The earnestness of Love Your Enemies shines through on every page. Arthur Brooks, the past president of the American Enterprise Institute and a newly minted Harvard professor, surveys the bitterness and vitriol of American life and pens a how-to manual on steering back toward charity. One could almost say “Christian” charity, in light of the book’s title. While there is much wisdom in this volume, and while the impulse to heal our divisions is clearly necessary, Love Your Enemies doesn’t quite hit the mark. The sentiments are right — eschew contempt, watch out for confirmation bias, beware the disinhibition of mobs (including Twitter mobs), and never dehumanize your ideological opponents. And yet, this book, part self-help manual, part social commentary, doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the title.
Love Your Enemies reflects the concern about our national polarization found in other recent conservative books such as Them, by Ben Sasse, and Alienated America, by Tim Carney. Brooks refines the familiar “ideological silo” analysis by borrowing from marital therapy. Marriage counselors, Brooks notes, can predict with 94 percent accuracy which couples are headed for divorce court just by watching the pairs interact for an hour. When husbands and wives display contempt through sarcasm, hostile humor, sneers, and especially eye-rolling, the marriage is usually doomed. He distinguishes between anger, which can be righteous, and contempt, which is almost always fatal:
While anger seeks to bring someone back into the fold, contempt seeks to exile. It attempts to mock, shame, and permanently exclude from relationships by belittling, humiliating, and ignoring. So while anger says, “I care about this,” contempt says, “You disgust me. You are beneath caring about.”
Such studies have been challenged vis-à-vis marriage counseling, but the point may still hold for countries. In a self-governing nation, mutual contempt of the kind we are currently stoking can only lead to ruin:
How likely are you to want to work with someone who has told an audience that you are a fool or a criminal? Would you make a deal with someone who publicly said you are corrupt? How about becoming friends with someone who says your opinions are idiotic?
Our civic life, particularly at the presidential level, is a riot of scorn. On one side, we have Hillary Clinton describing Trump’s voters in these terms: “You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights; you don’t like women, you know, getting jobs; you don’t want to, you know, see that Indian American succeeding more than you are.” And then there’s President Trump, proclaiming that Democrats are truly bad human beings and that the press is the “enemy of the people.” And those are his printable remarks. What Brooks calls the “outrage industrial complex” — cable news, social media, and entertainment — feeds this mutual hostility and profits handsomely by it. For the rest of us, this diet of disdain is like acid eating away at the bonds of community.
Citing a 2014 study on “motive attribution asymmetry” — the belief that one’s own views are based on benevolence whereas one’s opponents’ positions arise from hatred — Brooks argues that Americans today are as alienated, as willing to assume the worst about the other side, as Israelis and Palestinians. Reaching solutions on matters such as gun control, health care, and religious liberty is as likely as getting to a resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
We arrived at this pass, Brooks suggests, because of an addiction to tendentious media (social and otherwise). “America is addicted to political contempt. While most of us hate what it is doing to our country, . . . many of us still compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers, and some of the news media.”
Addiction is an overused metaphor, and it adds little to our understanding of political polarization. When Brooks addresses the “power and peril of identity,” by contrast, he offers some fresh insights. The most surprising social-science research he highlights (and there is hardly a sentence that is not swaddled in a study of some sort) concerns theoretical versus actual prejudice. In the 1930s, Richard LaPiere, a Stanford professor, set out to study anti-Chinese bigotry. At a time of rampant anti-Chinese prejudice, he devised an experiment wherein two Chinese-born graduate students would present themselves at establishments across the United States. He found that of 67 hotels and 184 restaurants tested, only one turned them away. Afterwards, he sent a survey to the very same hotel owners and restaurateurs asking whether they would accommodate “members of the Chinese race as guests” in their establishments. Of 128 responses, 92 percent of the restaurants and 91 percent of the hotels replied in the negative.
Quite a twist on the usual take that people mouth all the proper pieties about non-discrimination, but that, when it comes down to behavior, their inherent bigotry slips out. In LaPiere’s experiment, the reverse was true.
Brooks believes, based on his experience speaking at potentially hostile college campuses, that face-to-face contact can dissolve, or at the very least ameliorate, prejudices, provided it is done in the right spirit:
Here’s how I could ruin these campus visits: I could come out with my political identity lit up like a Christmas tree. “Hey, guys, I’m a proud conservative! Get over it! Ha ha, liberal tears!” That would swamp my human connection with the audience, which is precisely the problem with identity politics today, which emphasizes people’s membership in a particular group, be it political, religious, ethnic, or something else. It inevitably leads to less, not more, love.
Arthur Brooks is one of the best spokesmen for conservatism now working. Would that every conservative speaker had his combination of economic expertise, humor, and humanitarianism. Some of his other books, such as Who Really Cares, should be required reading. Why, then, does this one fall short?
It flits from study to study, alighting here on motivated reasoning and there on oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Smiling actually makes you happier, one study found. If you don’t feel loving, fake it till you make it. Count your blessings. Grateful people are happier and nicer. People sweat when they cheat, even if they know they won’t be punished. That’s all fine and true, but social science has its limits. Just as there’s a cliché for everything and its opposite — “Haste makes waste”; “Good things come to those who wait” — there’s a study for everything, and sometimes Brooks seems to be tripping over them. For example, he cites Claremont Graduate University’s Jean Lipman-Blumen on the proposition that “people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives, yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and a need for security in an uncertain world.” Yet two pages later, he avers that “people don’t like to be belittled by the leader or see others humiliated.” He devotes almost an entire chapter to research about women’s mate preferences, suggesting that men who are generous and nice are more attractive to women than men who are selfish — even if the selfish men are more handsome. These studies, which usually consist of undergrads sitting in psych labs answering questions about photographs, are sometimes valuable and sometimes not. Often, studies of this kind yield results that can’t be replicated by other researchers. Human behavior, particularly sexual behavior, is awfully complicated, and it’s probably too pat to say, as Brooks triumphantly concludes, that “in the long run the nice guy gets the girl.” Speaking of clichés, grains of salt are advisable.
Brooks is a humane writer who has often advanced the conservative cause with élan. His tribute to Professors Robert George and Cornel West — two passionate partisans who disagree on nearly everything yet call each other “brother” and taught a seminar together at Princeton — is exactly the apt model for finding our way back from the poisonous contempt that characterizes our public debate. More stress on the competition of ideas, and a little less oxytocin, would have made for a better book.
This article appears as “With Malice Toward None” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.