Want to Live a Better Life? You Can Start by Loving Your Enemies, Says Arthur Brooks

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Arthur Brooks’ newest book is called “Love Your Enemies,” and it offers practical advice for living a better life and fixing the culture of contempt in America.
(Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Arthur Brooks published his newest book, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt,” last week and visited The Daily Signal to share some real-life solutions to the practical problems facing America. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and host of “The Arthur Brooks Show.” You can listen to the interview on our podcast or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: Tell us what you mean about the “culture of contempt.”

Arthur Brooks: Contempt is a funny word. It sounds like anger or something, but it’s different. I had this experience. It was interesting to me. As a president of a think tank, I do what presidents of think tanks do, which is not very much thinking in tanks. I’m mostly on the road giving speeches and raising funds to support our operations.

I was giving a talk some years ago in New Hampshire at a conservative event. People who are reading this might have been there, as a matter of fact. It was a slate of presidential candidates, one after the other, and somehow, this president of a think tank snuck in there on the schedule.

I got there a little early, and I was listening, and there were presidential candidates doing what they always do, which is basically going out to a sympathetic crowd and saying, “You’re right, and the other side is stupid and evil.” And so in the middle of my talk, I thought, “I don’t have to run for anything. I’m president of the AEI. I just have to do a good job.”

And I also realized that I have a moral obligation to try to make people better. So I said to the audience, “Look, you and I agree on foreign policy and on domestic policy and on economics. I mean, we’re all conservatives here. But I want you to remember the liberals who aren’t here, and I want you to remember that they’re not stupid and evil, they’re simply people who disagree with us, and we need to persuade them.” Because that’s really what our business is about is persuasion.

I didn’t get an applause line for that. But this lady afterward did because she said, “I think they’re stupid and evil.”

Look, I grew up in Seattle in a progressive family. My mother was a painter, and my father was a professor. I mean, what do you think their politics were in Seattle? And that lady was insulting my family. She didn’t mean to.

But I thought to myself, “That’s different than anger, and that’s a freight train coming down the tracks.” That was 2014.

Contempt takes its anger and mixes in disgust, and what’s really ripping our country apart is that we’re not persuading each other, we’re locking down into camps that are trying to shell each other. Unsuccessfully, by the way.

If we want, as conservatives, to really have a coalition that’s going to be successful in politics in America for a long time, we need to persuade a lot of people in the middle, and even on the left. And what we’re doing right now, treating others with contempt, treating them as if they’re utterly worthless, and them treating us in the same way is fundamentally unproductive.

And here’s the best part, Rob. I did a lot of research on this, and this is all in “Love Your Enemies.” It shows that if you treat other people with contempt, you become unhappy as a person.

So here’s the offer. Because this is not just a book of problems. This is a book of solutions, the how-to book on how to live a better life. If you want to persuade more people that the conservative cause is appropriate and correct, if you want to be happier, and you want to be more successful as a leader, do the stuff I say in the book. I pretty much guarantee it’s going to work. It worked for me.

Bluey: Your other books certainly have had a big influence on my life. 

Brooks: Thank you, Rob.

Bluey: I hope that this one has an influence on those who right now are struggling with the situation we’re in. You call it the “outrage industrial complex.” We’re more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War. You’ve even said that some families have stopped talking to other family members because of politics.

Brooks: One in six—one in six Americans—have stopped talking, entirely, to a family member or a close friend because of political differences. That is insane.

I’ve got big political differences with people. My politics are well known. I believe in free enterprise. I believe in American leadership. But look, if somebody doesn’t believe that the way I do, I don’t think that that person is a contemptible person, I just think they have incorrect ideas, and I have a zero percentage chance of actually persuading that person if I stop talking to them, and especially if I treat that person with hatred.

Bluey: So how does somebody love their enemies? And by the way, I love the title, “Love Your Enemies,” which comes from the Gospel of Luke.

Brooks: Or the Gospel of Matthew. In both, Jesus says to his followers, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” And it’s this incredibly subversive teaching. A lot of people who are listening to us have read the gospels, and they’ve tried to take them to heart. And yet all of us, we have trouble living that one.

