A recent EconTalk podcasts from Russ Roberts hit me at just the right time this weekend. The interview is with Arthur Brooks, about his book, Love Your Enemies, How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. In essence, it is about bridging gaps between people of different political tribes.
Brooks’s starting point is an observation of the real insidious evil of modern society, which is not hate, but contempt. To convey contempt is to convey the feeling that the other person simply doesn’t matter. It’s the impression that one’s interlocutor’s point of view needn’t be understood because it isn’t relevant. It’s rolling of the eyes. It’s sarcasm, which implicitly says that somebody’s statement is so stupid, irrelevant, or assumed-to-be-wrong that the appropriate response is to belittle the person. It’s the self-permission to twist the other person’s words around because he or she doesn’t deserve the dignity of being able to express his or her own thoughts, the contemptuous person knows what the other is really thinking and feeling.
Brooks stresses that “the culture of contempt” doesn’t even necessarily require that everybody actually has contempt, but only that the tone of the times expresses itself in a contemptuous way. Eye-rolling and sarcasm are often, after all, involuntary habits.
Unfortunately, the only solution that Brooks is able to provide is for each of us to decide not to treat people in that way. That can be an uncomfortable decision when it is unilateral, and the emotional payoff is much longer-term than the quick chemical hit of a sneer. And frankly, for one raised within the last half-century, who is distrustful of compliments, it can feel saccharine and phony.
Listening to Brooks’s own podcasts, at least in the first season, conveys what I mean. He’s so profuse and transparent with his compliments and statements of admiration that one might wonder about their sincerity. Or if we assume that Brooks is sincere, which I do, then one might wonder about his statements’ depth. You can always find something to compliment if your threshold is low.
The danger, then, is of giving the impression of being motivated only by the question, “How can I convey to this person that his or her opinion matters to me?” That produces the checklist of obvious behaviors: compliment the person (check), use phrases like, “that’s a valuable point” (check), ask the person for correction of your own views (check).
These are all worthwhile and valuable steps for communication, but they aren’t an endpoint in themselves. The important next stage in coming to mutual respect with people with whom we disagree is to ask, “What is the positive motivation leading you to what I think is an error?”
Roberts rightly challenged Brooks on the bromide that “we all want the same good things, in the end,” but I don’t think that’s really the intended point. The point is that we should always begin with the assumption that the other person is driven by something that he or she thinks is a moral good. And our job is to understand where that goes awry (if it does).