Love in a Time of Contempt
Arthur C. Brooks’ “Love Your Enemies” shows a better way for American public discourse
Arthur C. Brooks opens Love Your Enemies with a personal anecdote about a speech he gave to conservative activists in New Hampshire. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, so the audience for the speech was “an ideological home-field crowd” for him. Among other things, he talked about how the American public perceives liberals as “compassionate and empathetic” and argued that conservatives should earn that reputation too.
After the speech, an unhappy women approached him and castigated him for being too nice to liberals. “They are not compassionate and empathetic,” she argued. “They are stupid and evil.”
Stupid and evil. Although a conservative voiced the words, the sentiment is common on the other side of the political spectrum too. A November 2018 Axios poll found that roughly the same percentage of Democrats and Republicans viewed the other party as “ignorant” (54 and 49 percent, respectively) and “evil” (21 and 23 percent, respectively). Even worse, “The share of Americans who have more generous impressions is roughly equal to the poll’s margin of error, which is 3 percent.”
According to Brooks, this denigration of the other side reflects more than anger or incivility. It reflects a pervasive “culture of contempt,” contempt being defined as “anger mixed with disgust.” Or, as Arthur Schopenhauer put it, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
In such a culture, what is needed most is not tolerance or civility, as important as those practices are. Rather, Brooks argue, what is needed most is love, especially love for one’s enemies. Following Thomas Aquinas, Brooks defines love as “to will the good of the other.” Love doesn’t mean setting aside facts and compromising in some mushy middle. But it does require remembering that while “their views might be [worthy of contempt], no person is.”
In today’s culture, what is needed most is love, especially love for one’s enemies.
Although Brooks is president of a secular think tank and his book is pitched at a broad audience, his is a fundamentally Christian insight. (Brooks himself is Catholic.) The book’s title comes directly from Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 5:44. That being said, Love Your Enemies is not a theological tome or a how-to book for Christian ministry, but an exercise in the application of enemy-love to American public discourse.
Along the way, Brooks outlines the features of our culture of contempt, asks whether we can afford to be nice, gives love lessons for leaders, shows how we can love our enemies even if they’re immoral, identifies why identity politics is both powerful and perilous, asks whether competition is a problem, and encourages people to disagree with one another — though without contempt, of course.
Throughout, Brooks uses anecdotes and contemporary social science to make his points. The resulting case for love in the public square is both convincing and well worth reading.
Love Your Enemies covers a lot of ground, so Brooks helpfully concludes the book with “Five Rules to Subvert the Culture of Contempt”:
- Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.
- Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited and say things people don’t expect.
- Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.
- Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.
- Tune out. Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.
As noted above, Love Your Enemies is not a theological tome or a how-to book for Christian ministry. I read this book as a Christian minister, however, and can’t help but see its salience to Christian readers and leaders. So, I close my review with an exhortation to them:
Christ commands us to love our enemies. There’s no carve-out when the “enemy” is on the other side from us religiously, culturally or politically. There’s no exception clause for those moments when an election is on the line. Loving our enemies is simply what Christians do for others because it’s what Christ did for us. So, let’s do it. It’s the right thing to do, and if Brooks is right, it’s also the most socially beneficial thing we can do in our nation’s roiling culture of contempt.
Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (New York: Broadside Books, 2019).