Arthur Brooks asked an expert marriage counselor what emotion is correlated with divorce. It’s not anger. Anger, according to Brooks, is a “hot emotion that says ‘I care.’ It might not be pleasant, but it doesn’t lead to divorce.” Instead of anger, eye rolling, dismissive humor, derision, and sarcasm are much better predictors of divorce. In a word, says Brooks: “contempt.”
In his latest book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, Dr. Brooks — president of the American Enterprise Institute, and my boss — rejects the notion that incivility and intolerance are the core problems in America today. Instead, Brooks argues that “motive attribution asymmetry” leads people to assume that those with whom they disagree are motivated by hate. This shuts off the possibility of negotiation and compromise, and breeds contempt, which Brooks defines as a combination of anger and disgust. Contempt, not only for the ideas held by those with whom we disagree, but also, and more significantly, for the people who hold those ideas.
Contempt makes political compromise and progress impossible. It also makes us unhappy as people. According to the American Psychological Association, the feeling of rejection, so often experienced after being treated with contempt, increases anxiety, depression and sadness. It also damages the contemptuous person by stimulating two stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. In ways both public and personal, contempt causes us deep harm.
The argument Dr. Brooks makes that resonates most strongly with me is first to reject the notion that disagreement is bad.
You might be tempted to say we need to find ways to disagree less, but that is incorrect. Disagreement is good because competition is good. Competition lies behind democracy in politics and markets in the economy, which — bounded by the rule of law and morality — bring about excellence. Just as in politics and economics, we need a robust “competition of ideas” — a.k.a. disagreement. Disagreement helps us innovate, improve and find the truth.
Instead, according to Brooks, we need to disagree better.