond.

One strategy for confronting the culture of contempt, therefore, is to focus energy on encouraging alternatives. When you see a journalist who appears to be trying to treat people with respect, who avoids loaded language, and who exercises restraint with personally compromising information, find ways to support that person. At a minimum, you can send a quick note thanking her or him. I can tell you from personal experience, it’s far more common at news agencies to get complaints rather than kudos, so when they do come along, they mean a lot. 

In addition, Catholics with means and who are concerned about trajectories in the media today need to provide financial support for platforms and individuals who are trying to swim against the tide. Notoriously, the problem with moderates is that they’re moderate about everything, including their willingness to put their money where their mouth is, while people closer to either end of the spectrum tend to be far more passionate and thus inclined to support outlets congenial to their points of view. We may not be able to make contempt disappear—since Adam and Eve, we haven’t done an especially impressive job of eradicating other forms of sin either. But we can at least ensure that a wide variety of alternatives are available, trusting that while journalism as a blood sport may be just the temper of the times, the desire for truth is eternal, and there’ll always be a market for it.

On a related note, we have to do a much better job of convincing the next generation of Catholic journalists, bloggers, and social media users that it’s possible to be “punchy,” “edgy,” and “scrappy” without being acrimonious, and without inflating news beyond its natural proportions. I believe that the Catholic Church is the most fascinating beat in journalism precisely because of its complexity. No matter what the topic, there’s always a welter of competing voices, and most of them actually have good points to make. Popes, for instance, have to consider the impact of their decisions not simply in terms of how people in the US or Europe will react, but the whole world. In fact, there’s probably no gig on earth other than Secretary General of the UN more complicated in that regard. Answers to disputed questions are rarely simple or clear-cut, and therein lies the drama. That’s the story we need to tell—not how the other side of a given issue is composed largely of idiots, charlatans, sinners, and the hopelessly naïve. It’s the difference between journalism and propaganda, and, while propaganda usually pays better, journalism is a whole lot more fun.

Better Communications

Although Church leaders may not be able to do much in terms of sanctioning contemptuous content, they certainly can help encourage responsible journalism in a much more compelling fashion than they do at present—mostly by getting their act together when it comes to communications. 

Right now, consider the situations of two hypothetical reporters covering the Vatican. One works for a hard-right news outlet that simply wants a steady supply of verbiage about how corrupt, socialist, and dictatorial the Francis papacy is, while the other writes for a responsible platform interested in what’s really going on and why. The former simply has to get out of bed in the morning and apply the standard spin to whatever the day’s news turns out to be, but the latter likely will spend fruitless hours trying to get Vatican officials to open up and, in the end, will be stampeded by the competition. 

While journalism as a blood sport may be just the temper of the times, the desire for truth is eternal, and there’ll always be a market for it.

What Church officials need to understand is that whatever the story may be, it’s going to be told by someone. The era in which bishops could control the narrative by intimidating or ignoring the media is long over. The only choice is between cooperating with reporters who are obviously trying to get the story right or allowing others to control the narrative in ways that generally turn out to be far more damaging to the Church’s interests than whatever the truth of the situation actually is. 

Memo to bishops, Vatican officials, and other Catholic potentates: take reporters’ phone calls, answer their emails and texts, and tell your people to do the same. Make sure your communications officer is a serious professional with regular access to you and the independence to make decisions in real time without having to wade through layers of bureaucracy. The more open and transparent you are, the less capacity others will have to distort or misrepresent. In other words, you may have little power to punish contempt, but you have a vast capacity to reward responsibility.

Tuning Them Out

There’s a classic Halloween episode of The Simpsons in which large advertising icons come to life and start rampaging through Springfield. In a desperate bid to save the city, Bart and Lisa visit an advertising agency to get advice on how to stop the monsters, and the ad man replies, “Well sir, advertising is a funny thing. . . . If people stop paying attention to it, pretty soon it goes away.” (He goes on to recommend that they get Paul Anka to record a snappy jingle with the refrain “Just don’t look!”—and the monsters do indeed disappear.) You’ll never find a better metaphor for the media environment of the twenty-first century.

The hard truth about the media business is this: Every culture gets the journalism it wants and, therefore, that it deserves. The culture of contempt is widespread in the media today, including the Catholic media, precisely because people consume it. That includes not just the devotees of contempt but also its most dedicated critics—who, let’s face it, are often fairly contemptuous of contempt. Probably nobody retweets hard-right coverage more than outraged liberals, who often jostle with one another to see who can be the most condescending about it, while conservatives typically pounce on every liberal low blow as still more evidence of how the other side isn’t just wrong but evil.

My advice? Just don’t look. Stop reading or watching content that’s simply going to make you angry. Perpetual anger is no way to go through life, and anyway, it only encourages the manufacturers of such content. I guarantee you: nothing frustrates someone trying to provoke a reaction more than when that reaction doesn’t come. There’s always the lure of the idea that “someone has to say something.” But the thing is, they really don’t. You’re not going to change any minds, and, in the meantime, you’re extending the life cycle of contempt. If mainstream media outlets would just stop their every-few-weeks cycles of “exposés” about the influence of hard-right media, for example, all of which generally recycle the same platforms with the same worried commentary of alleged experts, the visibility of those outlets probably would be cut in half overnight. Similarly, if conservative media outlets would stop relentlessly regurgitating the errors and excesses of liberal platforms, those platforms, too, would probably find steep drops in traffic and relevance.

“Just Don’t Look” may feel passive and feckless, like you’re actually part of the problem by choosing to ignore it. After all, ignoring Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine was hardly a sound strategy for making it stop. But in reality, tuning out is probably the simplest and most effective tool ordinary people have at their disposal to register disapproval of the media culture of contempt—and, in the meantime, it’s also a sound public health strategy to keep blood pressures down, avoid heart problems, and promote personal well-being. Your doctors will thank you, and, in the long run, the media business will thank you.

There’s no easy remedy to the culture of contempt as it registers in the Catholic media world. Yet resisting it, and doing everything we can to promote better options, is a labor eminently worth undertaking. What’s at stake here is our credibility not just as journalists but as Catholics, and the point applies not just to those of us in the media but to everybody. 

Catholics and Contempt

You can order Catholics and Contempt (Word on Fire Publishing) by John Allen Jr. here in the Word on Fire Bookstore.