Talk With Your Enemies: Arthur Brooks


A friend told me about Harvard professor and social scientist, Arthur Brooks, who writes and says things that harmonize very well with what we're trying to do as Braver Angels volunteers. In a recent interview on CBS News about how the election season is stressful and depressing, Brooks points out "The unimaginative median politicians are saying, 'The other guy is evil! Be outraged! Be sad!' And it is ruining mental health -- from young to old -- in this country . . . " Unfortunately, most media coverage relays a similar "fear the bad guys" story as well. Brooks calls for what I and my Braver Angels colleagues say we need: less polarizing rhetoric in our politics. 

Of course, the "winner-take-all" nature of electoral politics, inevitably tempts most candidates and their parties to claim hero status merely for vilifying the competition. It's much easier to rant against someone else's policy positions than to attract support for one's own policy platform. But as Brooks points out, such demagogic talk damages our country. It excites fear in people for certain candidates AND those who vote for them. And it can goad some individuals into the unhappy role of "hater," who cuts loose anyone (even family and friends), simply because their policy preferences differ from his own. Brooks later observes that the true opposite of Love is not Hate, but Fear. I agree. Personally, I think of Hate as just Fear all armoured up for a desperate fight, but impervious to the quiet voice of reason that Peace and Justice require.

By this point, I wondered if Dr. Books was aware of our work; and -- sure enough -- Yes! He has appeared on the Braver Angels podcast back in 2019 to speak on transforming politics with love, (another concept worth contemplating). As I listened further, one line in particular from the Braver Angels Mission page kept coming to mind:  

We believe all of us have blind spots and none of us are not worth talking to.

I think an important aspect of Brooks' message relates to the "none of us are not worth talking to" part of the above. Before we get too distressed over all these "haters" in our country, we need to take care that we don't unwittingly inspire yet more fear and hate in ourselves and our communities. One of the best insights of political philosophy is that representative democracies work best when those taking part in public debates avoid "ad hominem" arguments (or personal attacks). In other words, the most important competitors in our elections are ideas, not so much the human beings who express them. Human beings can and often do separate themselves from "bad" beliefs all the time. No one wants to be wrong. Despite all our talk about one person changing the mind of another, the only person powerful enough to persuade you away from what you believe is you.

I have heard many psychologists talk about how important it is for people to feel a sense of agency within their lives. Such people are said to have an "Internal Locus of Control." It seems to me if we can spend more time figuring out the reasons we believe whatever we believe, we can feel more confident in our power to choose our opinions, so that conversations in which they are challenged feel less threatening and pique our curiosity instead.  Brooks has written a book entitled Love Your Enemies. I think it's just as much practical advice as it is moral. Think of the person whose bumper stickers or yard signs rub you the wrong way, and try on this thought: "Even if we can't see eye-to-eye right now, I am glad you are in the world. Neither of us can know the future. I could be wrong and you could be right. And if that is true, then you, my political enemy, could be my very last opportunity to learn something I need to know." 

 – H. Chapman, Braver Angel and Foot Soldier Philosopher 🕊️

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