Basically, the subversive truth behind that, love your enemies, is actually not that you should do something that’s impossible. It’s by treating somebody that you thought was your enemy not as your enemy by loving that person, you’re doing something that will destroy the illusion that that person was your enemy after all. And if you don’t get satisfaction, if you don’t change that person’s heart, at very least, you’ll change your own. That’s the subversive teaching of Jesus Christ in those passages.

When I read Lincoln’s first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends.” What he was saying, basically, was that I destroy the illusion of enemy status by treating people in that particular way.

A lot of people listening to us, almost everybody listening to us, I’m going to say are conservatives that want to persuade the rest of the country. Don’t ruin the opportunity to persuade other Americans by giving in to the desire, giving in to the itch of treating other people with contempt.

Contempt is kind of a metastatic phenomenon. It’s like cancer, basically. When you treat somebody with contempt, you make a permanent enemy. You just can’t go back from that. You have to be a master of yourself.

And why do we do that? Because they treat us with contempt. I got it. You go on Twitter, which is the contempt machine. You talk about politics maybe around the dining room table, Thanksgiving with Uncle Joe or whatever, and he disagrees with you. And the tendency is for people not separate us from our ideas and to say, “Since I disagree with your ideas and your ideas are contemptible, you’re a contemptible person.”

Well, they’re being manipulated by leaders on their own side in media and politics, and we answer in kind. And in a very strong way, we’re manipulated by leaders in media and politics and entertainment on campuses on our side, too. Break the cycle. Get the power. Be happier.

Bluey: I would hope so. As I said earlier, your books have really had a profound impact in terms of the way I think about communicating and working. “The Conservative Heart,” a book that you previously wrote, had a direct impact in terms of the work that we’re doing at The Daily Signal, for instance.

Brooks: I love The Daily Signal, and I love what you’ve done, Rob. You’re the brain behind The Daily Signal and this incredible success. A young guy. I mean, how old are you?

Bluey: Almost 40.

Brooks: Almost 40, but with that head of hair, I could be president of the United States. But that’s not my point. You’ve been a leader in conservative communications, and not just because you’re better at being a battering ram, kicking down somebody’s door and going, “Behold the gospel of conservativism.” You’ve made it winsome, and that’s what we need to do. We need to draw people to us. We will lose if we’re not magnetic.

And, by the way, my brothers and sisters on the political left, they have the same problem. They’re being brutalized, manipulated by people on their own side, just like conservative leaders are doing to the 93 percent of Americans who hate how divided we’ve become.

So listen to The Daily Signal. Listen to Rob Bluey. Listen to how we can become more magnetic. And more than anything else, don’t waste the opportunity to love your family members and your friends just because they disagree with you.

Bluey: I do have to say, though, you’ve pushed me to think differently, because I’m somebody who was always preaching civility and tolerance. But yet you say in the book those aren’t adequate solutions. Explain to our listeners why we need to think bigger than that.

Brooks: People are always asking for three things: civility, tolerance, and agreement. Right?

Bluey: Yes.

Brooks: And those are all terrible. Here’s the reason. I saw a guy wearing a shirt on a college campus that said, “We don’t need civility.” What he meant was, “We need to hate each other because the other side is so deplorable and so terrible,” and he was a radical. But that’s not what I mean at all. If I told you, Rob—because you’re a married man, right?

Bluey: I am, yes.

Brooks: What’s your wife’s name?

Bluey: Melissa.

Brooks: If you came to me and said, “Melissa and I, we’re civil to each other.” I’d say, “Rob, you guys need counseling.” And if you asked me how things are going at the American Enterprise Institute, and I said, “My employees, my 280 beloved employees, they tolerate me,” you’d say, “You got a big morale problem.”

Those are low standards, actually, and America’s trying to settle for low standards. That’s not right. Now the wrong standard is agreement. This is a key thing. The Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute are based on the fact that competition brings excellence.

