Online Conversation | Redeeming a Culture of Contempt
with Arthur Brooks
On Friday, September 25 we had the privilege of hosting best-selling author, thought leader, and Harvard Business and Kennedy School professor Arthur Brooks who spoke on “Redeeming a Culture of Contempt.” In his book, Love Your Enemies Brooks blends cutting-edge behavioral research and ancient wisdom to offer a better way to bridge divides and mend relationships. Brooks helped us think about practical ways we can choose to love those we disagree with—to will their good and be agents of redemption and reconciliation amidst a divisive time.
The painting is The Bell for Prayer by Modest Urgell, 1876
The song is Shelter by Matthew L. Fisher
Transcript of “Redeeming a Culture of Contempt” with
Cherie Harder: If you’re new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide space and resources for leaders to grapple with the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer programs like this online conversation to do so in the hopes of gaining wisdom, but also, even more importantly, coming to better know the author of the answers. And certainly one of the questions that seems to haunt so many of us as we survey and even lament the angry and divisive nature of our public rhetoric, the vitriol that seems to characterize so much of our in person, particularly online conversations, is how did we get to this place? How did we, in the words of our guest today, increasingly come to view people who disagree with us not nearly as mistaken or incorrect, but as worthless? And how do we reweave compassion and care for others into a civic fabric corroded by contempt? Our guest today is an economist and a policy wonk, but he offers a way forward that’s not primarily either political or economic, but both spiritual and highly practical. The antidote to our current ills, he suggests, can be found in ancient New Testament teaching to love our neighbor and to even love our enemies. He borrows from the definition of love offered by St. Thomas Aquinas as willing the good of the other. Loving your enemies, he claims, does not mean capitulating to what he calls ‘mushy moderation’ but becoming, in his words, warriors for their point of view and healing for their community. It is an intriguing and deeply countercultural argument, and certainly there are few who can make it with a panache, persuasive power, passion, or the piles of data as our guest today, Arthur Brooks. Arthur is an economist who serves as a professor of leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, as well as a faculty member at the Harvard Business School after a remarkable decade of service as the president and CEO of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the world’s most influential think tanks. He is a columnist for The Atlantic, the host of the podcast The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks, the recipient of six honorary degrees, a friend of the Dalai Lama, was named Fortune magazine’s one of their fifty world’s greatest leaders, and is the subject of the 2019 documentary film, The Pursuit which Variety magazine named as one of the best documentaries currently on Netflix. He is also the author of eleven bestselling books, including his excellent and most recent work. Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from a Culture of Contempt, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. So, Arthur, welcome.
Arthur Brooks: Thank you, Cherie. Wonderful to be with you and to be with all of my friends from the Trinity Forum from all over the world. How wonderful to have such a big audience. I knew that the coronavirus epidemic was a big opportunity truly to bring people together.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. Well, we’re really glad to have you here. So I have to ask you, there’s been a lot of talk lately about how angry our politics has become. One of the things you say in your book is that it’s not actually anger that’s the problem. It’s contempt. So let’s start by just asking you, what is contempt, and what differs it from anger, and why is it so corrosive?
Arthur Brooks: So people can see a lot of anger if you tune in, if you dare, if you tune into cable television and run primetime, you’ll see people yelling at each other. And you can think of that as an angry or hostile reaction of one to the other. But that’s actually not what we’re talking about. Anger is a hot emotion, and it says, I care and I want you to do something differently. However, that fact that I care what you think, and I want you to think differently or behave differently is not something that would draw people to hate each other or to drive people apart. There’s actually a good literature on marriage that shows that anger and divorce are uncorrelated, which is fantastic. It’s good news for a lot of people who are watching. Certainly for me, I’ve been married for twenty-nine years to a Spaniard, and I can tell you the secret to my happy marriage is the lack of correlation between anger and divorce. The problem with marriages and with any hostility between people that will turn into permanent rifts is when you take a primary negative emotion of anger and you mix it with another. Now, a little bit of brain science is in order, and I promise I won’t ruin our session by talking about this too much. But, you know, the primary negative emotions are anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. These are processed in the limbic system of the brain. They’re very ancient. They were evolved more than a million years ago before the prefrontal cortex. And one of the things that we know is that we use them in reaction to different things, fear to survive basically. Sadness is completely normal. Anger, as I said, is to express the idea that I want you to do something differently. Disgust is a primary negative emotion that we use in response to a pathogen. Now, here’s the problem, where we take anger, which is normal, and we mix in disgust, we get contempt. This is a complex, negative emotion and it’s an amalgam of these two. Now, philosophers refer to contempt as that conviction of the utter worthlessness of another person. I’m angry with you, and I’m disgusted by you, and therefore, I think that you’re worthless. When you express contempt for another person and treat them as if they were a pathogen, you will have a permanent enemy. And there’s a lot of research that shows that when people are going to have implacable differences, hostile differences, even violent differences, almost always they don’t come from anger. They come from this complex phenomenon called contempt.
