Tread lightly is a phrase I have been hearing (and using) a lot lately, especially when it comes to discussing what does and does not get published on this site. Tread lightly: not because the mission at Mockingbird is apolitical, necessarily, and not because our writers are all above the fray. I have my opinions (and bumper stickers!); and my colleagues have theirs.

Tread lightly: mainly because the online landscape lends to impatience sooner than clarity, and rage sooner than understanding. After all, we have gathered here together but cannot see one another.

Yet every once in a while a toe is dipped in the whirlpool, and this time it’s mine. My inspiration is Arthur C. Brooks’ treatise Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt. Brooks’ own political opinions are no secret (best-selling author of The Conservative Heart), yet much of what he writes here applies across the board.

The book begins with what Lance Morrow for the New York Times calls “a moment of grace”: In 2017, at a rally for Trump supporters, the president of Black Lives Matter New York was invited (unexpectedly) to stand and share his own views. Given the opportunity, he stood and eventually said, “If we really want to make America great, we do it together!” — a sentiment to which nearly everyone present agreed. In fact the right-wing crowd applauded, rapturously. Disagreements remained, yet enemies became friends. Political opponents remained in touch, used the word “brothers.” What it took was an acknowledgment of mutual dignity and an opportunity to speak, without contempt, “across the great divide.”

Importantly Brooks distinguishes anger from contempt. Anger, he says, may prove useful if and when stirred by righteousness; contempt, though, is anger plus disgust: “an enduring attitude of complete disdain” (10). “While anger says, ‘I care about this,’ … contempt says, ‘You are beneath caring about’” (22). Or in concrete terms, as a 2017 Reuters poll revealed, “Sixteen percent [of poll respondents] said they have stopped talking to a family member or friend because of the [2016 presidential] election.” Years later it’s hard to know whether this would not still be the case, or worse.

The concept of Love Your Enemies, I was sold on immediately. Luckily, I also read it. Throughout, Brooks offers some insightful remarks, various fresh ways of turning over the problem at hand. For example:

In his Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “To love is to will the good of the other.” The modern philosopher Michael Novak refines this further by adding two words: To love is to will the good of the other as other.” (13)

And:

If you join me in being grateful that we don’t live in a one-party state, then by definition you must be grateful for the people who disagree with you. They are the ones who make pluralism and democracy possible. (62)

And:

Values are supposed to be positive. Even if people disagree with them, they aren’t supposed to harm others. We can’t beat someone over the head with charity, for example. If we do, it’s no longer charity. It’s impossible to maintain the moral content of our values and use them as a weapon at the same time. (195)

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Often Love Your Enemies serves as a playbook, with steps and how-to’s. But accomplishing the titular goal is not so easy; otherwise, I think, it would already be done. The healing of divisions is, at best, slow-going, if not currently at the mid-point of an all-out backward-swinging swing. Meanwhile everyone has advice about the “right way” to “move forward.” (“Everything is an op-ed now,” wrote the editors of n+1 in a 2018 issue, in a column that seemed suspiciously like an op-ed.) Even so we languish, divided.

Add to that the curious fact that most of us live, as Brooks points out, among the “exhausted majority.” We are tired of ideological conflict, yet all around it persists, the turning cogs of America’s (the world’s?) “outrage industrial complex.” Brooks explains it this way:

On the one hand, I am asserting that our culture, especially our political culture, is overrun with contempt. On the other hand, I’m saying it’s not what a pretty big majority of us want. But don’t we get what we want in democracies and free markets?

Yes and no. There are lots of cases in which people demand something they hate. Have you ever met a problem drinker? Every morning, he berates himself for his lack of self-discipline and resolves not to drink that night. When night rolls around, filled with anxiety and cravings, he says, “Eh, I’ll quit tomorrow.” Similarly, most smokers say they wish they didn’t smoke, yet they voluntarily continue, spending their money and wrecking their health in the process.

What’s going on here? The answer is addiction, of course. Addiction clouds our ability to make long-run choices in our own interest. […] Economists carve out a special sort of demand for addictive things. They note that we make decisions that are deeply suboptimal in the long run because the pain of breaking the habit is so high in the short run. Therefore, we really wish we didn’t drink, but we put off the discomfort of quitting, day after day.

America is addicted to political contempt. 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. Millions actively indulge their habit by participating in the cycle of contempt in the way they treat others, especially on social media. We wish our national debates were nutritious and substantive, but we have an insatiable craving for insults to the other side. As much as we know we should ignore the nasty columnist, turn off the TV loudmouth, and stop checking our Twitter fees, we indulge our guilty urge to listen as our biases are confirmed that the other guys are not just wrong, but stupid and evil. (27-29)

In response to all of this Brooks offers some strategies, the best of which include: “Never listen only to rebut,” and “never treat others with contempt, even if you believe they deserve it” (39; 207). He also quotes Jesus (as in the title), who said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies.”

In a time when civility is construed as complicity, Brooks ups the ante, arguing that the standards of civility are “pitifully low”:

I want something more radical and subversive than civility and tolerance, something that speaks to my heart’s desire…love. And not just love for friends and those who agree with me, but rather, love for those who disagree with me as well (13).

And although he is not shy about his own Catholicism, and despite citing Jesus as a moral exemplar, Brooks nevertheless “treads lightly” on the one thing all recovering addicts will profess a need for: H.P., higher power. Along these lines, Brooks writes from an anthropology detectably higher than much of what you’ll find on this site.

The problem as presented demands a spiritual solution; it is an ask so great — love your enemies — that it would not only benefit from but require something besides mere best efforts. Experience shows that transformation beyond addictive loops requires more than a force of will. When we find the contemptuous late-night humor to be gratifying, or when our newsfeeds are too easily refreshed at the dinner table, or when an online comments-board is so moronic we are compelled to respond: from where do we draw our power?

In a section on oxytocin, the hormone that encourages social bonding and allows us to feel affection for one another, Brooks buries a definitive note: “In my daily prayers, I give thanks for things like oxytocin, which I consider a gift” (135). Our capacity to love, even our capacity to be grateful, to feel anything at all — these, we must remember, are gifts that precede effort.

Yet for the person who prefers to do, who needs a course of action, the following is a very good place to start:

Too many of us are like the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” We should be more like the tax collector who, Luke tells us, “would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (107)