Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2022

Uncivil Wars (2022), by Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens (Quarterly Essay #87)

It’s been really interesting to read this Quarterly Essay in the wake of contemporary events…

In the Uncivil Wars, How contempt is corroding democracy authors Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens unpack the decline in public debate, identifying changes in the way contemporary philosophers have reconsidered contempt as a reactive moral emotion, giving examples of its corrosiveness, and identifying three kinds of contempt, which they say pose a threat to democracy:

  • Patronising contempt: it’s one way, top down, a form of knowing without being known; of speaking without being addressed.  The example given is Turnbull’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which mischaracterised the Voice, rejected a proposal the Uluru Statement never made, and declared the matter closed without any public debate.
  • Disgust: the contempt of racists, of segregationists and anti-miscegenationists.  (Interestingly, anti-Semitism is not included in this list; it should have been.) The example given is slavery, in which humans are conflated with animals, chattels, and fauna.  Again, this form of contempt is hierarchical.
  • Moral superiority: a form of censure, of judgement, an affirmation of one’s moral superiority over another.  

[LH: Is this last form of contempt the one that more of us would admit to, though for a variety of reasons, perhaps keep it private or are circumspect about it?  Most of us, I suspect, would be upfront about our contempt for Nazis or Hansonism, but maybe not about vaccine refusal within families.

One example the authors give is Hillary Clinton’s contempt for Trump’s ‘deplorables’, but they also give the example of Robodebt:

a signature example of moral contempt, literally automating the judgement of people as welfare cheats (often incorrectly) and then depriving them of a human ear to which to make their case. By relegating people to the unaccountable calculation of machines in this way, the government was instituting a program of bureaucratic shunning. (p.17)

Moral contempt is everywhere: it is the kind of contempt we are likely to encounter in the maelstrom of culture  wars or the trench warfare of politics.  It is a staple of the tabloid media.  ‘Cancel culture’ (which, who knew? began as a joke) is a an example of moral contempt:

Perhaps nothing better fits the definition of moral contempt than online ‘cancel culture’, whereby someone whom internet users deem to have transgressed a sacred moral standard finds themselves at the bottom of an online pile-on, a rapid swarm of public shaming, often accompanied by calls for them to be shunned, boycotted, fired from their jobs or worse — in short, “cancelled”.  The contempt is embedded in the language: cancellation carries with it the sense of something being annulled, destroyed, undone, neutralised, erased or terminated; in other words, it is to delete both the thing itself and its very memory. (p.17)

The example of Yassmin Abdel-Magied shows that one sacred moral standard not to be transgressed is Anzac Day, and now we have another.  The only social media I interact on is BookTwitter, but even BookTwitter is not a safe place for The Indifferent to Royalty such as myself, but it’s an even more risky place for The Hostile, especially, it seems to me, if they are expressing contemporary interpretations of colonialism and social inequity.  I have been astonished at the repellent interactions that have crept into my carefully curated feed.  I was so intrigued by one of them and its subsequent pile-on that I explored the tweeter’s academic site and discovered that in contrast to the savagery of her keyboard warfare in 280 characters, her podcast about creating inclusive classrooms to empower learners of English was gentle, thoughtful and wise.

But cancellation is totalising.

It almost always charges its target with being guilty of some -ism or -phobia — allegations that stick to the very being or soul of a person who is thereby -ist or -phobic by nature.  Accordingly, the cancelled person becomes of low rank when judged by the moral lights of the cancelling swarm, who, of course, assume a position of unassailable moral superiority.  (p.17-8)


… contempt by its very nature marks the end of the conversation.  It is a full stop.  A contemned object, as a morally inferior being, has nothing to offer, no contribution to make, no reason to be heard.  (p.19)

The authors quote Kant for whom contempt violates two cardinal principles: the principle of human dignity and the principle of not using others as a means to one’s own end.  

Contempt violates the former because it denies the worth of the whole person, and it violates the latter because it makes another’s humiliation merely the means of one’s own self-aggrandisement. Central to Kant’s moral vision is an idea that is central to the very concept of human rights: that humans have an inalienable dignity simply by virtue of being humans: “a worth that has no price”.  Contempt, meanwhile, is “[j]udging something to be worthless.” (p.21)

Kant, as quoted, argues that such contempt is based on a supposition that the “vicious human being” can’t be improved, and that “this is not consistent with the idea of a human being, who as such (as a moral being) can never lose entirely his predisposition to the good.” 

Yeah, but… Hitler and his enablers? It’s all very well to use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to interrogate moral good and prospects for reflection and self-improvement, but the elephant in the room was a cohort of moral monsters.

The authors also take issue with the fashionable online phrase “educate yourself”.