Cherie Harder: Wow. Well, that sort of begs the question of sort of how do we get there? Because it’s one thing to be angry with someone. It’s one thing to be afraid. But, we are at a point where many Americans ascribe essentially murderous ideologies to those with whom we disagree. Are there certain practices or habits of mind that has kind of predisposed a mass turn from anger or disagreement to disgust?
Arthur Brooks: There is. And what ordinarily happens after, and this is just as a social science matter, after financial crises, or those where there’s a lot of competition between citizen and citizen for resources, you very frequently see populism and polarization crop up in politics, which is a very fear based kind of politics. Fear based politics uses the rhetoric of contempt, uses the rhetoric of disgust for one citizen toward another, and then it becomes kind of the vehicular language of how we start to talk in our political situations. Now, there’s a very interesting body of literature that psychologists are involved in that explains hostility between groups of people, and it’s based on something called ‘motive attribution asymmetry’. And this is what we academics do. You take a fairly simple concept, and you put fancy words on it, and then you get tenure. That’s kind of what this is. So motive attribution asymmetry is very simple. Two groups of people can’t get along. This is based on a cognitive error on both sides that I am motivated by love, but you’re motivated by hatred, and so there’s nothing that we can talk about under any circumstances. That actually underlies most implacable hostility where groups simply can’t understand each other and get along. And there’s a lot of literature that shows it’s in huge supply after things like the Rwanda genocide and the Balkans crisis, certainly in the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, where both sides think they’re motivated by love but the other side by hatred. But now for the first time, we actually see this in American politics. As a matter of fact, there are three psychologists at Northwestern that have done work that show that the level of motive attribution asymmetry between Democrats and Republicans in the United States is the same level as what we see between the Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. That is actually sort of the social science of contempt. And that’s what’s creating this witch’s brew that we see in American politics today. It’s based on an error. We don’t understand each other. We don’t mix. We treat each other as pathogens. And so therefore, your neighbor can be somebody who is your implacable foe.
Cherie Harder: So is there a social science explanation or a different kind of explanation for what has so skewed our perceptions that we have moved to viewing our neighbors, our colleagues, our work colleagues, with the same kind of suspicion that would characterize a Middle Eastern blood feud?
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So the theory behind this and most of the evidence suggests that it really does come from the period after the financial crisis. So financial crises are very different than ordinary crises, economic crises, insofar as that there is no economist on the planet that can explain how to recover over the decade after a financial crisis, which typically happens every fifty years or so, where most of the gains when we’re coming back from a financial crisis, don’t accrue outside the top twenty percent of the income distribution. So the inequality of the rewards in the wake of a financial crisis, what it does is that it creates almost a perfect environment for politicians, and leaders, and media to profit on the narrative that somebody’s got your stuff, and I’m going to get it back. A fear-based narrative that sets people up to hate the other. And so that’s the political situation that we find ourselves in is very typical. You see this at different times in American history. In the late nineteen twenties, for example, the turn of the nineteenth century when there was a two parallel or sequential financial crises that led to the same kind of populism in American politics. This typically happens, but it’s been accelerated by new trends in the way that we communicate with each other. So social media, for example, is gasoline on the fire. You can create this bubble where you can talk to only people who agree with you, and you can talk about people with whom you disagree as the other as opposed to ever hearing from them. We know, in point of fact, that when people get off social media and are exposed to their neighbors with whom they disagree that their opinions soften. It’s not so hard to love your enemies when your enemy is right in front of you, and your enemy’s kid is playing with your kid, in point of fact. But if you can make sure that you’re living in a place where there’s nobody who disagrees with your politics, and you’re looking at Facebook where everybody you talk to says the other side is stupid and evil, well, that will harden you into an environment of contempt. And that’s a very combustible and dangerous situation in which we find ourselves today.
Cherie Harder: So you mentioned earlier that when we treat others with contempt, we essentially earn an enemy. But when you look at so much of our political rhetoric, it seems like the point is almost to insult as opposed to persuade. We talk about who owns whom. We talk about triggering people to essentially express domination, to humiliate, to inflict emotional distress. Why do you think we have largely abandoned the attempt to persuade each other?
Arthur Brooks: Well, part of it is that ordinarily populist politics works the same way. And it has in every country, and it has across all generations. It’s a situation in which you’re trying to get as much intensity from the true believers as you can. It’s a very different idea than trying to soften the hostiles and win the persuadable. So in any political context or for that matter, anything that we’re trying to do, any message that we’re trying to make people understand—So I’m a Christian, for example, and I know that there are four dispositions to the to the Christian gospel, there are true believers, you and me. There are hostiles, people who think we’re stupid and evil and really misguided. There are persuadables. They’re not there yet. They’re willing to listen. And then the apathetics, the lukewarm, the furthest away, right? Everybody is in one of those four baskets. Now, in the long run, if you want to win, if you want a movement that’s going to be compelling and it’s going to grow, you need to do this with your four groups. You need to challenge and improve the true believers. You need to soften the hostiles by treating them with love such that you’ll be more winsome to the persuadables. And then you have to simply try to interest the apathetics. But, that’s not what you do in a populist climate where you’re working on fear. One side note about fear. Fear is the ultimate negative emotion. Fear is the opposite of love. Love is what we do when we’re trying to bring people into the faith, for example. But it’s also what we’re trying to do when we’re persuading people of something good and better than the status quo. That’s a love-based approach. The opposite of that, the orthogonal approach to that is one of fear. If you’re not working on the plane of love, you’re working on the plane of fear. And that’s what this polarization is actually doing. So instead of trying to challenge and improve the true believers, you fire them up by saying, you’re right. Instead of trying to reach out in love to the hostiles to soften them, you throw grenades at them. Instead of actually trying to win the persuadables by showing them how you treat your enemies with love, you simply just scratch your head and say, well, I hope they come along. If they don’t, they’re idiots. And then you have no idea what to do about the apathetic. Well, it can actually be profitable in the short term. You can lock down your base in the short term, but that’s the worst possible approach if you want to build a movement that endures and stands the test of time.
