Dancing on the grave of Rush Limbaugh? Time to confront America’s culture of contempt
After controversial talk show host Rush Limbaugh died on Wednesday, many Americans were slow to show compassion — and quick to unleash contempt.
I was preparing for my KSL NewsRadio program Wednesday when news broke that legendary and controversial talk show host Rush Limbaugh had died at age 70 after battling lung cancer. I jumped into the studio with my colleagues Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic to process the news and review Limbaugh’s impact on talk radio, conservatism in America and politics in general.
I was ready for all of that discussion. I wasn’t ready for how comfortable so many Americans have become with contempt.
As Dave, Debbie and I began the conversation — that continued through the end of their show and into the beginning of my program — the text line, and many social media pages, filled with contemptuous comments about the deceased. Texts ranged from harsh criticism and where Mr. Limbaugh’s soul would be banished, to “good riddance” and “best news of the year,” to “he was poison” and even to the profane and sickening.
I marveled at how comfortable society has become with contempt — even toward someone who had just died. I confess it truly saddened me.
In my radio comments, I spoke of Limbaugh’s divisive and dismissive rhetoric. I also outlined his uncanny ability to listen to and then reflect the feelings and frustrations of many Americans. I covered his personal challenges with addiction. I hit how he was part of what paved the way for contentious political leaders and angry media networks. I discussed his enormous influence, for good and ill, on the national dialogue. I covered his successes and failures and why 27 million people would tune in to listen. Love him or hate him, Mr. Limbaugh was a force that required supporters and detractors to pay attention.
Saying anything positive — or negative — only seemed to unleash more contempt. I tracked conversations for the next 24 hours. In the end I realized that this comfortable contempt isn’t about Mr. Limbaugh, or politicians, or celebrities, or business executives, or immigrants or millionaires. It is about each of us.
Relationship expert Mary Ellen Goggin noted, “Contempt isn’t a one-time, regretful response to another person. It is the expression of a seething, stewing cauldron of scorn, disapproval, and disgust toward that person. Instead of targeting a specific action, it goes for the kill by attacking the person’s very sense of self. ... Contempt grows in negativity and feeds off itself until it spews out in vile, hurtful ways.”
We are all familiar with the old tale of the frog in the cauldron. As the story goes, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will reflexively leap out. If, instead, you put a frog in a pot filled with comfortably warm water, it will remain in the pot. Even if you gradually increase the temperature over time, the frog will remain in the water — until it is too late. The frog will have comfortably boiled to death.
Many of us are comfortably stewing in our own cauldron of contempt. Things we would never say to someone face-to-face are easy to spew online. We pretend that demonizing and dehumanizing those with whom we disagree through our own manufactured scorn and disgust helps us sleep better at night and show up for church on Sunday without a need for remorse or regret. Contempt always keeps us a safe distance from another’s humanity — and our own.
Our comfortable cauldron of contempt is of our making. The stew we swim in is ours and ours alone. No finger pointing. No placing blame on the words or actions of others. No “yes, but …” about the behavior of those who are the target of your contempt. This cauldron requires us to recreate all the anger and hate, scorn and disgust on a daily basis. In the end, we are comfortably stewed in our own juices.
Richard Nixon knew a few things about contempt. His administration was fueled by anger, suspicion, hate and contempt. Yet, his parting words to his staff included, “Always remember: others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
When hate and contempt are our common driving forces, destruction is the destination.
We can, and must, confront contempt. And we should remember that contempt will not conquer contempt.
The death of a human, including Mr. Limbaugh, doesn’t give them a free pass from accountability; we should not whitewash their past or make them a saint. It would, however, do wonders for us — the living — to recognize our own sins of contempt, avoid dancing on the grave of the dead and cease to spew such angry vile toward anyone.
Each of us individually and all of us collectively should jump out of the sorry soup we are angrily stewing in. If we don’t, the nation will boil to death in the comfortable cauldron of contempt we created for ourselves.