So, we all know about contempt culture nowadays, the effect that we’re building status on top of displays of contempt and showing that we’re holders of the ”right” knowledge.
But this has some unfortunate side effects that result, that I’ve been starting to notice.
Contempt culture doesn’t just encourage us to shame, dismiss and behave contemptuously towards outsiders, it also encourages us to shame and dismiss each other within the community.
The Things You Didn’t Know
You may have seen this effect with “You didn’t know that?!” style responses to people’s ignorance or questions. This style of response is suppressive, and encourages people who don’t know what’s being talked about to stay quiet, to not ask, to withdraw. It’s a shaming act, a demonstration that you don’t belong because you didn’t know.
But, when this is done, we’re binding the status of belonging to the group to how few questions we ask. Asking is an opportunity for mockery, for responding in (possibly mock) shock regarding your ignorance.
How could you be here without knowing that, after all?
Because belonging is part of how few questions we ask and positioning ourselves as knowing things even if we don’t, newcomers to our communities don’t see a community of people who seek knowledge and admit their ignorance.
Instead, they see a community of people who profess expertise and, through contempt culture, are positioning their biases and contempts as the result of that expertise.
Because newcomers don’t see people asking questions, and are shamed for asking questions by those questions being seen as a challenge to their right to belong, they are trained to behave in the same way.
This is one of the causes of impostor syndrome. People caught in this coupling of ignorance as status will never feel, internally, like they belong. They will always be caught in needing to show that they know everything but afraid of asking, of being caught out as a fraud, of the challenging, harm-filled “You didn’t know that?!”
This is the feeling of being an unwelcome impostor.
This makes our communities quite hostile and difficult to participate in, because we spend our time afraid and uncertain instead of open and participatory. We perform contempt culture, reinforce that we all hold the right knowledge, and questions that imply we don’t know things are shut down as fast as possible.
Solving this isn’t an easy process.
As a community, it requires calling out behaviour where people are behaving as though you must have known something.
It requires luminaries in the communities always being vulnerable, and continually admitting that they don’t know things, don’t know why. It requires that everyone dismantle contempt culture by asking ”why?”. Why did they use that technology? Why did they make those choices? What are the surrounding requirements that informed these decisions? There are always reasons why things are done the way they are, and until we understand it we cannot usefully comment on the why.
It requires tools like a Code of Conduct, such that participants have can request help when they are excluded in non-public spaces, tools which describe the standards of behaviour and insist upon their adherence.
More than anything else, it requires caring about being explicitly welcoming to everyone, and interrogating your culture and truly, painfully asking why it isn’t.
These questions are hard, but they’re necessary.