Cherie Harder: Things I thought were quite interesting about reading your book, as you point out, the dangers of thinking of our neighbor as either evil and stupid, as opposed to simply misguided. But crowds, you point out, actually have both a lower cognitive and moral threshold than individuals. So in some ways, crowds, and of course the Internet is the ultimate crowd, is more predisposed to act in either an evil or stupid way than any individual. If anything, we have become a society far more reliant on social media. What do you think the prospects are that we will become more loving and compassionate?
Arthur Brooks: I think the prospects are good, and I’m not just a Pollyanna. I’m not just an optimist. I’m looking at the historical precedent. We tend to go rail to rail between love and fear and our politics in this country. That does not mean that when somebody is a love-based politician that that person is not ever going to act on fear, or there never will be any fear. But there’s one predominant language that we’ll actually see in American politics or for that matter, any social movement. What gives me hope is that people don’t like fear-based politics. They may engage in it. I mean, look, if you have a choice between two bullies, you’ll not really like either bully, but you’re going to go with your bully because you want to be protected from the other bully. And that’s a fear-based environment right now. And I look at the data on how people think about American politics. Ninety-three percent, literally, ninety-three percent of Americans say they hate how divided we have become. And I see similar numbers in other countries. A lot of people are watching us today are from other places. I see very similar numbers coming out of the UK, coming out of France, coming out of Spain, for example. They hate how divided we’ve become, but they don’t know what to do. Well, there’s an old saying in public policy that things that can’t persist forever won’t. And so, this is a market opportunity when people—ninety-three percent of Americans hate it. They don’t know how to break out of this paradigm. We will actually see politicians, we will see leaders, we will see social movements that crop up on the basis of trying to do something better. How long will it take? We don’t know. Ordinarily, as an empirical matter, it takes between ten and twenty years after a financial crisis. In other words, here’s the good news: we’re due. So, how does it happen? And the answer is with all of us, with each one of us. You know, none of us, there’s nobody tuning in to the Trinity Forum to listen to Cherie and Arthur talk about reconciliation, and love, and loving your enemy and saying, “Yeah, I hate all that stuff. That stuff’s stupid.” We’re a sympathetic community to these ideas, right? So what can we do? And the answer is we model the behavior, we demand the behavior, we refuse to reward the behavior that we abhor, which is to say, hating our enemies, and in so doing, we will be happier. We’ll make other people happier. We have the prospect of at least being the beginning of some sort of a movement because each one of us is blessed with leadership responsibilities at least, or some leadership. Everybody has some leadership, and people will want more of that. People will want more of the love that we show. Remember Tertullian in the fourth century, this early Christian, he talked about the amazing effect that the early Christians were having on their environment and on the Romans around them. And he said that the Romans, they’ll take the Christians, and put them in the Colosseum, and feed them to the lions, and do these horrible things to them. But, they’re just amazed at how much they love each other and even love their enemies, and he said that people were coming across to their religion, the religion of the persecuted because of the power, the example of love. We can still do that. We are the early church. We will always be the early church but only if we remember that love must radiate from us because it is our ultimately—it is our only apostolate.
Cherie Harder: So, Arthur, I can imagine there are people listening and thinking, “Oh, that sounds great, but let’s look at reality.” People say they want more harmony, more grace. Who do they actually vote for? You gave a story in your own book about your fellow symphony members who all kind of complained about the dictatorial conductor but said, “Ah, but he was needed.” And even though we look at some of the most gracious, forgiving, forbearing leaders in history who nevertheless exercised decisive leadership, whether it’s Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela, or Václav Havel, they all were either victims or at least had assassination attempts on them. So, what is the disconnect between what we think we want and then what we actually do?