It brings excellence in democratic politics. You don’t want one candidate in an election. That’s competition. In sports, in the economy, the free enterprise system has lifted billions out of poverty through competition. And in the competition of ideas, which is what’s really propelling progress in the world today, you can’t just have agreement, you’ve got to have disagreement.

So the point in my book is we don’t need to disagree less, we need to disagree better, and that comes from the back of remembering that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we need to persuade each other. And even if we have to not agree, that’s OK, too.

Bluey: That’s great. Thank you for that answer. You have what you’ve described as one of the must unusual relationships probably in Washington or throughout the world, and that’s your friendship with the Dalai Lama. The president of the American Enterprise Institute and the Dalai Lama. How has his thinking shaped your own and influenced this book, “Love Your Enemies“?

Brooks: The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He’s the world’s most famous Buddhist. And actually, if you read and believe some surveys, he’s the most respected religious figure in the world.

The Dalai Lama was exiled when he was 24 years old. He was thrown out of Tibet. He was the leader, spiritual and political leader, of Tibet, and the Chinese communists ruled through Tibet. Why? Because they did what dictators and tyrants do, is they kick out poor people, weak people, so they can grab the resources.

And Tibet contains a vast land mass with only 6 million people. It contains the headwaters of all the big Chinese rivers. The Chinese communists roll through, kick out the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama goes into exile. Poor, disappeared, forgotten, and over the next 60 years, becomes the world’s most respected religious figure.

How did he do it? The answer is when he was treated with contempt, he answered with love and warm-heartedness, and that’s what he has shared with me.

I’ve been working with the Dalai Lama for six-and-a-half years. We’ve written together in The New York Times, The Washington Post. We’re talking about a series of seminars for young people. I see him twice a year, and I have great love and respect for him.

I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a Christian, and my Christian faith is at the center of my life. But I have to say, the world’s most famous Buddhist has made me a better Christian, because he reminds me to love my enemies.

So I asked him this. I said—because you know, Rob, I feel contempt sometimes. I’m on the front lines of fighting these battles to bring free enterprise to the people who need it, the people who need the dignity and who need the opportunity. Poverty’s the thing I care about the most, and I know that the poverty-killer is capitalism. And I want to bring that.

I hear people who disagree with me who say that capitalism is stupid, and American leadership should go by the wayside. And I’m thinking, “No, no. If you love your brothers and sisters, we need this.” And sometimes I think they’re so wrong-headed that I treat them with disgust, and that makes permanent enemies.

And so I asked the Dalai Lama, “When I am treated with contempt and I feel contempt in return, what should I do?” And he’s very sage. He’s an 84-year-old Buddhist. And he says, “Two things. No. 1 is to expand the space between stimulus and response.” So that’s a fancy Buddhist sort of way of saying, “You feel something. Be the master of yourself. Wait to respond, and choose your response, as opposed to responding the way that you feel.”

Your mother was a Buddhist master, because she said, “Rob, count to 10 before you answer when you’re angry.” Right? She wasn’t a Buddhist master. It’s worldwide knowledge.

And then, what do you put in the slot after you’re treated with contempt on Twitter or around the Thanksgiving table or wherever? And the answer is, change somebody’s heart by changing your own.

Even if you don’t feel love, even if you don’t feel warm-hearted or kindness, you can choose to act that way, and in so doing, you’ll set your own heart on fire. Nobody’s ever said, “You know, I wish I had been a big jerk in that situation.”

People say, “Somebody treated me with hatred, and I answered with love,” and that would make your mother proud. That would make your children proud because they saw you do that. And it’ll set your heart on fire, and you have a fighting chance.

I’ve got stories all throughout “Love Your Enemies,” all throughout this book, of how people have done that by accident, in my own case, on purpose, and they’ve persuaded other people for the very first time.

Bluey: I love the story that you tell about when you were a professor at Syracuse University, and this gentleman from Texas wrote an angry, quite lengthy email to you. 

I’ve had the same thing happen to me. And in fact, we publish, every Monday, letters to the editor on The Daily Signal. We publish people who think we’re doing a good job and people who take strong disagreements with us. 

