Have you noticed people are really crabby these days? Living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I am used to drivers cutting me off on the freeway. And it is not too remarkable to find myself standing in line behind a real grumbler at the post office or grocery store. We all let our irritable natures get the better of us some days. What is alarming, however, is the degree of anger and outrage that seems to be bubbling up in every corner of society.
The vitriol that passes for national discourse in this era of divisive politics, angry social media, and 24/7 news cycles seems to have stripped us of a sense of civility. The constructive sharing of opposing ideas has been preempted not simply by anger, as one might surmise watching cable news or observing Sunday dinner with the relatives. Healthy debate has been usurped by what social scientist Arthur Brooks calls a “culture of contempt.”
Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a DC-based public policy think tank, and author of the newly released best-selling book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. He concludes that anger, though a negative emotion, can serve as the catalyst for bringing people together. Contempt, on the other hand, communicates disgust and rejection. “While anger seeks to bring someone back into the fold,” he writes, “contempt seeks to exile. It attempts to mock, shame, and permanently exclude from relationships by belittling, humiliating, and ignoring.”
Clearly, many Americans are feeling a sense of exile, in their communities and even in their own families. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll reveals that one in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election.
It is time to combat this culture of contempt, but how? We can start with a little less eye-rolling, for one. This particular non-verbal queue is reserved for moments when we think what the other guy has to say is insignificant, stupid, or worthless. In an instant, without even speaking, we convey disrespect and diminish our own approachability, hard sentiments to walk back.
Likewise, our choice of words and the tone in which they are delivered matter… a lot. Verbal expressions of contempt — sarcasm, scoffing, sneering — while fashionable these days, are as damaging as negative body language and those knowing looks. All serve to tear down, rather than build up.
“Contempt seeks to exile…by belittling, humiliating, and ignoring.”
Brooks is not saying we should strive to never disagree. That would be over-simplifying the genuine crisis that has consumed our culture. On the contrary, Brooks advocates for disagreeing better. “There is nothing wrong or inherently destructive about having ideas that differ from those of others…the ability to disagree freely is one of the great blessings of modern democracy,” he wrote in a recent op-ed penned with the Dalai Lama. “The solution — and the opportunity for each of us — lies not in disagreeing less, but in understanding the appropriate way to disagree with others, even when we are treated with hatred.”
To achieve that aim, Brooks points us to a biblical passage familiar to many, but seemingly forgotten in our current culture: the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus admonishes us to love our enemies. Loving those who love us is relatively easy. Loving our enemies? That’s hard work. Yet, it is that choice — to offer a warmhearted response when someone treats you with contempt — where the shift begins.
“We don’t have a public policy crisis,” says Brooks. “We have a love crisis.” The good news is, we have the ability to turn that crisis around — one heart, one family, one community at a time.
Watch an interview between Arthur Brooks and NBC News’ Chuck Todd on the key themes and practical strategies of Love Your Enemies.