Arthur Brooks: Well, the problem that we have is that we have a concept of what we want morally and to that which we’re called and then the actual choices in the market. We just don’t have the market choices that we would really like. And I understand that. I mean, basically you’ve got Toyotas and Buicks, and I don’t want to Toyota. I want an Alfa Romeo, but there’s Toyotas and Buicks. So, you’ve got to choose the Toyota or the Buick. And so, you get something that’s actually closest to you under the circumstances. I get it, and there are these exigencies that we face politically. Now, personally, my view is that if there’s nobody on offer that’s close enough to my morals, I don’t vote for either. I sit out a lot, but not everybody agrees with me, and not everybody on this call agrees with me. I’m making a slightly different argument, which is you may not like Toyotas or Buicks, and maybe these are your only choices in the near term. Work for better choices in the long term because the longer you stay with the status quo year after year after year, the longer the horizon such that you never have better choices. Look, we’re playing the long game here. We’re playing the long game as decent people, as people with families, as Americans. A lot of us, maybe most of us on this call, we’re Christians. That’s the ultimate long game is Christianity, and that means we have to think more about not just the current election, but what we want to be seeing in five, and ten, and twenty years. What’s the country we want to build for our kids? Does this live up to our moral standards or doesn’t it? We have to say these things openly, and then model that behavior by making a commitment, making a solid commitment never to show contempt for our fellow Americans, never to show a lack of love for people just because we disagree with them. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, but to not be part of the outrage, industrial complex that is tearing the country apart because it’s frankly unchristian.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to audience questions in a few minutes. But before we do, I want to talk with you more about love. One of the points you make in your book, which is quite a fascinating one and an encouraging one too, is that disagreement can actually strengthen a relationship, and in fact, it can improve the community. And you gave the example not only of you and your wife, but also a sort of ideological odd couple who will be familiar to many of our viewers, that of Robbie George and Cornel West, who on several occasions—How is it that disagreement, even conflict, can increase one’s bonds and love?
Arthur Brooks: You know, in the proverbs, we learn that iron sharpens iron, right? But that’s not true if the iron never touches. For iron to sharpen iron, there has to be conflict. There has to be contact between these hard surfaces. One of the greatest things that we learned that the Enlightenment has brought to Western society, and to society in general not [just] Western society, is that there really are three ways to adjudicate conflict. So, there’s always people who are in conflict. There’s always people who are in disagreement. This is the nature of being alive with other human beings or this the nature of being alive, and you can probably see two earthworms fighting over a piece of dirt. I mean, it’s just life is about conflict. The Enlightenment fundamentally changed much of the way that we understand conflict, how? Well, there are basically three ways to adjudicate conflict. There’s coercion, you know, power versus power, and we still see a ton of that today. And societies that are permanently at war or for that matter, sort of the Marxist ideology that says that everything comes down to power is two sides fighting each other for power. There’s power, there’s negotiation, agree to disagree, and get the best that you can, and go your separate ways. And then there’s persuasion. Now persuasion does not require that we come to terms on something but rather that we try to persuade each other, and the Enlightenment, the fundamental insight that came, that defined the best that we can see in democracy and capitalism that comes from the Enlightenment is the idea that that we don’t agree, but we’re going to try to convince each other and do so peacefully because I can’t persuade you if I’m coercing you. That’s so powerful. That’s so incredible, as a matter of fact, that we’re trying to persuade each other all the time. And to be persuasive, you also have to be persuadable. That has led to a tremendous amount of reconciliation between otherwise conflicted groups that made it possible for us to freely exchange goods and services, to have peaceful transfers of power between regimes that disagree with each other but are selected through democratic processes. That’s a persuasion culture. That’s why it’s really, really important, not that we agree on everything. Look, I can get agreement on everything by simply pointing a gun at somebody. Do we agree you should give me your wallet or not? Yeah, we agree. Fantastic. That’s coercion. Or, I can basically simply say let’s negotiate on everything and then not coexist. But the highest standard of the Enlightenment and in point of fact, of civilization is that in which we try to persuade each other, and we’re confident that even if we don’t agree, we can continue to coexist, that we can continue to live together, indeed, that we can continue to love one another. That’s a beautiful thing.
Cherie Harder: I’ll end before we turn over to audience questions, sort of as we began talking about love, what it is, what it looks like, and how it’s tested. In your book, you borrow a definition from St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as from Michael Novak, the late, great AEI scholar, among many other things, and philosopher. But, what does it mean to will the good of the other? And in your own life, you go all the time to fairly hostile audiences and try to persuade them. You work with people with whom you disagree on all sorts of things. You work with people that maybe you might consider obnoxious from time to time. When the rubber meets the road, what does it mean to live one’s life willing the good of the other and loving those with whom you disagree?