You’re absolutely correct. When you actually take the time to respond to somebody, and not in an angry or contemptuous way but actually have a thoughtful response, or just let them know that you’ve read their note, it does foster good will.

Brooks: Absolutely, absolutely. And it just makes you feel better, because you’re living up to your own moral standards. We’re all walking around talking about loving your enemies and treating other people with kindness and respect, and then we don’t do it.

You get a Twitter message from somebody that says you’re a moron, and then you say, “No, you’re a moron.” I mean like, come on, man. What you’ve done is you’ve foreclosed any opportunity to feel better, to be happier.

This book is only 10 percent problems. This book is 90 percent solutions. It’s a step-by-step approach to live a better, happier life, and to be more persuasive and to get more converts to your cause.

And here’s actually the amazing thing. When somebody treats you with contempt and you write back or you answer with warm-heartedness and love, no matter how you feel, the people who are watching the interaction, they all go your way. I didn’t know this until somebody taught me this and I tried it a bunch of times, and it’s absolutely true.

So when, in The Daily Signal, somebody says, “Dear moron,” and you answer, “Thank you for reading The Daily Signal,” the people who are watching say, “I like the guy who answered with love, not the guy who started the whole conversation with an insult and with hatred.” It’s an interesting thing.

When I look at these data that 90 percent of Americans hate how divided we’ve become as a country, that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions. Most of the people, virtually all of the people listening to us and who are going to be reading the transcript of this conversation, they hate how divided we are as a country, but they have strong opinions. Most of them agree with you and me about conservative ideas.

Now, here’s the problem. We’re being kind of kicked around by the 7 percent who don’t hate how divided we’ve become as a country in media, in politics, in entertainment, on college campuses that are firing people up on right and left, by the way.

People say because the president of the United States is the president, they can look at his example, when he fires people up and says contemptuous things. But just because the Democrats don’t have the presidency doesn’t mean that their leaders are not doing the same thing. And people in the media—there are networks and hosts and people are getting rich and famous.

One of the things that I recommend in this book is a very tangible step of how you can communicate in very concrete ways. Five loving messages for everyone that’s critical. I’ve got a step-by-step approach, but I also give this suggestion that when you’re being manipulated by somebody on your own side, you’ve got to mute that person.

If you’re on Twitter, you’re going to think that we’re half an hour away from a civil war. If you get off Twitter for one week, or I don’t know, give it up for Lent, you’re going to think that America’s not so bad. Well, which is it? The answer is the latter. Go live in the 93 percent land of Americans who don’t hate each other.

Bluey: You had a fascinating conversation with Chuck Todd of NBC News. And you talk about this in greater detail, and social media’s impact, and the phases that we are in when it comes to things like Twitter.

I want to shift topics because last year, I was listening to your podcast when you told the story of Hawk Newsome, the leader of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. And I was so inspired by your conversation with him and the fact that you were talking to this Black Lives Matter leader that I wrote to Hawk, and Hawk invited me to a cigar bar in the South Bronx, and I went. 

I interviewed Hawk for this show, and we aired the segment in early February. I have to admit, I was a little out of my comfort zone when I showed up, but it was such a rewarding experience to talk to somebody and find out how much common ground we do have. How do we go about finding other people like Hawk and encourage more of this?

Brooks: America is an entrepreneurial country. We all have different stories. Some were scratching out potatoes in Ireland four generations ago. Some were running from a shtetl in Eastern Europe and some were brought to this country involuntarily.

We’ve got all different stories. What we all have in common is that we descend from ambitious riff raff, and that we’re entrepreneurial.

But the problem that we have in America today is we’ve forgotten what real entrepreneurship means. Entrepreneurship is not about startup capital and getting to IPO and companies. That’s fine. But that’s minor.

Real entrepreneurship is taking a risk with the enterprise of your life, and the way that you do that is by putting your capital at risk. It means Rob Bluey going to a cigar bar in the South Bronx and hanging out with a guy who’s 6-foot-6 who runs Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. That is heavy. That is such an entrepreneurial thing to do, and yet that’s what we’re not doing.

