It’s a cultural phenomenon that many Americans have helplessly watched unfold: the dissolution of respectful political dialogue and the rise of the culture of contempt.
Contempt, “an enduring attitude of complete disdain,” has become the modus operandi of American political life and sometimes spills over to other parts of our lives, writes Arthur Brooks in his latest book, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.”
A scholar, author and, until recently, president of the Washington-based think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks wrote “Love Your Enemies” because of his dissatisfaction with the false choice between ideology and relationships that many face today, and as a guide to change for those tired of all the fighting.
An end to political conflict is, at first glance, the solution Brooks seems to suggest by the title and introduction of his book. What he proposes, however, is that Americans should aim to argue better, not less. Using examples from both politics and popular culture, Brooks asserts that competition is a good thing: It “fosters and sustains excellence,” and will ultimately lead both to better political discourse and to better policy.
For proponents of the free market, Brooks’ assertion should not come as a surprise. The success of our economic system is predicated upon healthy competition, as opposed to monopolies and a lack of choice. These principles have lifted billions of people out of poverty around the world in the past few decades alone, and prove that having choices is inherently good for everyone involved because it necessitates and inspires excellence.
This framework should be applied to public policy as well. Making political choices, whether between different policy solutions, different candidates or, more broadly, between the major political parties, allows for social progress. Being exposed to different ideas – and actually engaging with them – is a vital part of the competitive process. Without it, there would be no opportunity to sharpen existing ideas.
Gaining exposure to competing ideas used to be a primary reason to attend institutions of higher education. In the formative years of a person’s life, nothing is as valuable as thinking critically about what one believes in an institution designed to produce great ideas. Today, unfortunately, in universities as in political culture, it has become acceptable – even fashionable – to silence opposing viewpoints, virtually eliminating all civil discourse.
This practice, so often tinged with contempt, is incredibly threatening to the evolution and production of ideas, Brooks points out. A world in which everyone agrees, which may sound like a paradise to those who are exhausted by today’s bitter political climate, is a world without competition and, therefore, a world without innovation.
Rather than stop the conflict altogether, we should continue to disagree, but in a kinder way.
The first step toward ending the culture of contempt is recognizing that we often have the same goal as our opponents – improving education, fighting poverty, and securing continued liberty – and that hearing the other side improves our argument.
Now more than ever, this nation needs impassioned discussions on matters of public policy. But they must be discussions.
In an era that highlights political hostility and violence, stagnation and insulation from opposing ideas, Brooks’ book serves as a timely reminder that competition, when done right, can be incredibly effective and mutually beneficial. His book is a call to action for those who long to revitalize civil discourse and end the culture of contempt. It’s an invitation to transcend contemptuous bickering and restore our love of country, friends and “enemies” alike.