Arthur Brooks: On Monday, I’m giving a talk to the assembled priests of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and I’m doing it because I very much have respect for the Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gómez and Bishop Robert Barron, one of his auxiliary bishops who’s an old friend of mine. And I’m going to be talking to them about— the title of my talk is “The Most Important Thing in Life”. And the most important thing in life it turns out for those of us who are Christians is pretty easy. God is love. So therefore, love is the most important thing in life. But what is it? The problem that we have in modern life is defining it as a sentiment, as a feeling, right? So how do I know I’m in love with my wife? Because I feel love for my wife. Wrong! Love is not a sentiment. Love is not a feeling. Love is an act, and love is a commitment. That is as old as the hills. Now, one of the problems that we have in the English language, of course, is that love is just one word. It’s six words in Greek, and we understand it when we break it down, we think about eros between man and wife. We talk about that philia between friends and agape which is the refracted divine love of God as instantiated in each of our lives. And there’s so many aspects to this thing, but all of them come down in the biblical understanding and the philosophical understanding from Aristotle, to Jesus Christ, to St. Thomas Aquinas, to what we should be seeing today is as the commitment to will the good of another. That’s it, notwithstanding your feelings. And that’s why Dr. Martin Luther King said—he has a very famous address. Everybody should go watch it or listen to it because it’s an audio recording. You can also read it from November 17, 1957 of the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he gave a sermon on Matthew 5:44. Love your enemies. It’s very interesting—He said, Jesus doesn’t teach us to like our enemies. Like is a sentimental something. And he said, There are lots of people I don’t like because they’re mean to me, and they’re terrible to me. They say terrible things to me, and they want to hurt me. I don’t like them, but I’m called to love them because only then can I redeem my enemy is when I love my enemy. And to love my enemy is to will his good. Forget how I feel. That’s the life part. That’s the sentimental part. That’s the that depends on what you’re digesting and what your brain chemistry is doing. But, I can love my enemy because it’s my choice. Now, I need help. I pray every day, “Lord, give me the strength to move beyond my feelings, to move toward the act, the commitment that you want me to have.” But, that’s the divinity in us and each one of us, and I am so grateful to have finally come to understand St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of that, which is the classical definition, is what my master meant, and what Martin Luther King meant, and what Aristotle meant. And I think that’s what we need to remember. It’s a commitment and an act, not a feeling.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Arthur. So, we have a ton of questions that have come in. And just as a reminder, you can not only ask a question, but you can also like a question. And when you have liked the question, it gives us a better sense of what questions might be most popular for our speaker. Our first question comes from John Coleman from Atlanta. And John asks, “Practically speaking, who are the leaders behaving like this right now and succeeding? I can’t think of one political leader. This is a genuine question.”
Arthur Brooks: No, I appreciate that, John, and I hear the pain in your question, despite the fact that you posted virtually. There’s sort of good news and bad news. And we’re all focused on the bad news which comes from the fact that we’re inordinately paying attention to federal politics. Federal politics is the national reality show of our day and age. I mean, we even elevate reality show actors to politics at the national sphere, right? I mean, this is how entertainment and politics have merged in the United States today. I’m not making any editorial comment about any politician. It’s just a sort of statement of fact, but here’s the good news. What we’re paying less attention to is where more progress is being made. I talk to mayors. I talk to county commissioners. I talk to governors all the time, and they’re off the radar, but they’re trying to work together with different parties. They’re not popular all the time. They’re not making the right decision all the time, and sometimes they don’t act out of love all the time. But look, I live in Massachusetts. You know, Massachusetts is arguably the bluest state in America. We have a Republican governor, and he’s literally the most popular governor in America, Charlie Baker. Is he perfect? No, but he’s a good governor. And his point is he’s actually trying to represent the citizens of Massachusetts across party lines. He’s modeling many of the things that we’re talking about here. He wants everybody to prosper, to make progress, to be comfortable, and to be happy to the extent that he can create that environment in Massachusetts. And I know lots who are doing that, who are Republicans, who are Democrats, who are mayors, who are governors. They’re just not on CNN every single day saying outrageous things. They’re not lobbing the bombs. They’re not saying the hateful, vitriolic things about their fellow citizens in the way that tends to make us think is typical of the entire political structure because it’s not.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Sarah George, and Sarah asks “David Brooks wrote a piece for the dispatch this week on the geographic and ideological siloing tape taking place in America. In love your enemies, you’ve mentioned the geographic and cultural blendedness of your own family. And in the pursuit, it’s clear you’ve had exposure to a vast array of people and experiences through travel. For those of us who have very homogeneous families or unable to travel the globe currently, how would you recommend we make friends and cultivate relationships with people in communities that are different or distant?
Arthur Brooks: Thank you for that. I appreciate that, and I really appreciate the fact that our correspondent here has actually read my book and seen my movie. That’s really flattering, and I appreciate it a lot. All of us in the United States can embrace more diversity. Now, it’s not comfortable. I mean, the silo is where you get your bonding social capital. I have a colleague here at Harvard, Robert Putnam, who wrote that famous book, Bowling Alone. And in Bowling Alone, he talks about this bonding social capital where we find identifiers, identity markers that we have in common and make us comfortable. And so, we hang out with people who are like us, but that’s not the only kind of social capital. It’s not the morally elevated kind of social capital either. The best kind of social capital, morally, especially from a Christian point of view, is bridging social capital or a common story of the divinity inside each one of us as people made in God’s image. That common story makes us bridge the demographic differences that we have in ideology, in race, in gender, in sexual orientation, and you name it, that we’re basically all brothers and sisters. We’re the same. We’re all daughters and sons of God, or whatever a common story you want to tell. That’s what can really bring us together. Okay, all of us can find more diversity so that we can exercise more bridging social capital. We just have to work at it. We just have to go places that we’re typically a little bit less comfortable. There’s every community in America has some diversity in it, but we got to make an effort to get outside of our silos. And I’m telling you, it is so worthwhile, and it is so enriching, and it is so fun, and so good. It’s great. It’s an adventure, actually, to get out of your silo and think of it like how much you crave getting out of the house during the coronavirus lockdown’s. Well, if you’re not getting out of your silos, you’ve been in this constant ideological coronavirus lockdown maybe for years. Open the curtains! Open the doors! Get out! Oh, it’s so good out there. And every single one of us can find a way to do that.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Bob Fryling. And he asks, “How much are political leaders responsible for the culture of contempt and how much can they change that culture or are they merely reflecting the broader culture?”