So what I want to encourage everybody to do is to figure out the way that they can be personal entrepreneurs, have a startup life starting today. And there are a bunch of different ways to do that.

We have people in their 20s reading this today. I have data that show that they’re about a third less likely to be in love than people were when they were my age, and the reason is because they’re fearful. The reason is that they’re afraid of personal exposure to risk and to be rejected. I’ve got the data. I know this is true.

And so if you want to be a personal entrepreneur, you’re not until you’re actually exposing your heart to getting crushed. And, by the way, the average entrepreneur has 3.8 bankruptcies before a successful startup. You need 3.8 ugly breakups before you have a successful relationship, but you can’t get there unless you go through that. That’s one example.

Example No. 2 is Rob Bluey with the guy who runs Black Lives Matter. Be the Rob Bluey who’s going to—and, by the way, I’ve met with Hawk, too, and I reached out to that guy when I read his story, and we’ve become friends, and after I leave AEI I’m going to go teach at Harvard, and I’m going to have him guest lecture for me at Harvard.

Bluey: That’s great.

Brooks: It’s a beautiful thing. This guy, you’re not going to agree with him. He’s not going to say, “Everything I hear in The Daily Signal is what I agree with.” But that’s not the point.

He’s got children. He’s got a life. He loves America, and he wants to be fully American, too. I’ve got to tell you, I disagree, for sure, with a lot of things that he thinks politically, but he’s expanded my consciousness, and I’ve expanded his.

And look, if you can’t go where you’re not invited and say things people don’t expect and blow people’s minds and come together in brotherhood, all you’re doing is locking down one side of the political debate, and we’re never going to come together. We’re going to be a country that’s 30 percent on one side, 30 percent on the other side, and the remaining 40 percent just hates everything that’s going on.

And right now I can tell you we’re not making progress in this country, we’re not moving legislation in this country, we don’t have happiness. We have rising levels of depression and anxiety and stress in this country because of our political situation, because we actually can’t come together.

So if you want to be happier, you want to persuade, you want to be more successful, be like Rob Bluey. Go across the aisle. Talk to people that you never thought you would and try to find the way that you’re both humans.

Bluey: I want to ask, who are the heroes in your own life? Or maybe a better way to put it, who are the enemies that you love?

Brooks: I have met, since I’ve been working on this book, since 2014 when I first had that experience in New Hampshire, I have been meeting people constantly. I’ve been reaching out.

Here’s the funny thing that I do. So when I’m at an event, for example, a small enough event that I can talk to the individuals in the room—and I do 175 speeches a year, so I’m on the road all the time. When somebody has the courage to say, “I’m a left-winger,” that’s the person I’m going to bond with. That’s the person who’s going to get the bigger part of my attention, because that person just did something really really courageous, and I meet them all the time.

I’m all over the country, and so I’m meeting these people. The first thing that I’ll do is ask about what’s written on their hearts, not about what bums them out, not what makes them irritated about politics or what makes them enraged about President Trump. I want to know what’s written on their hearts, about their relationship with their children, what they want for their country.

And what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to point out that we have common moral foundations. We believe in compassion toward others. We believe in a fairer, better country that has more dignity for more people. And what we disagree on is the way to get it.

Once you basically say, “I love your heart, because I agree with you, and we both want the same fundamental moral things, now let’s talk about the things that we disagree on, because I think that my way to get at your objectives is better,” we’re efficient. People just will listen all day long. So I’ve done that.

You gave the example of the guy who runs Black Lives Matter, who, if we just went on our political affiliations, we would be told by politicians and the media that we are enemies, and if we just took that, we just accepted that, that would be the most conventional thing to do.

In the book, I’ve got this: A list of people that I’ve talked to and met and have greatly enriched my life. And I’ve got to say, I think I’ve actually got a lot more converts to the cause this way.

Bluey: As you’ve mentioned, you’re going to be stepping down as the president of the American Enterprise Institute to teach at Harvard. So I have to ask, given the polls that we’ve seen, what are you going to tell all of the Gen Zers who are coming to campus and embracing socialism as opposed to free enterprise?

