The Bush Institute's Chris Walsh shares how the book Love your Enemies by Arthur Brooks has shaped his approach to relationships in a polarized world and permeated his thinking on the Bush Institute’s human freedom work.
It was April 18, 2018; the Bush Institute was convening its inaugural Forum on Leadership. I was assigned to staff Arthur Brooks, then president of the American Enterprise Institute. Little did I know this encounter would be a transformational milestone in my life. It led me to read his book, Love Your Enemies, which has shaped my approach to relationships in a polarized world and permeated my thinking on the Bush Institute’s human freedom work.
We live in what Brooks calls a “culture of contempt,” usually rooted in political disagreement, that has made devaluing fellow humans common practice. We start believing some people have no use in our society and label them as evil or even subhuman. Think of the atrocities that have been justified – from American slavery to the Holocaust to the Rohingya in Burma – when one group is convinced that another is less than human.
Moreover, would-be despots like Hungary’s Viktor Orban have manipulated contempt in their countries to erode democratic freedoms with popular support. It’s even led to a scenario with COVID-19 where Orban has taken Hungary’s democracy to the brink of outright authoritarianism.
Oh, and by the way, contempt also causes us physical and emotional harm personally.
So, what to do? Brooks tells us it’s as simple (and as hard) as love. He boils down his book’s lessons to a few words, “Go find someone with whom you disagree; listen thoughtfully; and treat him or her with respect and love.” That’s something tangible anyone can practice regularly, and it changes how we think about and engage with others
If you’re like me, you hear Brooks’ challenge to love your enemies and convince yourself, “I’m a decent person, it’ll be easy enough.” However, when you take that idea to its most extreme (and only) conclusion, think about what exactly it means. You must love a political opponent who holds beliefs you find abhorrent. You must love a terrorist who has used violence to harm the innocent. You must love someone who subscribes to hateful, obscene ideologies like Nazism. Love the person and condemn the ideology, action, or belief.
That’s really hard to do, and it’s helpful to recognize that loving your enemies is a radical concept. It conflicts with aspects of our human nature that yearn for Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” justice. And while you don’t need to be a Christian or religious to embrace loving your enemies, one can appreciate that even Jesus Christ noted its countercultural nature, saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Which he immediately followed with, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…”
Still, how do we even begin loving our enemies? One starting point is my favorite Brooksism, “you can’t insult anyone into agreement.” This phrase speaks to the importance of human relationships and how they influence broader society. While respectful disagreement in a healthy competition of ideas is a good thing, contempt poisons our country.
On one hand, love – which Saint Thomas Aquinas defined as willing the good of another – fosters the best conditions for human relationships; it does this by basing interactions on respect for human dignity and compassion. Natural byproducts of which include civility, patience, and compromise – especially with those whom we disagree.
Meanwhile, contempt generates acrimony, paranoia, and equates compromise with acquiescing to evil. When one considers our democracy, this approach creates a worldview by which “my team” can only win if it imposes its unfettered agenda and obstructs the “other team.” In doing so, contempt creates gridlock, frustration, and other conditions favorable to authoritarianism.
And so, love must win over contempt. In the era of COVID-19, many Americans find themselves stuck at home struggling with myriad challenges. The worst end of that spectrum sees family, friends, and neighbors battling disease or terrible economic situations. That pain is real and widespread. It’s the perfect time to demonstrate our love for neighbors and enemies by valuing them as human beings and finding ways to help (social distancing in mind, of course). Maybe you’ll turn an enemy into a friend.