Arthur Brooks: You know, Bob, great question, and I thought about this a lot. So, we talk about leadership. I’m actually a professor of leadership at Harvard. Here’s why I’m jaundiced about the concept of leadership, as we typically understand it. In democracy and capitalism, which are the political and economic instantiations of the Enlightenment, we don’t really have very many leaders. We have followers. We have followers who see public demand. You don’t see very many companies that say, I’m going to do something that nobody wants. No. They say I’m going to figure out what people want and I’m going to provide it, which is to say there’s a parade going down the street. I got to go jump in front of it. That’s followership, not leadership. And I’m glad that that’s actually how things work. But that also means in democracy, there are very few authentic leaders that start parades. Generally speaking, they ascertain some energy, good or bad, that exists in communities. And they say, I’m going to lead that. Now, one of the things that more visionary leaders do is they find a kind of a latent parade, a parade that could exist, and they look for one that’s to the good. So where do you find leaders? These are the people in communities, generally speaking, these are the people we call “social entrepreneurs” that are seeing the good inside each person, and they try to bring it out. And so that’s kind of the social or cultural iPhone developers. You’ve never heard of this thing, but once you see it, you’re really, really going to love it because in your heart, you know you want this. That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King did. That’s what Gandhi did. That’s what Nelson Mandela did. That’s what these super visionary leaders for good that inflected their societies have done. And that’s what we need more of today. People who are willing to take a risk because I think there’s a demand curve underlying all this stuff here. To answer the question more directly, the politicians that we see, populists are always followers. Populists are not leaders. Now, I’m not casting aspersions. You might like your favorite populist, but that person is actually not a leader. That person is simply giving power to the voice of the people, saying whatever the people say is right. That’s the ultimate definition of followership, not leadership.
Cherie Harder: So we have a question from Gif Thornton that really refers to the fate of some of the social entrepreneurs you mentioned and he said, “We extol Lincoln and King as models of leadership, but both were assassinated. What do you make of that?”
Arthur Brooks: It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to be a social entrepreneur in that way. I mean, there are all kinds of ways that it’s not dangerous to be a social entrepreneur. I mean, you can start an arts program in a marginalized neighborhood or clean up a park and be a social entrepreneur. You’re very unlikely to be assassinated because the stakes are lower. But in politics, if you’re a social entrepreneur, and you’re going against the populist norms that you’re talking about, bringing love and reconciliation and peace, where there is violence and where there’s a negative energy, you’re taking a risk. But, you know, look, that’s the kind of risk that should bring all of us energy and joy. I mean, for what were we born? I mean, seriously. I mean, especially those of us who are who are professed Christians. You think back to what it meant to be a Christian in Antioch in the first century where there’s going to be a–you know, a knock in the night is coming. So why are you a Christian? Because part of the part of the deal of welcoming God’s grace into your life, to the truth and light that actually should be made manifest in your life, is taking the risk, is understanding that you don’t know the way that this thing is going to go. But we’ve become so coddled. We’ve become so used to feeling secure that there will be no risk, not only no risk about violence, no risk of insult, no risk of injury, no risk of repudiation, no risk of rejection. Well, that’s ridiculous. If you really want to take big stakes, you got to take some chances. You got to say what you really believe. And if you do it in love, you should be able to do it with full confidence. And the more that you actually face the rejection repudiation, the easier it gets. I very much hope that we can continue to build a culture in which that only very, very rarely results in violence.
Cherie Harder: So, Yvonne Valenza asks, “I’m interested in knowing how this relates to issues that are not simply a matter of opinion, but foreign policies and practices that harm minority people groups. How do we engage in a loving way without promoting or advocating for the kinds of views since you said earlier that part of loving is advocating for the other?”
