The vice that runs like an acid through our culture

Scott Stephens is the ABC’s Religion and Ethics online editor, and the co-host (with Waleed Aly) of The Minefield on ABC Radio National. He is delivering the Centre for Public Christianity’s Richard Johnson Lecture on October 28. The title of his talk is Out of Sight: Attentiveness in a Dismissive Age.

Simon Smart linked up with Scott over Zoom to discuss the upcoming lecture and “attentiveness” as an antidote to the pervasive spirit of contempt. What follows is an edited extract of that conversation.

Simon Smart: Scott, why this topic and why now?

Scott Stephens: Attentiveness is such a strange word, because we don’t usually talk about attentiveness, do we? We talk about someone paying attention or not paying attention. Attentiveness sounds a bit artificial. It sounds like something that somebody is putting on. “I wish you would be more attentive to me”.

But what attentiveness really is is a deliberate practice of being present to a particular person in a particular situation. And I realise that seems like the kind of thing that most friends or parents and children or husbands and wives or partners will ask of one another all the time. But I don’t think it’s limited to those sorts of intimate contexts where it’s just people that we know very, very well, or those that we feel like we’ve already broken the ice with. One of the things that attentiveness does is it goes into relationships. It goes into conversations. It goes into an extended series of encounters with people without agenda.

Contempt is actually one of my favourite words for the vice that runs like an acid through our common culture. I think it is the perfect description of the way that we treat one another at present.

And I think one of the things that attentiveness demands that we do is be absolutely present in this particular relationship with a particular other person to read their face, to attend to their words. Don’t leap into generalisations. This means being absolutely present to the other person. And it means approaching each encounter with another person as a moment of possible moral transformation. So that, to me, is why attentiveness is one of the great moral virtues, one of the great principles of the moral life. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so much under threat today.

Simon Smart: The contempt people have for each other is so publicly displayed today, and you’re trying to speak into that situation and offer a different kind of vision?

Scott Stephens: That’s exactly right. Contempt is actually one of my favourite words for the vice that runs like an acid through our common culture. I think it is the perfect description of the way that we treat one another at present.

But contempt doesn’t always seem to us to be bad, does it? For instance, if it’s a pile-on, on somebody that everybody regards as a villain, that’s contempt in service of the angels, right? Or if it’s someone that we all regard as having a corrosive effect in our common life, it’s a very easy thing to say, “You are one of those people” and that is a form of contemptuousness. It’s establishing a distance between us, but it’s also a way of elevating myself above you so that ultimately, Simon, you don’t have anything to say that I really need to hear. Your presence really exists for me to be able to elevate myself above you.

Simon Smart: What are you hoping to achieve in this lecture Scott?

Scott Stephens: To get people to slow down. Justice is never served by speed. Good is never achieved quickly. There’s a French, Jewish, Catholic philosopher named Simone Weil who has been very, very important to me. In a wonderful essay that she wrote on Homer’s Iliad, she said that one of the displays of force, of power of one human being over another human being, is that there was no hesitation. There’s no delay. This person is before me and they are simply an obstacle.

So, the process of running over another person in the service of going somewhere or getting something else that you want—she said that is seeing a person as an obstacle that needs to be gotten around. And she says that instead, what the moral life demands is a moment of hesitation before the face of my neighbour. Hesitation. A pause. Is there something here that I’m supposed to be attending to? What if I don’t see this person as an obstacle, as something that the world would quite frankly be better without? What if I attend to the person here? And that’s why she has this beautiful phrase, she said, “Every gap is also a connection”. I love that. Every gap between people is also a connection. The question is, what do we fill that gap up with? Do we cultivate the gap?

Over the last two years, we have become preoccupied with the air between us. The air is something that is corrupted, that’s been polluted either by smoke or by carbon or by a toxin, an airborne contagion that’s been circulating among us. We’ve been hyper-vigilant about the air between us and we’ve become wary of our fellow breathers. You’re super conscious of the gap between us and the need to keep that gap, the need to protect ourselves from other people.

Obviously in the interests of public health, it’s been very important that we have done that, but I think we’ve become acutely attuned to the need of cultivating the air between us so that the air we breathe together is an air that we genuinely share with one another. For me that’s not just a metaphor. These are the conditions of possibility of the moral life—stopping, hesitating, taking time in our interactions with one another, trying to breathe something like a common air and through that to hold out the possibility of being mutually transformed.

Simon Smart: Lastly Scott, what resources do we find within Christian communities for overcoming some of these issues, overcoming contempt? Because a lot of people for perhaps good reason might say, well, some of what comes out of faith communities has added to the atmosphere of contempt.

Scott Stephens: It seems to me there are three forms of contempt that we need to address.

One is grandstanding—using another person as a stepping-stool, whereby I can flaunt my own sort of moral rectitude.

Another is egotism. So I look out at the world and I see the world as enemies. I see people around just trying to get me. I don’t see friends or possible allies. I see people who are trying to take something away from me. It’s a form of narcissism. I think we find it especially clearly in plays like King Lear.

But the last one is generalising. “You are one of these kinds of people.” Marilynne Robinson, who’s another author that’s meant a great deal to me, contrasts grace and contempt. She says contempt traps; grace frees. Contempt generalises—those people are all like that. Grace is on the lookout for haunting particularities. That is almost the perfect distillation of the command to love one’s neighbour; to open oneself up to be haunted by the possibility of the particularity of another person. And not simply to write that person off just “one of those people”. So I think where many faith communities have fallen down, that’s where they’ve fallen down.

But I think so much about religious observance within a healthy stable faith community is about the regularity of the time that we meet together. It’s very difficult to have a seismic fallout with another person within these communities when you have to keep seeing them week after week after week, unless you’re really good with avoiding people in relatively small company.

But there are also things that we do as parts of religious observance that force us to come together. So when we gather together, for instance, around common meals or around a common sacred meal, when we share bread and wine together at an altar, where we share bread and wine together at a table, those are the things where we have to be proximate. We have to fill the gap between us with things that nourish us. So there might be people providing or there might be God providing things to fill that space between us.

So it seems to me that the disciplines, the rhythms, but also the physicality … Over the last two years, there’s been a lot of screens, but usually in healthy religious communities, it’s not screens that mediate between us. It’s tangible things, whether it be embraces, handshakes, or food – bread or wine. And all of these are things that bring us together and force us, I think, to tend carefully to the spaces between us, and to be confronted fully by this other person as someone who stands at this moment as holding out the possibility of real encounter, both with a loving neighbour and with the possibility of God himself.