This summer I read a book by Arthur C. Brooks, who until recently was president of a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. The book is called “Love Your Enemies,” and it calls on us to change the way we relate to one another in the field of politics. I don’t intend to write a book review but mainly want to talk about the impact the book had on me.
First of all, however, a word about Brooks. He seems like a thoughtful, reasonable person. He has a background as a classical musician, having performed professionally for something like 22 years. He then moved into economics and policy analysis. His most notable early writing was on charitable giving. He’s a friend of the Dalai Lama and the two even wrote a New York Times article together. Although he’s been a Catholic since he was 16, Brooks has been deeply influenced by the Dalai Lama’s teachings on love. He was at one time registered as a Democrat, then as a Republican. Now he’s an Independent. Although he’s a conservative, he’s in no way a Trumpian conservative.
I’d deliberately set myself the challenge of reading something by a conservative, since these days we’re very quick to dismiss those who hold views that are different from our own, and most of the political views I have are those that liberals hold, meaning that Brooks and I wouldn’t agree on much politically. I looked forward to this challenge.
And the book did challenge me, in a number of ways. Sometimes, I confess, I had to work hard to remain patient. Because he’s writing a book about loving your enemies, he tries to maintain a sense of balance. If he says something critical about Donald Trump, he has to say something critical about Hilary Clinton as well, even though to my mind those two politicians’ failings aren’t remotely comparable. And although he talks about the need for all participants in a democracy to observe “rules,” he studiously ignores the most egregious bending and breaking of those rules. So he has nothing to say about gerrymandered districts, voter purges, or the refusal to let a sitting president fill a Supreme Court seat. This is presumably because most of those abuses (currently) take place on the right, and for Brooks to mention them would require Brooks to set aside his rather strained “both sides are the same” impartiality. I found myself craving for Brooks to admit that, sometimes, one side is worse than the other. But I kept letting go of that desire, since I was suspicious that it was partly my own bias showing.
But the main challenge was a positive one: how can we love our enemies? I felt challenged to relate more lovingly, to communicate more compassionately, to practice empathy more deeply, to let go of tribalism. This will all, I’m sure, be a lifelong—and difficult—task.
The single thing that struck home most for me was Brooks dismissal of “civility” and “tolerance” as adequate goals. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to be civil or to tolerate differences, but that those goals are not enough. Imagine, Brooks asks us, if someone described their relationship with their spouse as “civil” or said that they “tolerate” each other. What would that tell you about the health of their marriage? Are either of those partners likely to be happy? Being civil to our political opponents is not enough. Being tolerant of our political opponents is not enough. We need to learn to love our enemies.
This of course is deeply challenging. Even meeting the low bars of being civil and tolerant is hard. Civility and tolerance can be beyond us at times because we feel compelled to be harsh and judgmental towards those we disagree with. And if actually loving our enemies is even harder than those things, then how can I even begin to move in that direction?
The most fundamental thing, I think, is to recognize the common humanity of people I disagree with. We all want similar things, but want to achieve those aims in different ways, or understand them differently. We all value fairness, freedom, and security, for example. Those things unite us. But the fact that we think about those things differently brings us into opposition. And when we’re in opposition we tend to clash, and to turn into enemies. We fail to think that we have anything at all in common. We hold each other in contempt. We call each other names. We distort each others’ positions.
Think for example about one person who accepts that climate change is being driven by human activities and that it may potentially bring about catastrophic disruption to the world. Motivated by a desire for security, then want to see a massive change in the way we use energy — a magnitude of change that cannot possibly be brought about by individual action alone, but which requires intense government action.
Then there’s another person who wants to feel secure. But they are perhaps afraid of some kinds of change, or are suspicious about government playing a larger role in their lives and limiting their freedom. Hearing the policies of the first person may make them dig their heels in, to the extent that they’re unwilling to accept that there’s even a problem.
These two people might well see each other as existential enemies. They may demonize each other, and call each other names. They treat each other as punching bags. They are unlikely ever to move each other’s opinions by a hair’s-width. In fact most exchanges between them are not even intended to change the other’s opinion. Instead they’re intended to demonstrate contempt, and to demonstrate their membership of the particular political group they belong to. Their communication is intended to separate.
