Beyond Contempt


The French, let us admit, have their uses. They host the world’s finest annual sporting event. They know their way around a kitchen. In ladies’ fashion, at least, they have few equals. And they produced Le Mepris.

Described by Sight & Sound as the “greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe” (don’t let that put you off), from the opening shot panning up and down Brigitte Bardot’s prone naked body, to the voice-over solemnly intoning the words of an obscure film theorist while the camera tracks through an empty movie lot, to the film-within-a-film production of The Odyssey in which most of the parts are played by statues, it is the sort of film only the French could produce, continually poised on the verge of vanishing up its own sententious, self-referential fundament.

For those who wisely decided to spare themselves A-level French, Le Mepris means “contempt”, the title derived from the film’s pivotal moment when Bardot confesses feeling it for her husband.

Now, contempt is not an emotion which gets a good press. As a certain former Prime Minister discovered, displaying it to the House of Commons can be a career-ending move. Those who display it to a court are liable to end up in the slammer. Regarding others as less worthy of respect than they regard themselves (for that is what contempt really is) is a bit of a societal no-no.

That does not, of course, mean that it is never justified. Some people are worthy of contempt. In the film, Bardot’s husband has groped another woman’s bum and toadied to his vulgar American boss. Even if, in 1960’s France when it was shot, the former was not contemptible, the latter certainly was. That he is unapologetic merely compounds the offence.

Having a misplaced view of one’s own rectitude is not, of course, a phenomenon confined to the frames of 1960’s art house cinema. We now turn to the Labour Party.

On Saturday, when the world was young, and there was still a chance England might win the Ashes, Katherine Birbalsingh, superstar headmistress of the Michaela school, issued a detailed, if slightly ranty, letter accusing Jess Phillips, everyone’s favourite Brummy rent-a-gob, of racism. A serious accusation for anyone. A particularly serious accusation for a party whose leader and deputy leader had taken the knee to show their solidarity with BLM. So is Phillips now an “independent” MP pending an inquiry?

No. The next morning, Bridget Phillipson, a front bencher with the air of a harried double-glazing saleswoman whose young children are refusing to eat their breakfast, opined on television that Phillips was not a racist. Case closed. If Ms Birbalsingh wished to take the matter further, she could contact the Parliamentary authorities. There was no reason for the Labour Party to get involved.

Merely a day after Ms Phillipson appointed herself judge and jury in l’affaire Phillips (there was no need for an executioner), the Cabinet Office released a report into the conduct of Sue Gray, former Whitehall propriety tsar currently tending her tomato plants before taking up the job of chief of staff to Sir Keir “Integrity” Starmer. It found that, in her contacts with the Opposition, she had broken the Civil Service Code. The finding was prima facie because Ms Gray had refused to cooperate with the inquiry. Which is odd. As an “ethics supremo” she would surely want to clear her name from any hint of impropriety. Since the nub of the accusation was failing to report a conversation to her boss, all Ms Gray needed to do to disprove it was to show that she had. Surely a senior civil servant would have kept a record of a discussion of such import…

Whether she was unwilling or unable to disprove the allegation, breaching the Civil Service code is a serious matter. There will surely be repercussions. A man who flaunts his adherence to the rules would surely take action.

No. The Labour Party merely commented that the inquiry was “Mickey Mouse nonsense” and that it looks forward to Sue Gray starting work.

A party which refuses to investigate allegations of racism against one of its members cannot call itself an anti-racist party. A party which recruits someone who refuses to cooperate with an inquiry cannot argue that it is dedicated to transparency, nor can a party which hires a rule-breaker claim to be sticklers for the rules.

For virtue is like virginity, once you lose it, you don’t get it back. John Profumo may have dedicated his life to anonymous good works, but that did not make him a good man. Not, to his credit, that he ever suggested he was. To do so would have been hypocrisy, and of all the sins which merit our righteous contempt, there are few higher.

But before we saddle up our high horses of moral indignation, we should remember that contempt does not have the best reputation. At the end of the film, Bardot has started an affair with her husband’s boss which ends with them dying in a car crash. It is hard not to see that as a warning. She may have been justified in her emotion, but it led her to behave equally badly. Once we decide someone’s actions make them contemptible, it is easy to act in ways which do the same to us.

Beyond such consequentialist concerns, however, the fact that someone is worthy of contempt does not mean they are worthy of contempt by us. For there is none of us without fault. Some belief systems may teach that Man is perfectible, none believes He is perfect. Contempt brings with it a sense of superiority, a belief that we are better than its object. And, if we ponder the hidden histories of our lives, that’s quite a bold claim. As the ancient Stoics would say, we are all drowning.

Nor can we take refuge in pity, elevating ourselves since we can see the flaws of which they are conspicuously unaware. None of us have Burns’ power “to see oursels as ithers see us!”. I may feel I have a reasonably good handle on my numerous failings but my list, I suspect, would merely be a chapter in my ex-wife’s multi-volume tome. Since we all live in glass houses, it is better that none of us throw stones.

At heart, those who purport to see themselves as good despite doing wrong are making a mistake and we do not, usually treat mistakes as a moral failing, a cause of offence. If they move us to anything, it is to laugh that someone could be so stupid, or, in particularly egregious instances, to ignore them in future. If that is how we would treat a bumptious relative or a blowhard in the pub, should we not do the same to the political classes? Would it not be better for society if, rather than sending one of theirs to the morgue when they send one of ours to the hospital, we just laughed at them? Would it not be better for us if, instead of firing up the outrage train, we just ignored them?

Bardot feels contempt for her husband because he was her husband. He was important to her. Any other man who behaved as he did she would merely have regarded as a fool, a source of entertainment. It is open to us to take the same approach, to move, as far as we can, our lives beyond politics and beyond politicians, to render them unimportant. To turn the political class into the cast of Mrs Brown’s Boys there either to be watched for laughs or (better) to be switched off. There are, after all, more things in heaven and Earth than dreamt of in Keir Starmer’s philosophy.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.