Prepare for this Political Year: Read Arthur Brooks’ Love Your Enemies

I don’t know about you, but I’ve begun to dread election years.

I used to love them. My parents watched the conventions of both major political parties and every presidential debate and they invited my brothers and me to join them in the living room to take it all in. Mom and Dad were clear on their own favorites but gave everyone a hearing, pointing out to their children which opponents were the most fair-minded or winsome and explaining why specific contenders had won them over.

I still watch both conventions and every debate I can, but today things are so contentious in America that it’s rare to find someone safe enough to chance a conversation when your views differ. Better to say nothing than risk dismissal or worse by someone you respect and whose ideas differ from yours.

But Arthur Brooks, a social scientist whose impressive resume includes his roles as Washington Post columnist, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and president emeritus of the American Enterprise Institute, has given me hope by charting a path out of our new normal of venom and vitriol.

We don’t need to argue less, but argue better, Brooks contends, and in Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt he shows us how.

This little book contains hopeful stories from across the political spectrum and it’s supported by enough data, wisdom and concrete steps to revive the flagging spirits of Americans who want us to do better. Brooks can make you believe that countering what he calls “the culture of contempt” is possible, one daring friendship at a time.

We must act now, because our national situation is critical: Brooks cites a Reuters/Ipsos pol which found that one in six Americans stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election.

Can we afford to multiply this statistic in 2020? Or, as the title of the book’s introduction asks, “Are You Sick of Fighting Yet?”

If you are, I urge you to prioritize Love Your Enemies on your 2020 reading list and then share its message with everyone you know.

Can America be saved from the culture of contempt? Brooks offers a powerful story as introductory evidence. It’s about an unexpected turn toward brotherhood that happened when Hawk Newsome, a Black Lives Matter community organizer who had come to Washington D.C.’s National Mall to take on a rally of Trump supporters, was given the platform and decided to find common ground rather than confront. The outcome is beautiful, and you can see it here:

Love Your Enemies is rich with such stories of possibility but it’s much more. Arthur Brooks holds us accountable for our role in the current climate and asks each of us to examine our beliefs about and our interactions with those who hold opposing views to our own.

A social scientist who loves to examine data, Brooks applies John Gottman’s research with married couples to our interactions with those with whom we disagree. After observing couples for one hour, Gottman can predict with 94 percent accuracy whether they will divorce–and it’s not anger he’s looking for, but evidence of contempt.

Anger means we’re still engaged and want things to change. Contempt communicates worthlessness, and it destroys relationships wherever it is allowed.

Contempt is impractical and bad for a country dependent on people working together in politics, communities, and the economy. Unless we hope to become a one-party state, we cannot afford contempt for our fellow Americans who simply disagree with us.

So Brooks takes on “elite opinion makers on both the right and left” who “increasingly describe our political disagreements as an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil comparing the other side to animals and using the metaphors of terrorism.”

Any shows, websites or Twitter feeds in your life fit the bill?

Like meth, inflammatory rhetoric is very profitable for those who produce it.

Why? Like meth, anger’s adrenaline is highly addictive, pulling you back to its source even when you loathe yourself for going there.

Tune anger’s purveyors out, Brooks advises. Break your addiction. Instead, seek a variety of informative news sources. Go for balance and reasoned argument and shut the dealers down.

Social media has compounded our problem by allowing us to curate our feeds to filter out the other side, and the same advice applies. Open your feed to varied voices of reason and cut back on social media in general, he suggests.

The concern comes down this: “Contempt is driving us apart and making us miserable. It is holding us hostage. What exactly do we want instead?”

Arthur Brooks thinks mere civility isn’t enough. He’s daring us to love our enemies.

You might recognize the title of this book as the words of Christ, whose subversive gospel continues to challenge the ways of this world:

You have heard it said, love your friends and hate your enemies. I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who despitefully use you.

People who practice this way of life can be found around the globe and across the poltical divide. The Dalai Lama, exiled by the Chinese government since 1959, begins each day by praying for China’s leaders. When Brooks asked him, “What do I do when I feel contempt?” the Dalai Lama replied, “Practice warm-heartedness.”

Practice warm-heartedness toward the enemy who drove you out and left you in exile? Yes. Take responsibility for yourself and learn to love your enemies.

“On reflection,” writes Brooks, “I realized that”:

I am the angry one, the ill-tempered one, the miser, and the liar. My job is to conquer me. My tool for doing so is to show warm-heartedness to others, especially when they are not showing it to me.

My job is to conquer me. If we take this approach in every contentious conversation of the new year, friendships will be renewed. Ideas will be safe to explore, and freedom of expression will be more than an ideal.

Love Your Enemies is short and very readable. Its data points are supported with stories (possibly the best method of communication ever), and every takeaway would make a great New Year’s resolution. Each one is a point on the map toward a happy, courageous life and the possibility of healing the culture of contempt. Among my favorites:

  • Refuse to be played by powerful, manipulative leaders in media and in office.
  • Form friendships outside your comfort zone.
  • Disagree better. Silence isn’t what’s needed; rather we can strive to “be part of a healthy competition of ideas.”
  • When someone on your side belittles an opponent, defend the opponent. Most likely you have family members on the other side. So treat all opponents as you want your loved ones to be treated and defend their dignity.
  • Listen more and talk less. (Painful for us wordy folks, but a goal I’m pursuing despite my many fails.)
  • Search for common ground. (You can’t find it unless you listen.)
  • Write your own story in 12 words or less. Use it to understand yourself, and share it so others understand you.

And my favorite:

Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect even when it’s difficult.

Let’s admit the ways we’ve failed and arm ourselves with love this year.

In the end, only love remains.

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Related posts (more on the Culture & Civility tab above):

Arthur Brooks is practicing what he preaches on his podcast, The Arthur Brooks Show. Season 2 is dedicated to the subject of loving enemies. His wide range of guests and diverse conversations on everything from nationalism to what we mean when we say we love God is the perfect model for having conversations across the spectrum of ideas in the new year. Highly recommended!

Also: Brooks produced three short, animated videos based on his book’s ideas, and you can watch them on Amazon Prime Video.They would be great for use in high school and college classrooms and for sharing with anyone you know who wants to join you in saving America from the culture of contempt. Check out his TED talk, A Conservative’s Plea: Let’s Work Together, and his documentary The Pursuit, now on Netflix.

Question: what news sources have you found that nix apocalyptic outrage and go for information and exploration of ideas without mocking, eyerolling and belittling the oppostion? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy New Year!

Photos by Heather Mount, Viktor Talashuk and Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash.

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