Arthur Brooks is one of the limitless number of policy analysts who toil in Washington. He stands out both because he is prolific and his work has had an impact. He has already written 10 books on a wide range of subjects, served as president of the influential center-right American Enterprise Institute, and writes a column for the Washington Post.
His background sets him apart. An accomplished classical musician, he spent 12 years playing in a symphony orchestra. He worked his way through college and attended Thomas Edison State University in New Jersey – not exactly a “big name” school in the corridors of power (though he did earn a Ph.D. in public policy from the Rand Institute). On a personal level, he is deeply religious (Roman Catholic) and calls the Dalai Lama a friend and mentor.
In his latest book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt, Brooks takes aim at the hypertoxic climate that affects our civic culture. His description of the current situation is essentially that “hyperbolic” public discourse driven by an “outrage industrial complex” has produced a culture of contempt that is tearing America apart.
He uses the word “contempt” deliberately because it is more than mere anger. A culture of contempt reflects a desire to “mock, shame, and permanently exclude [the other side] from relationships by belittling, humiliating, and ignoring” those with whom we disagree. “Contempt” says to others: “You disgust me. You are beneath caring about.”
Brooks marshals an impressive amount of evidence to make his point. Not only is such behavior damaging to the public discourse, he writes, but it undermines the health of not only its practitioners but also of those on the receiving end. He cites research to suggest that humans are likely hard-wired to be decent and kind and to seek common ground. To him, the toxic political culture undermines our democracy and health and is contrary to human nature.
Discussions about the state of civic discourse typically lead to calls for civility and respect and for tolerance of different points of view. Here Brooks does something you might not expect from a data-driven economist: He calls on us to go much further and to love those with whom we disagree, following the biblical injunction to seek and find the good in other people. When confronted by critics, rather than ignore, insult, or argue, we must make a concerted effort to engage them in a respectful and welcoming manner. Or, as the Dalai Lama reportedly told him, we must practice “warm-heartedness.”
So while many (myself included) would be thrilled to start with civility and respect, Brooks calls on us to draw upon the better angels of our nature and to go much further. Loving our enemies, as opposed to simply tolerating them, will lead to better understanding, more respect, and the possibility of finding common ground.
This is an important, powerful, and well-argued thesis. Close personal dialogue and engagement based on compassion would absolutely result in greater understanding and connection. It’s a tall order. Responding with love in the face of hostility and anger requires a level of patience that few of us possess these days. Moreover, it demands time-consuming, one-on-one interaction that seems at odds with the rapid-fire responses of social media that favor caustic sound bites over connection and dialogue.
Brooks goes easier than he should on the nation’s political class. He admits that he knows many elected federal officials and in general respects and admires them (as do I). But elected officials bear a special responsibility for ameliorating the culture of contempt and making the civic square a place where respectful debate is the norm. It’s hypocritical for public officials to tell Brooks that they regret and are dismayed by the nature of our public dialogue but claim that they are powerless to influence it because their base demands it. They aren’t. It’s not too much to expect that they avoid vituperative ad homenim attacks, foster civil debate, and encourage their base to do the same.
Brooks’ prescription that we treat others with love is praiseworthy and highly desirable. But it’s not clear that such an approach will get us very far if our leaders continue to spew anger and gratuitous insults in the public arena.
This is a powerful and important book. Even as someone who lives in the same world as Brooks, I found his analysis compelling and his prescription worth careful and sustained thought. Indeed, the book is so intriguing and thought provoking, that, as soon as I finished it, I started to read it again. I suspect other readers will react the same way.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education in Washington.