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Arthur Brooks Considers The Promise—And Peril—Of Loving Your Enemies


Every American concerned about our modern polarized moment would profit from an open-minded and critical reading of Arthur Brook’s latest book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt. Not everyone will agree with every problem, solution, reason, and view Brooks posits in his book—I didn’t—but everyone should take up Brooks’ challenge for Americans to “find common ground where it genuinely exists, improve our own arguments, and win over persuadable Americans by answering hostility with magnanimity, understanding, good humor, and love.”

Brooks, the outgoing president of the right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute, urges us to embrace what we have in common, seek out viewpoints we oppose or find uncomfortable, embrace and encourage a free competition of ideas, shun the partisan, manufactured outrage of social media platforms, and seek out and become leaders who unite for the truth, rather than divide for votes, retweets, followers, etc. Most of all, he says, we should never, ever treat a human being with contempt. All this, without urging anyone to yield an inch on what he truly believes.

However, in Brooks’ noble effort to encourage us to “love our enemies,” he tends to overplay our unity, and underplay how deep and how real what divides us is. Our culture of contempt is not cured by realizing that we really agree on so much, but by realizing that despite how much we disagree on, we can still afford to treat every human being with dignity and respect. Even if we share no views, policies, or aims, we do share a common humanity and dignity, which, for our own good and for that of others, should inspire us to forego the common culture of contempt.

Free Speech and Viewpoint Diversity

“Competition breeds excellence,” writes Brooks. “Shutting down the competition of ideas makes it harder to achieve our common moral grounds.” If we are going to cure our culture of contempt, Brooks argues we have to allow all ideas, whether we like them or not, to be confronted in the public square. “Walling ourselves off” merely intensifies our contempt for the “other.”

Indeed, it should be those who are the most intense in their own viewpoints, who believe they are the most right, who should wish every idea to be confronted on equal footing with theirs. It’s like a sports competition, Brooks says. No matter how much you love your team, you wouldn’t rest well in the thought that your team cheated to win the championship. You would desire the objective excellence of your team to be the cause of its winning. In the same way, in the marketplace of ideas, it is those ideas that have prevailed despite competition from other ideas that carry the most weight.

“We need Republicans and Democrats to argue fiercely over the best ways to combat poverty, reduce dependency, and give more Americans the opportunity to achieve the happiness of earned success,” he writes. In other words, avoiding contempt doesn’t mean avoiding our disagreements, it means confronting others’ head-on. Then, may the best man win.

It isn’t exactly a novel idea to anyone familiar with social media that Twitter is a unique venue for allowing the worst of humanity to manifest itself. Anonymous accounts—something Brooks addresses, urging Americans to neither post anonymously, nor engage with anonymous Twitter users—allow what may otherwise be decent human beings to conceal themselves behind a screen of namelessness.

When you debate, as Brooks put it, “TrumpLover2016” and “BernieBro2020,” anonymity makes it much harder to see the humanity in each other. Without having some sense of who the person is, it’s difficult to see how they might share the same objectives as you.

Leadership and Unity

Throughout the book, Brooks never urges us to put aside our disagreements, or even deny they exist—although he does give Americans credit for being more unified than they really are (more on that later)—but urges us to both follow and become unifying leaders. In a climate that tells us to “Get in the gutter or go home,” the best leaders will avoid bullying and the contempt it creates.

“Authoritative leaders aren’t peacemakers. They aren’t conflict-averse. They just understand how to manage conflict in a way that is not destructive,” he writes. This applies to pundits, authors, politicians, and citizen leaders of all sorts. A leader confronts opposing viewpoints because while the viewpoint itself may be contemptible, that doesn’t always mean the person advocating it is similarly contemptible.

However, Brooks seems to underestimate the difficulty of the ability of even well-intentioned, capable leaders to unite us. Early on, Brooks offers this statement to describe how he thinks about politics in the first page of his book: “I like winter, you like summer; you’re a liberal, I’m a conservative.”

This doesn’t get things off to a great start. The book redeems itself elsewhere, and it’s worth recommending, but the idea that our disagreements just really aren’t that deep in the first place, that our political beliefs are insignificant, easily overlooked, even arbitrary, and that if we only stopped and took a breath, we’d see how much we really do agree on, is naively optimistic.

Brooks contends that, while we do disagree, we don’t really disagree on as much as we think we do. “Monty Python made this point hilariously in the movie Life of Brian, where the bitterest of enemies,” Brooks writes, “are two rival Jewish dissident groups: the Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judea.” If only.

Unfortunately, we do not have nearly as much in common as we used to. When the “shared objective” is so diametrically opposed, when one side’s view simply cannot exist in harmony with the other, then, “I like winter, you like summer,” isn’t an adequate analogy. With few exceptions, it is more accurately summed up as, “I like winter, you like summer; you want to end winter.”

There was a time liberals said, “You like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” while maintaining that those who like government-funded health care can also have their government-funded health care. Now, mainstream Democrat candidates such as Kamala Harris advocate that we “get rid of all that,” in reference to private health insurance. In other words, “I like private health care, you like government-run healthcare. But you want to end my private health care.”

Indeed, there are issues, most notably late-term abortion and infanticide, where the disagreement is so strong that Brook’s assessment of our divide as an unremarkable difference in preference as to the weather is simply wrong. If a pro-life American ever hopes to win his pro-choice opponent over, treating him with contempt would be inadvisable. But it would also be inadvisable to downplay the deepness of what divides them.

Stand Up for the Other Side

However, none of these differences means we have to resign ourselves to be as polarized as we are. As Brooks says, “Criticize those you disagree with without insulting them, questioning their motives, or weaponizing your values.”

Brooks encourages us to “Defend someone with whom you disagree, simply because he or she has a right to an opinion and the right to be heard. Take note that your heart will be on fire when you do it. That’s because it’s morally right, and your heart knows it.”

It’s a worthy bit of advice. Nothing convinces your opponent less than mindless insults. And nothing will open his mind to your view more than treating him without contempt.