The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


“It was not a simple yawn,” Judge Daniel Rozak explained to the incredulous family of Clifton Williams, as he was led away for contempt of court. Watching from the gallery in an Illinois courthouse as his cousin was sentenced on a felony drug charge in 2009, Williams had arched his back, stretched out his arms, opened his mouth and let out an enormous yawn. This was no involuntary response to tiredness, Judge Rozak concluded, but an intentional attempt to ridicule the court’s authority.

Whether smirking and sneering, peering down our noses or turning away in cold indifference, being filled with contempt is an aristocratic emotion. It inflates us with a sense of superiority, curled at the edges with derision or DISGUST. Even at its mildest, contempt condescends with amused detachment. No wonder then that contempt can be inflammatory and political too.

The idea that contempt can change things has not always been accepted by philosophers, many of whom have regarded contempt as lacking any value at all. Immanuel Kant argued that contemptuous feelings and the dismissive actions that surely followed contravened a basic moral principle—that all people, regardless of their social position or background, should be treated with respect and dignity. Contempt troubled Kant, because of its finality: he argued it refuses to imagine people can change. If ANGER stirs revolutions, and INDIGNATION exposes unfairness, contempt slams the door. This, for Kant, was a terrible error, as people “never lose all predisposition to the good.”

Kant’s description of contempt has been influential, but was he right? Clifton Williams’s yawn suggests a different way of thinking. There might have been other reasons for Williams to yawn. Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps nervous—since we often yawn when we feel afraid, a relic from our animal ancestors who still open their mouths to bare their teeth when threatened, which is why skydivers and troops preparing to go into battle can often be found standing around yawning. Even if Williams’s yawn was intentionally disdainful, it might have been simply a private letting off of steam, like rolling your eyes at the back of someone’s head. But if he did intend to communicate his contempt to others in the courtroom, then it’s in this awareness of performing for an audience that the political action of his yawn can be found.

In 1955 the British philosopher J. L. Austin argued that some of the things we say don’t just describe reality, but change it too. Saying “I love you,” for instance, isn’t only an expression of a feeling: it also shifts the nature of our relationship, it is a commitment, and it might even be a kind of question demanding an answer (“Don’t you love me too?”). Emotional gestures like raising our eyebrows or wrinkling our noses are like this. They do, as well as express, something (Austin called this their “performative” aspect): they have an effect, and often an intentional one. In the case of Williams’s yawn, it might have made him feel higher status in a context where he could have felt less than important. But more than that, it goaded and irritated, and therefore changed the reality of his status from a passive onlooker to an active participant in the proceedings. In this sense, Williams’s yawn provoked a conversation, rather than slamming shut a door.

Contempt can be a form of political protest for the disempowered. When disdain is expressed by those conventionally thought to have no business looking down on anyone (women, black people), cozy privileges can be disrupted, and a realignment of power envisaged. Historically, women have been regarded as either victims of contemptuous men, or else as excessively punished for their lack of deference. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain, for instance, amid fears about witchcraft and the unruliness of women, wives who insulted their husbands were sentenced for “scolding”—and in Scotland, some were even sentenced to wear a “scolds mask,” a kind of bridle replete with spikes to hold down the tongue as a punishment.

In the twentieth century, contempt, and its close companions scorn and ridicule, became a core strategy of protest culture. In 1911 suffragettes roller-skated the night away to avoid the census (“we don’t count, we won’t be counted”). More recently hundreds of women joined an online campaign based around the comically named “mansplaining”—mocking the men who, assuming their female colleagues were less informed about a topic than they were, explained it to them in oversimplified (and sometimes, just plain wrong) terms. In the twentieth- and twenty-first-century history of women’s rights, contempt, then, has played a crucial role, laughing in the face of convention in the hope of shifting consciousness—or at least, getting a conversation started.