If we look below the insults and the policies, we see two human beings who are afraid, and who want to feel secure. If we’re prepared to do that with each other, then our communication naturally changes. We treat each other with more sensitivity and respect. We perhaps can now aim to learn from each other and to persuade, rather than lecturing and insulting each other. Our aim is to bring us closer together rather than to drive a wedge between us.
Brooks offers as an example an unlikely friendship between two professors at Princeton. Cornel West is black, and a socialist. Robert George is white, and a conservative. They disagree on absolutely everything! And yet they clearly love each other as brothers. There’s no “civility” in the sense of people being artificially polite. There’s no tolerance, in the sense of people simply enduring each other. There’s love. There’s respect. There’s an openness to learning. And the corollary of this is the lesson that it’s possible to relate lovingly and to disagree and to challenge the other person’s views.
One danger is that we try being friendly to an opponent, it doesn’t work, and then we get mad. But the point isn’t that acting empathetically is something we do in order to get people to agree with us. Empathy is not a “trick” we do to get people to do what we want. Ultimately, acting out of empathy is something we do because it’s a better way to be. As Brooks says, “My point is simple: Love and warmheartedness might not change every heart and mind, but they are always worth trying, and they will always make you better off.” In trying to find our opponents’ humanity, we connect more deeply with our own.
So I’m trying to put this into practice. The first step is to move away from what Brooks called the “outrage industrial complex,” which can be found on social media and much “debate” that goes on in television studios. That’s something I’ve been working on for a while. My social media usage is much less than it used to be. I avoid following people who are popular because they are good at insulting others.
A step I’m only just learning is to see the common concerns that lie beneath our different understandings of the world, and the humanity that lies beneath our contempt.
Actually communicating in an empathetic way with people I completely disagree with? That actually scares me!
I feel I’m only just beginning with this as a life-long task. As someone who has been practicing and teaching lovingkindness meditation for a couple of decades this is humbling. But the aim of loving my enemies feels like a calling — although, by the time you actually love your enemies, you find they are not enemies, but are brothers and sisters.
“Love Your Enemies” isn’t a perfect book by any means. But I do think it’s worth reading because of its central challenge, which is to abandon the temptations of relating with contempt, and to undertake the hard, although rewarding, work of becoming a more loving human being.
What a coincidence — I just read “Love your Enemies” last week, and was also very moved and inspired. Brooks talks of moving beyond a “culture of contempt”, where contempt is defined as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” He posits that our society is addicted to contempt, and that so many institutions (media, social media, etc) make more money when we are outraged and contemptuous. Brooks encourages us to get off the “contempt bandwagon” and stop contributing to this sorry situation by pointing out that, as we decide which media and social media to invite into our heads: “Unless the person is actually teaching you something or expanding your worldview and moral outlook, you are being used” to further the culture of contempt. Good to keep in mind.
I think of myself as liberal but open-minded, yet the very fact that I found myself saying, “Wait, this guy’s intelligent and funny and caring and CONSERVATIVE?” was a reminder of how polarized we have become, and how willing to paint others with stereotypes.
I really enjoyed this and share your struggles with empathizing and truly learning to love those who threaten my peace of mind or challenge my biases or whom I believe are just WRONG…
Thanks Bodhipaksa for highlighting this book and area. Here in the UK, the Brexit process and debate has polarised the country, including me at times. It was a challenge to discover that my mother had voted Leave. I was quick to judge yet she is an intelligent person, so I became more interested in why she felt that way. I’ve used this method of curiosity to get beyond my preconceived judgements. And under the surface I’ve found my fears of fundamental safety are there, deep in the autonomic nervous system, when there’s an opposite view held. I agree this could be a lifetime’s practice. Being surrounded by media that deliberately cultivates disgust of oppositional views is unpleasant, and easy to see. Spotting it in oneself in all its disguises like righteous indignation and trying to prove ones point are a bit more slippery, as habitual and familiar.