Commuter trains in the Czech Republic are strange, almost surreal places. They are often packed so tightly that you are touching several other human beings and breathing their breath even if you are all trying not to.
And yet these trains are often utterly silent.
In some places where I've ridden trains, subways or buses--for instance in New York, the US west coast or Western Europe, not to mention the global south--commuter vehicles are noisy, crowded and full of local culture, often featuring someone making impromptu music.
But in the Czech culture, there is a social contract that holds silence and pretend privacy as the highest virtues.
That was why the man sitting across from me yesterday sounded so loud. He was speaking into his phone, his voice pitched a little low but not nearly low enough. All around us everyone else was painfully silent. And this man's voice was audible throughout the train car.
"I told you, I turned it off... What you think you know is irrelevant. I know I turned it off... Well, listen to me. There are stupid people, as you well know. I am an intelligent person. I turned it off.... If you cannot accept reality, you are just what you are... I told you, I turned it off. I don't care. It's there on the counter. I turned it off. Maybe you turned it on in your sleep. I know what I know."
It wasn't so much his words, going on and, on mile after mile, that had me gagging on rising vomit. It was his sickeningly condescending tone. Superiority and contempt dripped from his every word.
I couldn't help imagining who he might be speaking to. Maybe a child or an elderly, senile parent... but most likely his wife or female partner, given the context.
The more I was forced to listen, the more I didn't give a flying rat's ass who he was talking to, how difficult they might be or what was the truth of his history with the device on the counter.
I couldn't hear the person on the other end of his line, not even a peep, despite sitting just a few feet from him. But shrieking would have been a reasonable response to his tone, in my view.
Am I oversensitive? Possibly.
I have known contempt. I am intimate with it. It is the natural child of delusions of superiority. I would wager that every person born with a significant disability has met contempt as well as its somewhat prettier but no less poisonous little sister, condescension.
Their existence is often hard to prove in a digital world. Reading the words of this man on the train, you may wonder why I was upset. Ninety percent of it was in the tone.
It often is that way. The person who wields contempt or condescension must maintain--at least for themselves--the illusion that they are superior, in-control and beyond reproach.
Last week, someone criticizing me for firmly insisting that my child not play in the water until she had changed out of her clothes and into her swimming suit used that tone on me. Parents of children with neuro-diversity are often judged by those who see the difficulties those children have and assume it\s all about bad parenting. Far too many people jump immediately to feelings of superiority.
A police officer patrolling a climate-crisis protest I was involved in used that tone on me just yesterday because he was convinced that I was holding a white cane as a media stunt and only pretending to be visually impaired. When people leap to conclusions about another, they are often wrong.
Haven't I ever felt contempt myself? Yes, to my regret. There is a fine line between disgust and contempt. Disgust arises when a we encounter something utterly abhorrent.
The man's tone on the train filled me with disgust, but not with contempt. I heard his abusive words and suppressed anger. I knew he wasn't doing well. I felt sorry for the person he was speaking to, but I also was well aware that I am not on a different level from him. I have to remind myself of that, which is why I know I am not "above" such negative thinking.
Contempt is disgust with the added punch of a belief in one's own inherent superiority. I didn't feel contempt that time on the train, but I think I have at times slipped down that slimy slope a little and had to pull myself back through shame and remorse.
The fact is that no one is superior to another in that way. It isn't easy to keep that belief firm in today's world in which so much is horrible. But the knowledge that I might be wrong in my perception, that I don't really know the experiences of others, keeps me back from contempt now.
I swallowed back bile on the train and spoke firmly and calmly to the man across from me. "Sir, I don't care who you're talking to or what they may have done. That tone you are using is inappropriate and abusive. I have to ask you to stop because that tone is poisoning the air for everyone here."
He glared at me for a second as if ready to argue or fight. Silence reigned all around us. The other passengers turned their faces a fraction more away from him. Finally he hung up his phone without any further comment, got up and left.
This is why I don't want to perpetuate contempt, no matter how disgusted, outraged and furious I may be at the injustice, greed and cruelty practiced by some human beings.
Simply put, contempt is poison. It poisons the one spoken to, the one speaking and all who hear or read it. It is the poison that has made social media toxic and broken our public discourse. Open display of contempt is the thing that most sets Donald Trump apart from very bad presidents of the past such as George W. Bush.
Contempt comes from a belief that one is inherently superior to another, who is irredeemable regardless of future actions. So, this is the first thing we must guard against, like the key component to a lethal poison.
It wouldn't even matter if true superiority and inferiority existed in humanity. The poison such assumptions create is too toxic, like hot nuclear waste. It cannot be born.
Superiority and contempt destroy families, communities and nations. "A little innocent superiority complex" is actually the diametric opposite of trust and goodwill.
Let us then set our hearts to a conviction of basic respect for others. This doesn't mean I don't tell that man on the train that his tone is poisonous. It means that I nurture the hope that he might question his assumption of superiority. Many people don't change. But everyone could change.