Author: Arthur C. Brooks
Publisher: Broadside Books
Publishing Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 256 (Hardcover)
Arthur C. Brooks doesn’t just stick a toe into the current divisive political climate, he dives in headfirst with his book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. Brooks addresses the divisiveness of the political climate in the United States and laments the way it has spilled over into nearly every other facet of daily life. In a time of increasing polarization and tribalism, Brooks calls all of us to reach across the aisle instead. In Love Your Enemies, Brooks urges us to be “bridgers” who build relationships rather than “breakers” who sever them.
In today’s world, do you have to be brash in order to do well? Is it true that nice people finish last? If we choose to buck the trend of alienating those who disagree with us, does it mean we are also choosing to give up any hope of prosperity in our lives or in our jobs? Despite the popularly held beliefs that women prefer jerks and that bullies rise to the top, research shows the opposite to be true. People are drawn to kindness. Bullying behavior is undesirable. No one wants to work for a boss who is terrible to her or his employees.
If this is true—that people are drawn to kindness—why is it that political discourse is dominated by “othering,” ostracism, and insults? Brooks argues this is because “America is addicted to political contempt” (28). We know that living with contempt for the other side is damaging to us, yet we engage in it anyway. We are encouraged to keep consuming contempt for those who disagree with our views, as media outlets and social media invite us to create echo chambers where only the opinions we agree with are heard.
Do we really believe that all people who disagree with us on a given topic are evil? Perhaps we need to take a step back and consider our what and our why, Brooks explains. Our what is what makes us who we are; it is part of what distinguishes us and our identity from others. Our what bonds us to others who share these things in common with us. Our why is what unites us with other people. Brooks says that the answer to contempt is reaching out to those who disagree with us—even strongly so—and listening to find our common why.
Love Your Enemies is a refreshing book that urges the building of relationships rather than the fragmenting of them; however, this call is not without its own weaknesses. For example, Brooks explores moral foundations theory, which asserts that there are five (or more recently, six) moral foundations that are innate to all people. The idea behind this theory is that all people are born with these moral foundations, and that our political differences are based around which of these moral foundations we choose to emphasize as most important. Going along with moral foundations theory, Brooks suggests that liberals care most about fairness and care, whereas conservatives emphasize respect for authority, loyalty to group or tribe, and purity.
Brooks’ intention in leaning on moral foundations theory is to suggest that neither side is immoral. However, moral foundations theory also asserts that liberals care most about two of the five foundations, whereas conservatives believe all five foundations are important. While Brooks is intending to argue that both sides have moral convictions, the assertion that one side holds more moral foundations than the other side undermines his overarching point.
Another area of weakness in Brooks’ call for unity across the aisle is his treatment of unconscious bias and racism. Citing a 1934 study conducted by Richard T. LaPiere, which looked at people’s willingness to hold racist beliefs in theory versus their willingness to act out of those beliefs in real life situations, Brooks argues that people are more inclined to treat others with kindness than they are to act out of unconscious bias. He argues, “When you meet actual people and learn a little of their human story, you feel connection—and connection destroys discrimination.”
On the one hand, I agree with Brooks that human connection breaks down barriers, dispels myths and bias, and can destroy discrimination—even if not fully. On the other hand, Brooks explains later in the book that as diversity increases in communities, work places, and in other situations, that trust for others (regardless of race) is lower and friendships are fewer. This assertion seems to stand in contrast to his prior claim that people may think they hold discriminatory beliefs, but actually treat others without discrimination in daily life.
Despite these places of weakness in Brooks’ writing, his why remains a shared conviction of mine. The fragmenting of social relationships and the loss of kindness even amidst disagreement are rapidly leading us to dehumanize those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. This dehumanization is a step towards violence. The anger we feel is not the problem; anger urges us to take action in meaningful ways. The real danger is not anger, but contempt for each other—when we hold the other in contempt, we have ceased hoping for a restoration of relationship. Contempt holds that the other is too far gone to be reconciled with us. Contempt is a bridge destroyer, and we need bridge builders.
I plan to take Brooks’ advice to reach out and connect with those who hold opinions different from my own. We need to learn how to listen to understand, rather than listen to condemn. We may find our disdain for our enemies (who aren’t really our enemies—merely people who see things differently) melting away as we learn that we are all people who want what’s best for each other. Truly, it will be love that mends the divide, if only we are willing to open our hearts to each other.