Brooks: You know, I see those surveys all the time that show that people in iGen or Gen Z, whatever we want to call them, people who are after the millennials, that they have a high level of acceptance of socialist ideology as opposed to capitalism. I don’t like it, but I don’t worry about it nearly as much.

These are labels, and what we actually need are aspirational leaders that talk about the common moral foundations of what we’ve got. They’ll take off the banner of socialism as fast as they change their shirts. Young people are like that. That’s a good thing about young people, that’s not a bad thing.

In the same way, by the way, when people say that they’re really super entrepreneurial, you notice you go back about 10 years, and they were in love with the entrepreneurs in Northern California. They were all big libertarians. And now they don’t like a lot of the leaders in Northern California, because they think that that libertarianism was sort of selfish as far as they see it, and they were making products that hurt us, and they’re recognizing that they’re actually not happier.

So what we need to do is provide a model that says, “You can live a startup life. The enterprise of your life can be a beacon of hope for other people. Let’s work together to lift people up who have less power than we do. Let’s work in the margins of society.”

By the way, I have basically just gone through the tenets of the mission of The Heritage Foundation. Lifting people up from the margins of society, giving people opportunity, treating people with radically equal dignity, seeing the limitless potential inside every person.

There are zero scholars at The Heritage Foundation who don’t believe these things. So let’s talk in these terms. Let’s come together. Now I’ve got to be persuadable myself, I have to listen to other people’s point of view myself, and sometimes I’m going to to be grinding my teeth. But I can do that, and I’m dedicated to it.

I’ve got to tell you, in my prayers every day, I’m so thankful that I have an opportunity to go to arguably the greatest university in America to talk about these ideas. It’s a privilege.

Bluey: And we’re grateful that you’re going to be doing that. Finally, I want to ask, you’ve said that this is about more than the book, this is about creating a social movement. What is your hope and your goal when somebody reads the book?

Brooks: I’m a behavioral social scientist, and I study social movements a lot. And as an institutionalist, I mean, I run a big think tank in D.C., I tend to look for top-down solutions based on institutions. But that’s actually not how social movements start.

Social movements start because there’s a demand that comes up from the grassroots, and that demand comes because somebody treats another person in a different way and gets profound satisfaction from it. That’s what all social movements have in common.

So if you look at Martin Luther King, for example, people think that what it was was an institution where the Department of Justice started to crack down on racism and changing laws around voting. That’s a secondary effect. The civil rights movement was Martin Luther King suggesting that all people could be happier and live up to their own morals by treating another person in a different way. That’s what it was really all about.

I’m hoping that 100,000 people will read this book and share it and share the ideas and it will spread the idea that you can, starting today, start a movement, starting with your heart.

It doesn’t mean that a million people are going to do it because of you, but you can change your own heart and be happier and more successful by treating somebody else in a different way. Now, that sends a demand signal.

In a democratic capitalist country, we talk about leaders as if they were immaculately conceived, these great leaders who pop out of an egg someplace and then change America. That’s wrong. Most leaders in business and in politics and in media are actually followers. We’re the leaders, because we exert demand signals. We believe in capitalism, and Rob and Arthur are big fans of capitalism. That’s a good thing in democracy and capitalism.

A bunch of people want something because they say, “This is crummy, what we’ve got. We’re unhappy and we’re not succeeding, and so we demand something better.” And then a bunch of leaders say, “Oh man, there’s a parade going down the street. I got to get in front of it, because it needs a leader.” They’re followers.

So what I’m trying to do is to shape the parade by helping people to understand that each person in the parade can be happier and more successful by just going down a different street.

Bluey: Thank you for writing it. Again, the book is called “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt.” Arthur, congrats on the book. Thank you for all the work that you do at the American Enterprise Institute. We appreciate your being on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Brooks: Thank you, Rob. Thanks to The Heritage Foundation and The Daily Signal. God bless America.

Reproduced with permission.