SALT LAKE CITY — The bitter divisions that exist in America aren't caused by anger, but by contempt — and they can't be solved by civility and tolerance, says Arthur C. Brooks, president of an influential Washington, D.C., think tank.
To escape the vitriol online and in the public square, he says, Americans must embrace a radical command given by Jesus that is also the title of his new book: "Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt."
In the book, released March 12, Brooks explains how the most difficult of commandments is also the simplest, and how love, "clear and bracing," can disarm the angriest of critics and forge lasting relationships.
Brooks, 54, is a Catholic and father of three who has headed up the American Enterprise Institute in Washington for a decade. Using prescriptions from social science and economics, as well as the wisdom of philosophers and religious leaders, he tackles hard questions such as "How can I engage with, let alone love, someone whom I believe to be immoral?"
Brooks advocates love that flows from actions, not a fleeting sentimental feeling, and he believes that Americans should develop deep and loving relationships with people who are much different from them. To do that, we need to "use our values as a gift, not a weapon," he writes.
This doesn't mean that we should ignore our differences or stop disagreeing with each other. In fact, Brooks, who will receive an honorary doctorate at Brigham Young University April 25, believes that disagreement and competition are important. Done right, disagreement — in the public square or in a marriage — can strengthen both individuals and institutions.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Brooks explained how love can conquer contempt, why fear is at the root of the college admissions scandal and what happened to the BYU briefcase that he says made him a better person.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: Tell us how you chose the title of the book, "Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt."
Arthur Brooks: Well, the title of the book, of course, comes from Matthew 5:44, and also from the Gospel of Luke. I chose it precisely because we’re talking about our enemies all the time in America; we’re not talking about people with whom we disagree.
So I said, OK, fine, if you want to talk about enemies in America, then let’s subvert that in the most radical way we possibly could, according to a tradition that not everybody follows but everybody understands. Let’s go to the most radical thinker we know.
And by the way, the Lord Buddha said the same thing. … Fight the miser with generosity, fight the evil man with goodness — basically, love your enemy. It's not your enemy you're trying to destroy; you're trying to destroy the illusion that someone was your enemy in the first place. And at the very least, you change your own heart.
DN: What are the origins of what you call the culture of contempt? How did we get here?
AB: There’s always a tendency in the American discourse, and in any discourse between people, to be tribal. But when you have a financial crisis, which happens about two times a century — it’s very different from an ordinary recession — the macroeconomic effect is that about 80 percent of the income distribution is denied the fruits of economic growth for a decade or more. And that is the breeding ground for political populism.
There’s very interesting research on this by economists at the University of Berlin, who have data on 800 elections in 20 democracies over 100 years. They show that financial crises are the causal factor in a 30 percent increase in the popularity of populist politicians and parties. It shows what we have today in the Democratic and Republican parties, by the numbers.
A lot of people really like President Trump and a lot of things he does, so I’m not casting aspersions. But the problem with populism is that the rhetoric of populism is always, ‘Somebody’s got your stuff, and I’m going to get it back.’ Who’s that somebody? It’s an immigrant, it’s a foreigner, it’s a banker, it’s a rich person. And what that does is it foments envy.
DN: You write that disagreement is healthy, even in marriage; in fact, disagreement can strengthen a marriage that is founded on the “perfect friendship” that Aristotle described as having a “shared sense of what is virtuous and true.” How have you and your wife made your marriage work for 28 years?
AB: You do it by expressing the love that your marriage needs, no matter what you feel, every day.
Stephen Covey (author of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”) was helpful to me when I read his famous book. One of the things I found was, you are the master of yourself. There’s time that you can put between a stimulus and response. If you decide to show love, you will feel love.
The greatest secret to being married, staying married and enjoying being married — which should be the greatest pleasure of your life — has to be what you choose to say and what you choose to do and what you choose to show, in every moment, including the moments when you're least likely to show love.
DN: You make a number of recommendations in the book about how to deal with social media. One is to shun anonymity. What’s wrong with being anonymous online?
AB: Anonymity is, in my view, inconsistent with fully human behavior. We have basically chosen to dehumanize ourselves, to say I am not an individual. Psychologists call it deindividuation. If you dehumanize yourself on purpose, you tend to dehumanize other people.
And most people are anonymous so they can do things they shouldn’t do. Nobody wears a name tag while walking into an adult bookstore.
One of the things I recommend is that each of us make a commitment never to be anonymous. If you’re going to say something, take responsibility for it. And never interact with anyone who is anonymous. Love is reserved for humans, and somebody who has taken away their own humanity cannot be in a loving relationship.
DN: Do the themes of your book help to explain the roots of the recent college admissions scandal?
AB: St. John the Apostle said that love drives out fear. What he's saying is the same thing that philosophers and psychologists and all major religions have taught: that fear is the ultimate negative emotion. It is the true opposite of love. As such, fear drives us to do all of the things that love can cure.
Whenever you see a scandal like this, it’s always fear-based. Pride comes from fear, and fear comes from pride. Pride is the greatest of the deadly sins, and it’s because it’s a fear-based sin. The reason pride is at the bottom of Mount Purgatory is because it can’t co-exist with love.
The answer is not brow-beating ourselves, but one thing St. Augustine said: If you don’t have time to read anything in the gospels, if you don’t have time to read the Bible at all, “Love, and then do what you want.” It’s phenomenal, right?
DN: Two years ago, author Rod Dreher argued in “The Benedict Option” that Christians should, in a way, sequester themselves away from an increasingly hostile world. You seem to make a case for something much different, for people to forge relationships with people much different from them.
AB: When I talk to young people, I recommend that they marry people who share their faith. That just makes family life easier.
But you can’t witness to other people when you’re behind the barrier. The Latter-day Saints have a two-year mission — the ultimate non-Benedict option. And in so doing, they shore up their own faith and they do good and they love. But you have to get out of the box for that; you have to get out in the world for that. I really believe that we should share our love far and wide. To me, that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ.
DN: In the book, you tell the story of how Brigham Young University gave you a nice briefcase with BYU emblazoned on it. When you carried it, you realized that you started behaving like you thought a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would; in effect, it made you more friendly and more helpful, and you even stopped drinking coffee when you had it with you. Do you still carry that briefcase?
AB: No, I wore it out. But ever since I told that story the first time, which was at a forum at BYU, about once every 18 months, somebody sends me a new BYU briefcase.
DN: One thing that you recommend is that people share their stories, and you recommend condensing your life's story and purpose into 12 words. Yours is “A lucky man, dedicated to lifting others up and bringing them together.” Why is this so important?
AB: That was one of my greatest epiphanies. I was a professional musician for many years, and my favorite composer is (Johann Sebastian) Bach, the greatest composer who ever lived. He also had 20 kids. He was a pretty prolific composer in many ways.
Bach was asked why he wrote music, and he said, "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God." And I thought, that’s more than 12 words, but not by much. My 12-word answer is my version of Bach today. It’s really super empowering to do it.
DN: For people who haven’t yet read your book, what do you most want them to know, and what do you most want them to do?24 comments on this story
AB: I want them to know something that virtually every (member of The Church of Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ) knows. Which is that where you find hatred, therein lies your opportunity for greater happiness and love. When you see contempt, what you really find is an opportunity for you to answer the way you want, the way God tells you to answer, and the way your heart tells you to answer. You’ll become happier, you’ll have a fighting chance of persuading someone, and you’ll be helping to save America.