This is typically the language of activists seeking to charge people with something like racism or sexism, but it does so by disavowing engagement altogether.  Naturally “education” is presumed to yield only one possible outcome, and that is agreement with the activist’s worldview.  We see this in the popular genre of online articles (inspired by the title of a bestselling book) that explain “Why I’m no longer talking to….” The assumption here is that the other’s prejudice is so rank, their moral position so retrograde, or their blindness so total, that they do not deserve to be addressed. The activist is urging people to accept an argument, but disavows any obligation to persuade those who disagree, on the basis that the argument is so self-evidently right that opposition to it must be in bad faith.  Certainly, that might be true of some people, and in some cases it really might be the wisest thing not to persist arguing over a stalemate.  But it is altogether different to dismiss a whole class of people in this way, and to do so publicly as a kind of performative affectation.  (p. 20)

Yeah, but… I think the authors are ignoring the exhaustion factor.  For some minority groups such as Indigenous Australians and disability or LGBTIQ+ activists, where the education of the mainstream is expected to be the responsibility of a small number of people, it must seem relentless.  Women, I think, can be forgiven for running out of patience too. Some of us have been explaining since we were teenagers.

The authors go on to argue that opinion pieces in the media whose fierce conviction and frankly contemptuous, unanswerable tone mask an underlying lack of clarity and an even more disturbing absence of hope in the moral possibilities of persuasion. 

And thus, the implications for democracy.  Whether Right, Left, Indifferent, Not Interested, or somewhere in between, public discourse is fraught.

It’s an interesting essay, albeit pessimistic.  I was fascinated by the ‘digression’ into the emergence of tabloid newspapers in the US as exemplars of founders Pultizer and Heart’s insight into human nature, insights which now underlie the monetising algorithms of social media that prioritise conflict.  Aly and Stephens are onto something when they say that one of contempt’s chief moral problems is that it presumes we can sit in quasi-divine judgement on one another….but social media a.k.a. the “outrage factory” undermines every effort to provide the means by which any judgement must be weighed: evidence, openness to contrary evidence, restraint, and a certain diligence and balance in forming moral judgement of a person.  

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens co-host The Minefield on ABC Radio National, where they discuss ethical dilemmas, contradictory claims and the complicities of modern life. I catch a bit of it sometimes when I’m in the car.  It airs on Thursdays at 2pm and is repeated on Saturdays at 12.00am, and Sundays at 10am, and there are podcasts at this link.  This episode, for as long as it’s live on their website, addresses the content of this essay. (Skip the prattle that goes for about 3 minutes at the beginning, the program improves.)

Update, the next day: Hmm, the option to be indifferent is denied me by the announcement of an unscheduled public holiday. I can turn away from saturation media coverage, I can read alternative news sources and I have other entertainment options. But now I have had two medical appointments cancelled, one of which I’ve waited months for. I can’t even make a new one yet: ‘management’ has to negotiate with doctors who are willing to work extra hours to accommodate these cancelled appointments, and then they will presumably prioritise which of us is accommodated first.

PS, also the next day: I have just discovered that there is a more incisive review of this essay by Ryan Cropp, a Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, at Inside Story.

PPS I found this too: Social distance can be good for democracy by Robert Talisse. I particularly liked this:

[Democracy is] the ideal of self-government among equals. It asserts that a decent, stable, and relatively just social order is possible in the absence of royals and overlords. In a democracy, we are equal partners in government, and we all hold power. We are citizens, not mere subjects. Participants, not spectators, in this morally serious business.

#WryNoteToSelf: try not to feel moral superiority contempt for people who do not take politics seriously.

Authors: Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens
Title: Uncivil Wars, How contempt is corroding democracy
Quarterly Essay #87, published by Black Inc 2022
ISBN: 9781760643560, pbk., 123 pages, of which this essay comprises 64 pages
Source: personal subscription

You can subscribe through the QE website.


  1. I too listen sometimes by chance and find their exploration of ideas a refreshing change from lots of superficial or inane commentary on radio. Thanks for this uncovering of some of their ideas on contempt.


    • I like the way they disagree with each other. It sounds so unscripted, but of course it’s not. But it is a model of how people can have respectful opposing opinions and be entertaining at the same time.


  2. I had Inside Story all keyed up to respond to your post. Highly recommended! Waleed Aly has become – or maybe always was – too ‘one the one hand, and on the other hand’ for me, and I rarely read him (nor watch nor listen but that’s because I watch nothing and listen to very little).


    • I’m always interested in day-to-day questions of philosophy. At uni, when I did a bit of philosophy, we were trained to look at q’s from both sides (or more) and interrogate them equally, so it’s a style of thinking I’m comfortable with. I am, as you see above, mostly a ‘yeah, but…’ kind of person in that I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of seeing both sides.


  3. I confess to rather enjoy watching the pageantry overseas lately and I haven’t read this essay!

    Malcolm Turnbull was heckled sufficiently to give up an address at Sydney University recently – I don’t know what he was going to talk about, but I would have preferred to see the students engage in some robust debate rather than stifling discussion altogether. Very disappointing.

    The Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff and Haidt is worth a read.

    I’m with Bill about Waleed Aly.


    • There have been some several cases of speakers being deplatformed: Germaine Greer, Lionel Shriver, Tony Kevin to name just a few.
      I don’t like it. I’m perfectly capable of listening and then making up my own mind, and I don’t like it when someone else decides that I don’t get to choose.

      Liked by 1 person

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