‘America is addicted to political contempt.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more accurate diagnosis of what we’re looking at in the United States right now.
It’s from a new book by Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. And I had read it before going to sleep this past Thursday night. When I woke up, there it was again — contempt playing itself out.
Forty-nine people had been slaughtered in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. But when I checked Twitter very early in the morning, the first news I saw wasn’t directly about the bloodshed. The first tweets I saw were exchanges with and about New York Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She had tweeted, “What good are your thoughts & prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?” She went on to provide an ecumenical litany of mass shootings in places of worship in recent years: New Zealand, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Sutherland Springs.
Here’s what Brooks writes:
While most of us hate what it is doing to our country and worry about how contempt coarsens our culture over the long term, many of us still compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers, and some of the news media. We wish our national debates were nutritious and substantive, but we have an insatiable craving for insults to the other side. . . . We indulge our guilty urge to listen as our biases are confirmed that the other guys are not just wrong, but stupid and evil.
Brooks defines contempt as “anger mixed with disgust,” adding:
These two emotions form a toxic combination, like ammonia mixed with bleach. In the words of the nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” Deriving from the Latin word contemptus, meaning “scorn,” contempt represents not merely an outburst following a moment of deep frustration with another but rather an enduring attitude of complete disdain.”
He makes the point that “when somebody around you treats you with contempt, you never quite forget it.” Meanwhile, how many times a day does that happen on social media? And it’s happening in relationships that people are giving up on, even within families. Contempt “crowds out love because it becomes our focus,” he points out. “If you have contempt for ‘them,’ more and more people will become ‘them.’” To solve the epidemic polarization in America today, he says, we need to eradicate contempt. So his book is full of practical and experiential wisdom about just how to go about this. And as the subtitle suggests, we all have more power than we realize.
My first mistake, of course, Friday morning was checking Twitter before I did much of anything else — except for a very quick prayer. Way too quick; it was the kind of quick prayer that leads people to dismiss prayer — because it didn’t give me the kind of pause that would have drawn me deeper into the heart of God before I went to see the morning headlines.
I could hear Arthur Brooks in my head, from the book: “What’s going on here? The answer is addiction, of course. Addiction clouds our ability to make long-run choices in our own interest.” I wanted to know what was going on. But I’m also addicted to what people are saying. It’s a professional hazard in my case. But it’s a bit of an existential crisis for our nation, too.
About contempt, Brooks writes, “[It] is driving us apart and making us miserable. It is holding us hostage.” He then asks: “What exactly do we want instead?”
That morning, I didn’t want to get sucked into the rabbit hole that is anything Ocasio-Cortez, a young media favorite, says and does and the addictive reactions to her from people of every political stripe. Once I realized what the commentary was about, I wanted to know a closeness with those people who were killed. I wanted to believe that if I poured out my heart in prayer, it could be some contribution to God’s mercy on those who died, not expecting that their Friday prayers would involve their brutal deaths and His consolation of those whose lives were forever changed hours before.
We are called to find common ground where it genuinely exists, improve our own arguments, and win over persuadable Americans by answering hostility with magnanimity, understanding, good humor, and love. We cannot do that while hiding in our narrow ideological foxholes. This is especially true for leaders, which every person reading this book is, or can be if you so choose.
He warns: “Do not be” part of the problem of “bitter tribalism.”: So, “[no] insults, no mockery. And . . . no eye-rolling.” What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Real and rigorous. He calls “civility and tolerance . . . garbage standards.” Because it is “love for one another and our country,” that’s going to make the difference. “Love is the ‘why of the leaders that can bring America back together, and all of us in our families and communities.” He provides five rules for moving forward that are all rooted in this live-giving standard:
The next time you are about to engage in disagreement over a contentious issue, ask yourself a question: Am I about to use my values as a gift, or as a weapon to attack the other side? If you are about to use them as a weapon, stop. Find a way to use your values as a gift instead.
Gratitude grows love. Love changes everything. It’s hard. It’s simple. A revolution of love is what the doctor has ordered. Let’s get to it.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.