Defusing a Culture of Contempt: Arthur Brooks on How to ‘Disagree Better’
The author of Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt discusses how to reclaim civil discourse.
Arthur Brooks is the best-selling author, most recently, of Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt.
A social scientist and the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading policy research organization in Washington, D.C., Brooks is featured in The Pursuit, a new documentary from the institute that examines the transformative impact of free-market capitalism on declining global poverty rates. Brooks is the Catholic father of three children, and in an exchange with Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond, he shared his ideas for defusing what he calls a “culture of contempt” poisoning U.S. politics and even personal friendships.
How did your Catholic faith inspire your decision to write Love Your Enemies, as well as your new documentary, The Pursuit?
My Catholic faith has always been at the core of my interest in policy and public life. In point of fact, my original decision to study economics was due to my sense that poverty alleviation — an effort Jesus commands us to undertake in Matthew 25 — could be aided through a better understanding of economic systems. In the same way, I believe that efforts to overcome acrimony and polarization in American politics can be catalyzed by turning to the example and teachings of Christ.
Our culture’s problems aren’t merely problems of disagreement, but, rather, of how we view and treat one another. As such, the moral grounding of my faith played a crucial role in informing the spirit and tone of Love Your Enemies, the title of which is taken from Matthew 5.
Christ’s message of “Love your enemies” rejected tribalism and, one can assume, our modern-day equivalent, identity politics. What made his teaching so revolutionary, and why do we need to reclaim it today?
What makes the command to love our enemies so revolutionary is that it pushes back against our tendency to assume that at least some groups of people are not worthy of love and should be cast into outer darkness. Unfortunately, we have developed the habit in America of seeing more and more of our fellow citizens not just as incorrect in their views, but as worthless, undeserving of love or consideration. This is incredibly dangerous for the long-term health of our civic life.
We should be careful to note that love and agreement are not the same thing. There are ideas and actions that are worthy of our contempt. But while some ideas and actions are worthy of contempt, we should always remember that no person is.
Research tells us that political conflict is trumping racial and religious divisions. You argue that the way we communicate our differences is a key problem. Please explain.
When one in six Americans have stopped talking to a family member or close friend over politics, we have to ask ourselves: What is driving this kind of rupture in our relationships? What I argue is that we’ve developed a “culture of contempt.” Instead of attacking the ideas and arguments of people we disagree with, we now challenge the very worth of those people, believing that they have nothing to contribute.
When we treat each other with contempt, it naturally makes it harder to have conversations about what we disagree on. The key to solving this problem is not to disagree less, though, but to disagree better. Love Your Enemies is a manual that shows people how to do just that.
Some U.S. college campuses have introduced speech codes, in an attempt to restrict speech or bar speakers perceived as a threat to tolerance, but you call for more competition in the marketplace of ideas. So how should we compete?
The best way to compete is by starting with a shared “why” rather than a differing “what.” What I mean by this is that conservatives and liberals both want a safer, healthier, more prosperous country, but that they often disagree on the policy means for achieving those objectives. If we can establish a shared “why” (for example, that we all want more Americans to have access to high-quality health care), it becomes much easier to debate the specific ways we can accomplish that mutually desired end and much harder to write people off as malevolent or stupid if they support different policy solutions than those endorsed by others.
So the next time you’re about to get in an argument with someone on the “other side,” remember to lead with your shared “why.” I’m convinced that this will lead to a more wide-ranging competition of ideas, from which our society will benefit immensely.
The culture of contempt can make us depressed and anxious, whether we have been unfairly labeled by others or have stooped to engage in personal attacks on social media and other forums. Why is this behavior bad for our health, and what does brain science say about the impact of contempt on our cognitive functioning?
Research on contempt shows that this behavior causes us to secrete two stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These serve an important biological function, but if we find ourselves constantly treating others with contempt, or being treated with contempt, the continuous secretion of these hormones can seriously degrade our immune systems, harm our sleep quality, and even impair cognitive function on difficult intellectual tasks. In other words, there’s a pragmatic, self-interested reason to avoid contempt, not just a moral one!
St. Paul tells us that Christian moral teaching is “written on our hearts,” and yet Christians also find themselves engaging in personal attacks, especially when their way of life feels like it is under threat. What is the difference between contempt and “righteous anger”?
While anger says “I care about this situation and want to make it right,” contempt says “You are beneath caring about.” While we should only aim to use anger on behalf of those with less power than ourselves, especially when we see the powerful abusing their authority, anger actually serves an important, corrective social purpose. On the other hand, contempt seeks to shame and exclude others, forgoing the possibility of reconciliation.
For greater unity, we should aim for a more judicious use of anger but a moratorium on contempt when it comes to the people with whom we disagree.
Your book outlines rules of engagement that promote dialogue, like getting out of our comfort zones, finding common ground with opponents, and learning to tell our stories. How have you put these guidelines into practice?
In my job as president of AEI, I put these guidelines into practice by speaking to all kinds of audiences. Far from the horror stories you occasionally see in the news, I’ve found that people I disagree with are often incredibly welcoming, ready to engage my ideas and challenge my thinking, but with kindness and respect. I would never have learned that, though, unless I’d left my comfort zone.
While working on The Pursuit, I saw that most conservatives, liberals and independents genuinely want to find ways to expand opportunity and lift up those on the margins of society. That’s a desire I think we can all tap into.
The new presidential campaign season has revitalized an old debate over the relative merits of socialism versus capitalism. What are your thoughts about this development?
Most people think that global poverty has gotten worse or at least stayed the same over the last 50 years. In fact, the exact opposite is true: Eighty percent of starvation-level poverty around the world has been eradicated since 1970. What did that? The spread of the American free-enterprise system, not socialism. I think we need to have a real debate about how robust the social safety net should be, but if we have a responsibility to attend to the needs of the “least of these,” which I strongly believe we do as Christians, we should be fighting for a system that lifts the most people out of poverty.
Did your research for Love Your Enemies give you a new respect for other Christian teachings that have shaped our political values? Can these principles, and the practices they inspire, survive as the West becomes more secularized?
What I found in the course of researching this book is that one of the reasons why even secular arguments in the West tend to be so compelling is that they can be traced back to claims that originate in the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we are going to live in a democracy that respects individual rights — indeed, if we are going to love our enemies — there has to be a sense that we are created equal, or, more explicitly, that we are each made in the image of God, worthy of love and respect. We need vibrant faith communities to defend this foundational claim, and so the declines in regular church attendance remain concerning. But there is a staying power to our society’s principles and practices because, whether acknowledged or not, they can’t quite escape their religious origins.