Stop an American on the streets and ask them what the source of our national disunity is, and most would point to politics. Digging deeper, many would emphasize the root issue within our politics as anger. But Arthur Brooks (an American social scientist, bestselling author, columnist, and former president of the American Enterprise Institute) argues that it is not anger that is killing our nation, but contempt.
In his book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, Brooks explains:
“We don’t have an anger problem in American politics. We have a contempt problem…If you listen to how people talk to each other in political life today, you notice it is with pure contempt. When somebody around you treats you with contempt, you never quite forget it. So if we want to solve the problem of polarization today, we have to solve the contempt problem.”
Love Your Enemies is onto something. If you disagree, I would challenge you to scroll through social media for five minutes and count every contemptuous post you see. Go ahead, this piece will wait. (And if your total is zero by the end of the five minutes, try scrolling through your posts. I’ll be the first to admit that my social media is not as contempt free as I want it to be.)
Brooks highlights our national contempt in no uncertain terms:
“Anyone who can’t tell the difference between an ordinary Bernie Sanders supporter and a Stalinist revolutionary, or between Donald Trump’s average voter and a Nazi, is either willfully ignorant or needs to get out of the house more. Today, our public discourse is shockingly hyperbolic in ascribing historically murderous ideologies to the tens of millions of ordinary Americans with whom we strongly disagree. Just because you disagree with something doesn’t mean it’s hate speech or the person saying it is a deviant.”
This diagnosis highlights an urgent truth: For America’s sake, for unity’s sake, we must kill political contempt.
Many might argue that setting aside contempt equals “losing your spine” or becoming “a snowflake.” Early on in my political involvement, my disdain fueled self may have argued the same. But removing contempt from our political discourse in no way means backing down on important issues or never disagreeing. Killing contempt requires strength and a greater love for neighbor and nation than your love for your disdain.
Fueling our political discourse with love for neighbor, community, and nation may mean even more passionate debate. In my experience, the safest places to have strong disagreements have been within the confines of relationships where I loved and respected the other person. Contempt ruins that safety and the death of contempt mean the rebuilding of safe harbors for fierce, yet loving, disagreement.
Continued contempt means the continued devolution of American politics, and it’s not just our communities and relationships that are at stake – the very fabric of America is on the line. Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech was about the horrific evil of transatlantic slavery, but there is truth within it that fits our disunified and contemptuous nation:
“‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ …Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown…To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty is the work now before all those who would prevent that consummation. This is what we have to do. But how can we best do it?”
In Lincoln’s day, there was a unique cause of disunity and contempt, but those things themselves are not unique. While speaking of the overthrow of slavery, Lincoln noted the necessity of overthrowing the power of the political dynasty at work in those days. Our present-day political dynasty is ruled by contempt, and if it is not torn down, how will our nation stand?
An idea like America, an experiment like America cannot exist unless it’s guarded. And when those who are designated to stand guard are so busy trying to tear one another down, they will succeed in doing so, but they will likely bring the nation down with their political enemies.
Contempt kills. Soul, relationships, communities, and nation. We must kill it before we reach that point and seek a unified path forward instead. If we choose not to do so, the consequences are on our shoulders.