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So again, there’s nothing that suggests to us that loving your enemy means agreeing with your enemy. I mean, it’s important to go hammer and tongs with things that you think are incorrect. But if your ultimate goal is to persuade, you must do it with love. You must disagree with love. You must go hammer and tongs with love. Now it takes skill, right? But it also takes a commitment. It takes a lot of prayer, and it takes a lot of self-discipline to do that. I mean, the easiest thing to do is to say that person is wrong. That person therefore is evil. That person is stupid. But that person, let me tell you, will not be persuaded, and will not change, will not improve, as a result of your insults. Nobody in history has ever been insulted into agreement. Furthermore, there may be something that you don’t understand. The story I tell in my book of I had been reading about motive attribution asymmetry, the psychological phenomenon of permanent conflict. Then I was at this rally. I was speaking at a conservative rally in New Hampshire. Six hundred conservative activists super fired up. I said in the middle of my speech– I was the only nonpolitician on the docket. Everybody else was running for president, so it was clearly a mistake that I was invited to this thing. But I thought to myself, what can I do that a presidential candidate won’t do? And I said, “Say whatever I think. I don’t have to run for anything.” So I said in the middle of my speech, I said, “Remember, I know you all agree on a lot of stuff, but I want you to think now about the people who would be uncomfortable here. They would feel maybe even unsafe here. They’re political progressives. And I want you to remember one thing, that they’re not stupid and they’re not evil. They’re not the enemy. They’re our fellow citizens with whom you happen to disagree in public policy. And if you want to convince them, which should be your goal, the only way you can do it is with love.” And this lady, she shouts out, “Actually, they’re stupid and evil.” Okay, she was trying to be funny. She wasn’t trying to hurt my feelings. I mean, I was up at the podium, but that moment, my mind went to Seattle, which is my hometown, and I thought about my family, my parents, my brother, the progressives. I’m the odd one out because I am like this big capitalism proponent, right? I had my reasons for holding these views, but I’m not going to lie. I’m the oddball. I’m the outlier of my particular family. When that lady said that, she was talking about my mother, and I took it personally. Look, I disagreed with my mother on politics and certainly on economics, and I think I was right, but my mother was not stupid, and my mother was not evil. When somebody has obnoxious views with which I strongly disagree, for me to dismiss that person in the most prejudicial terms is counterproductive to doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and it suggests that I don’t really care about persuading that person. I just want to scratch my dopamine urge, or I’m acting immorally because I’m saying that that person is stupid and evil, and that is wrong on its face. There is nothing that should tell me that person is stupid and evil because they hold an opinion that I find to be obnoxious, even really obnoxious.
Cherie Harder: That relates somewhat to our next question from Robert Cochran, who asks, “Is there a means of living together with an issue like abortion? Is it like slavery in the nineteenth century, an issue with no possibility of being resolved by persuasion or negotiation?
Arthur Brooks: It’s a good question, but even if there is no possibility theoretically, as a realistic matter, we have no choice. We simply have no choice, we’re not going to have a civil war over abortion, we’re not going to take up arms and kill our fellow Americans over abortion. And given the fact that we don’t have coercion on the table in any meaningful way, at least violence in any meaningful way, we have to adjudicate that and given the tools that we have available. Personally, I have pro-life views, so what is my job to do? My job is to circumscribe abortion legally in ways that actually are possible, and sustainable, and not self-defeating. And then I go do the hard work of trying to convince people of my point of view, based in love. Well, that’s exactly what the Enlightenment was trying to teach us to do in the first place, was persuasion along these lines. Maybe these are moral absolutes in the hermetically sealed environment of theory, of social science theory. But in the real world in which we live, this is not something that can lead to anything like the Civil War. So therefore, we have to find the means to express ourselves and to convince our fellow Americans within the context, by the way, of recognizing that we might be wrong which is an important issue as well. That requires some humility. And one quick side note, the data are clear. You’re a lot more persuasive when you’re humble than when you’re not.
Cherie Harder: Along those lines, Jenny Savage poses this question, “What is the most common pushback you received to your book, movie, and general ideas? And what’s your response to the pushback?”
Arthur Brooks: The biggest pushback that I found, well, sort of depends on where I am. We are in a really polarized environment, and I straddle. I go all over the place. I go to highly conservative environments, highly liberal environments. When I go to liberal environments, the objection is that I ran the American Enterprise Institute, which is a center right think tank, and so therefore, what I’m trying to do is to sugarcoat conservatism and slip in it. And so there’s a skepticism. There’s a lack of trust about my motives, right? And why? Because we’re in the ad hominem generation where everything is about is assuming motives. Like, I know what you’re up to. I know what you’re really up to, but I know what you really think. But like actually, what I really think is in the book. Again, if you think that there’s subterfuge going on or– On the right, it’s basically get with the program, man. Are you one of us or not? We have only one chance to get the Supreme Court, and hold the Senate, and hold the House, and hold the White House, and do all these good things. And if you’re if you’re actually talking about reconciliation with the enemy, you’re weakening us. Now, I can’t disagree with that in stronger terms, and furthermore, I refuse to abdicate my moral positions simply because somebody is closer to my political positions because my moral positions are way more important than my political positions. I will trade away my political positions eight days a week before I do anything having to do with what I believe spiritually or believe morally, what I actually believe in terms of human dignity because that’s the structural equations of what it means for me to be alive. So that’s what I get. I’m not tribal enough on the right, and I’m not to be trusted on the left, and those are the two big areas. But again, you know, I have no real problems. These are small complaints.
Cherie Harder: So, we have so many questions and rapidly running out of time. I’m actually going to combine two because they’re somewhat related. Maybe you can respond to both of them. Larry Roadman asks, “How do we move forward in the post truth slash fake news environment?” And Peg Chamberland asks, “What is the role of truth in bridging social capital?”
