Can We All Just Get Along

Dan Asia

Arthur Brooks has written many books, most of them with an academic provenance. He was in the employ of Syracuse University for many years as an economist, is most recently the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and will leave that position this summer to join the Harvard Kennedy School as professor of practice of public leadership. Brooks will also serve as a senior fellow at Harvard Business School. Yet Dr. Brooks is also a former professional musician having performed in a major brass quintet and with the City Orchestra of Barcelona. He was a French horn player, which even when played at its best, is a notoriously fickle instrument, and thus he has earned his humble and approachable character honestly.

Brooks is an economic conservative and a devout Catholic, but nonetheless he presents himself as just a little bit impish; he likes to wear very bright socks against his downtown black pants, shirt, and jacket. He is gregarious, counsels soon-to-be-married couples, meditates, and works out a lot. In short, Brooks is an astute academic who can also speak to and write for the average Joe.

His most recent book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt, is somewhere between a self-help book—for individuals as well as the country—and a how-to book on being a mensch, the Yiddish word for someone who acts with integrity. This shouldn’t be surprising as Brooks grew up Jewish in the then laid-back city of Seattle.

The book’s primary concern is our current “culture of contempt,” which he describes as something akin to, but far worse than, hate. Hate at least recognizes the humanity of the other who is being hated. Contempt suggests that the individual or group is hardly human, not worthy of attention, completely dehumanized, beyond the pale. At its worst, contempt leads to the Holocaust, the mass killing of the Tutsies by the Hutus in the Rwandan genocide, or the elimination through mass starvation of the kulaks by Stalin. In conversation, debate, or intense discussion, it makes communication impossible:

Across the political spectrum, people in positions of power and influence are setting us against one another. They tell us our neighbors who disagree with us politically are ruining our country. That ideological differences aren’t a matter of differing opinions but reflect moral turpitude. That our side must utterly vanquish the other, even if it leaves our neighbor without a voice.

In the very moment in which America most needs to come together as a nation—in the early decades of what, for the good of the world, should be a new American century—we are being torn apart, thoughtlessly and needlessly. We are living in a culture of contempt.

Brooks is concerned that mass communication and social media drive the ascendance of contempt, its very anonymity and herd mentality making it more prevalent. Unlike most self-help books, Brooks backs up his arguments with data gathered from social science. We know from the data that anonymity allows for and produces more extreme behavior than when one knows the identity of individual participants in discourse. We know also that people’s behavior is worse when part of a crowd. So that which we experience anecdotally, Brooks is careful to detail, is empirically true as well.

Why is contempt a bad way of functioning in the world? Brooks demonstrates that conversations in which one party treats the other with contempt rarely changes that other person’s position or state of mind. In fact, Brooks cites studies indicating that most of us are hard wired to be liberal or conservative, and rarely are people’s views changed by evidence that might suggest their position is wrong or not effective in achieving their goals. Contempt is also bad for the person who is contemptuous, as it makes them morally corrupt and generally unhappy.

One might say that Brooks is arguing for the Buberian idea of always treating someone with whom you are interacting, no matter how much you disagree, as a Thou and not an It. Therefore, it is his contention that we must first engage with each other’s stories and in so doing find that we have more in common than we suspect. There must be an inherent understanding that we—all of us—are seeking the Truth, and none of us possesses it in its entirety. He takes the approach of open and vibrant discussion and the resultant majority and minority positions, knowing that the status of those positions—as well as one's view of them--can change. The best of motives should be assumed on both sides of an argument.

For example, those who argue for gun control as a moral imperative want children not to be assaulted in their schools. Those who believe in the primacy of the Second Amendment want children to be safe as well, but recognize the value of self-defense as outlined in that amendment. In other words, no one wants dead kids—God forbid!—but in matters relating to guns there are in fact competing values that come to bear on the problem.

Brooks takes special note of the situation in the academy and is concerned with the breakdown of civility on campus generally, and with shutting down unpopular ideas specifically. His argument for niceness and gratitude as qualities that should be sought after perhaps fits best here. Students coddled on campuses with wonderful dorms, superb food, and four years of time to learn, might take this to heart rather than assuming universities are citadels of white male power, bastions of rape culture, and marked by unequal treatment of minorities and women. He mentions that we all need to get out of our usual demographic environment and interact with those who are different from us in background and thought. This is inherently difficult in academic settings where there are so few professors or administrators who are not part of the prevailing intellectual groupthink. He takes great pains to stress that the overriding liberal bias would be just as bad if it were instead an overwhelming conservative bias.

In the chapter “Is Competition our Problem?” Brooks gives the example of sports to help understand and appreciate the importance of competition in economics and politics. A few conclusions from the sports world are:

Competition breeds excellence . . . It requires rules . . . Mutual recognition of the rules and compliance with them is a needed form of cooperation . . . this results in unifying people through an admiration for athletic excellence, voluntary agreement on the rules, and the shared experience of watching the game.

Competition is also better if there are many strong parties competing; it makes the competitors work harder and perform better. Brooks explains that the same principles can be applied to free enterprise. Competition has raised living standards and insured that ordinary people can move up the economic ladder. Economic competition foments excellence. All participants have to play by the same rules.

In fact, according to Brooks, we should revel in the competition of ideas, in both the political and academic arenas. And we need them in the political and academic arenas. “We need a passionate competition of ideas so that each side refines its solutions, becomes more innovative, and therefore the best ideas rise to the top. Shutting down the competition of ideas makes it harder to achieve our common moral goods.”

Brooks realizes this is nowhere more important than in the academy. He notes that many studies have claimed that race and gender diversity increase creative thinking. But he also notes that true diversity comes in the realm of ideas and that this is sorely lacking. Ideological conformity is simply bad for getting to the truth. “The trend to shut down the competition of ideas on campus is harmful to research and instruction and is harmful to the unity of our country—because too many in the next generation of leaders are learning to despise and ostracize, rather than understand and engage, those with whom they disagree.”

There are various people that Brooks presents as exemplars of how to behave without contempt while not requiring anyone to give up his strong intellectual positions. These include the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and the relationship between Robert George, the well-known conservative political philosopher, and the left-wing Cornel West, both of whom are professors at Princeton University and who regard each other as “brothers.” I find the first two examples compelling and the last problematic. Cornel West is not an exemplar of civility, having lashed out at Harvard University President Lawrence Summers while a faculty member there as the “Ariel Sharon of higher education” and working closely with racial provocateurs Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton (West ran Sharpton’s 2004 presidential campaign). As Thomas Friedman has written, “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic . . . But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.” Dr. West, who lobbied the University of Arizona to divest from companies doing business with Israel, regularly does just that, and I find the George/West relationship troubling, though Brooks obviously does not.

Brooks concludes by giving the terms of engagement for lessening conflict in the culture war, mainly by seeing it as a competition of ideas in which we all succeed rather than aim for mutual destruction. Those terms include not listening to a person unless he is “teaching you something or expanding your worldview and moral outlook.” “Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited, and say things people don’t expect.” One of my favorites is “no eye-rolling” (I am a grimacer). The competition of ideas should also be known as “disagreement.” Maybe spend more time reading novels or listening to music than reading newspapers, watching cable news, or reading policy statements. And maybe for us in academia, just keep smiling and don’t let the jerks get you down. “Remember: You are now entering mission territory.”

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