Arthur Brooks: There’s a lot of, you know, the social media environment, which is largely infected, the way that we see news, and the press, and the media has been one in which we express opinions as if they were incontrovertible facts. And in so doing, we’re spinning a lot of information. One of the problems with being a social scientist is that I teach a class in happiness at the Harvard Business School, and it’s super fun. On the first day of class what I tell them is like, “I’m going to tell you about the science of happiness, and everything I say, you can go to the Internet and find a study that says the opposite.” Why? Because when you’re dealing with complex and adaptive human phenomena, this is not– I mean, we’re not talking about physics here. We’re talking about the human stuff that’s hard to estimate. And so the same thing is true in anything we’re talking about with respect to politics, and human flourishing, and all the things that we’re trying to adjudicate in American politics today which is to say that if you have one particular point of view, you can find data, and studies, and evidence to support your point of view and say that the other side is simply not paying attention to science and lying. So that lends itself in the Internet environment, which is highly siloed and extremely ideological, to a post truth scenario where all you say is the other side is lying, and then you make sure that you’re lying too but lying in a particular way. So what do we do? We have to be better consumers is the bottom line, and furthermore, we have a responsibility primarily to question and repudiate our own side. This is something that’s important for us to emphasize. If you want to be a greater apostle for truth, calling out untruth on the other side is not that useful, right? To say, “Oh, you guys on the other side, you’re lying.” Yeah, guess what? Conservatives think that liberals are lying, and liberals think that conservatives are lying. What are the odds? If you really want to have an impact, insist on truth, insist on accuracy, insist on sincerity, and insist on balance on your side. Then you actually have a fighting chance of bringing more truth to the debate. And this is a principle that actually works across many, many different areas of life.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take one last question, and this one is from Richard Rabil, he says he loves the idea of persuasion as a nonviolent expression of love. But often persuasion is associated with manipulation. How are these things different? When is persuasion loving, and when is it manipulative? And how would you persuade someone who is suspicious of persuasion that it is actually one of our best, if not the best, ways to love our enemies?”
Arthur Brooks: When persuasion turns into manipulation, it stops being loving. And that really, you know that based in your own heart. Think about it. If you have a car that you really think is a great car, and you’re talking to your friend about it, “You really should get this car. This car is terrific. You’ll really, really like it.” That’s persuasion. But if you’re basically going to get them to get that car, they’re going to give you a seven-hundred dollar gift certificate because your friend went there, then you’ve gone into the realm of manipulation. Then you’ve gone from trying to do your friend a favor to get this great car, to you getting seven hundred bucks. That’s a judgment call, sort of. You know the difference between when you’re being persuasive and when you’re being manipulative. Love stops when manipulation starts. Why? Because manipulation is persuasion on your own behalf. What you want is to persuade for the good of the other. Remember, love is to will the good of the other. Manipulation is to will the good of me, and that’s the dividing line. That’s the frontier, and that’s ultimately a moral judgment that each one of us has to make. We should never manipulate another person. We should persuade people as much as we can. When people are skeptical of it, well, you know, it’s amazing. My friend David Brooks, he wrote a book called The Social Animal. And it’s sort of my area of research as a social scientist. We have a million ways to ascertain the veracity of motive and the purity of people’s intentions. Very, very little of it is what we say. People kind of know when you’re trying to spin them, when you’re trying to manipulate them. One of the biggest reasons that they’re skeptical is because they should be. If somebody is skeptical of your persuasion, examine your persuasion. Thank you, Cherie, and thank you to the Trinity Forum, and all the people who took time out of their schedules to tune in, you know, the last word is tricky. It’s kind of like ending a book. You always wonder, you know, how should you send people off and something like love your enemies. This is a call to action because it’s not a complaint. There’s always problems. The question is, what’s the solution? Jesus Christ gave the solution to love your enemies. So, here’s how I ended the book, and here’s my last word. I lived in Washington, D.C. until a year ago and my wife, Esther and I, we did a marriage prep at a Catholic retreat center for young couples, thirty couples a month. And they would come into this retreat center, and we would usually finish our session, and then we would go to the chapel, and we would pray, Esther and I would, and then we would go home. I was walking out of the chapel one day last year, and I noticed a sign over the door. But it wasn’t over the door coming in. It was over the door when you’re going out to the parking lot. And it was for the people who’d been at these marriage preparation classes, and these evangelization classes, and these classes to be a better Christian, a better life. And the sign over the door for the people who were going out to their cars and leaving it said, “You are now entering mission territory.” Look, if I do anything today, it’s impart the idea that we can be the agents for change. There’s nobody on this call that says “I love how polarized this country has gotten. I love the fact that I’m fighting in the most vitriolic terms, people who have partisan differences with me.” You’re on this call listening to me and Cherie because you agree that this is a problem and that we need to solve it. So, if we’ve given you in our conversation some ideas, some new things that you can do, remember that bringing people together and lifting people up is your apostolic vocation. It’s a good thing to do, and it will bring you joy, and it will bring you peace. So as you sign off, as you go about your day, remember my last words. You’re now entering mission territory. Thank you.
Cherie Harder: Arthur, thank you. Thank you to all of you who joined us. Have a great weekend.