'Love Your Enemies' ... And Maaaybe You'll Get Them To Agree With You

Apr 1, 2019
Originally published on April 1, 2019 9:49 am

Social scientist Arthur Brooks says you should really think twice before calling someone a liar.

"When you're talking to somebody else, you're not positioned to say that that person is a pathological liar," he says. "What you know, or what you believe, is that person is saying something is untrue — and that's what you should take on."

Brooks' new book is called Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. It aims to guide people on different sides of the political divide to have constructive conversations.

"If you actually want to persuade somebody else, attacking that other person will drive that person farther in the other direction and it will alienate the people who are listening to your interchange," Brooks says. " ... To condemn the person is suboptimal because you will never persuade somebody else that what you're doing is anything more than a character assassination."

Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, talks about how he thinks we can disagree better, and why he believes "getting along" is a "garbage standard."


Interview Highlights

On the "moral foundations": compassion and fairness

When we're assassinating character, we say that the other person is immoral as opposed to: I disagree with what that person said. There's a wonderful body of literature these days led by Jonathan Haidt who teaches at New York University about "moral foundations." What he finds is that everybody in society basically shares two moral foundations: We all care about compassion, and we all care about fairness. We don't define those things in the same way, but we care about those things.

It gets more complicated when you look ideologically at the fact that conservatives and liberals ... tend to have a couple of different moral foundations beyond that. So what I argue in my book is: If you actually want to bring people together — and you want to persuade somebody that they should listen to your point of view — stay on arguments about compassion and fairness such that you can share the moral foundations that we all have in common.

On the difficulty of taking morality out of discussions over issues such as abortion

It is a moral argument, but what you have to understand is that the person with whom you're arguing has a point of view — and might share some of your moral foundations — but they express them in a different way. One of the things that I recommend, particularly when families are being torn apart, is to listen deeply to the moral core of what your interlocutor is saying, and say: I'm worried that your policy that you're trying to get is not getting at your own objective — and maybe I have a different way to do it.

If you do that — if you respect the moral core of somebody else's argument without attacking that person as immoral — you're much more likely to have a rich conversation and not rip your relationships apart.

On whether he expects everyone in this vast, diverse country to just "get along"

No, we should not get along. ... We have the wrong standards. People are saying: "Yeah, the country's too divided, I hate it. ... What we need is more civility or more tolerance." Those are garbage standards. ...

If I said ... "My wife, Ester and I, we're civil to each other." You'd say, "Man, you need counseling." Or, if I said, "My employees, they tolerate me," You'd say: "That's a bad scene." And if I said, "We need to agree," you should reject that, too, because the competition of ideas is also known as disagreement.

Disagreement in a democracy is the source of our strength. If it's performed with respect and warmheartedness — even with love — that's how we avoid stagnation and mediocrity. I'm all about disagreement, but it has to be done in the climate of respect, warm heartedness and love.

Amara Omeokwe and Jessica Smith produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How are we supposed to talk with people with views completely different from our own? Consider just one story in the news today. Georgia lawmakers approved a bill to forbid abortion once a heartbeat is detected. It's easy for anyone to believe that people who disagree with them about that story are not just wrong but utterly immoral. That is also true of people with differing views of the president or who believe the president is lying.

Arthur Brooks would like to encourage better discussions. The longtime writer and head of the American Enterprise Institute wrote a new book called "Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From The Culture Of Contempt."

ARTHUR BROOKS: Here's the key. When you're talking to somebody else, you're not positioned to say that that person is a pathological liar. What you know or what you believe is that person is saying something is untrue, and that's what you should take on. If you actually want to persuade somebody else, attacking that other person will drive that person farther in the other direction, and it will alienate the people who are listening to your interchange.

INSKEEP: First, I should say, as a journalist, I'm with you. I try to stick to the knowable facts. And I don't rule out the word liar or the word lie, but we use it in a limited way. Yet there are some people who get quite upset about that. And what do you do with someone like the President of the United States who - and this is in no way a partisan statement; it's just a demonstrable statement - he says untrue things all the time, almost daily, in a documented way - denies that things on video ever happened, for example.

BROOKS: Yeah. You point out the fact that he's saying something that is documented to not be correct. And then you point out the fact that there are people on the other side that are saying things that are not correct. You point at the sickness in our political culture, which is not that we have a bunch of liars - a society of sociopaths - but rather...

INSKEEP: I don't know that you can say just point at the other side. I mean, if we look at the last president, there's a very famous, demonstrably false statement that he made about Obamacare. But it's hard to find thousands of false statements by the previous president. This one is unusual.

BROOKS: President Trump, in the way that he talks, is unusual. That's absolutely right. But to condemn the person is suboptimal because you will never persuade somebody else that what you're doing is anything more than a character assassination.

INSKEEP: Now, this gets to a question that you pose in one of your chapters - how can I love my enemies if they are immoral?

BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, that's true. We have a tendency - when we're assassinating character, we say that the other person is immoral - as opposed to, I disagree with what that person said. And there's a wonderful body of literature these days led by Jonathan Haidt - he teaches at New York University - about moral foundations.

And what he finds is that everybody in society basically shares two moral foundations. We all care about compassion, and we all care about fairness. We don't define those things in the same way, but we care about those things. It gets more complicated when you look ideologically at the fact that conservatives and liberals, they tend to have a couple of different moral foundations beyond that.

So what I argue in my book is if you actually want to bring people together - and you want to persuade somebody that they should listen to your point of view - stay on arguments about compassion and fairness such that you can share the moral foundations that we all have in common.

INSKEEP: Let me circle back, though, to this question about how to deal with people when you feel the person on the other side of the argument is immoral. There are several examples of this. One obvious one is abortion. If you...

BROOKS: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Are opposed to abortion rights - pro-life - you think the other person is killing people.

BROOKS: Right.

INSKEEP: If you are pro-choice, you think that women's rights are being violated if your point of view is not upheld. How could you not see that as a moral argument?

BROOKS: It is a moral argument. But what you have to understand is that the person with whom you're arguing has a point of view and might share some of your moral foundations, but they express them in a different way.

One of the things that I recommend, particularly when families are being torn apart, is to listen deeply to the moral core of what your interlocutor is saying and say, I'm worried that your policy that you're trying to get is not getting at your own objective, and maybe I have a different way to do it. And if you do that - if you respect the moral core of somebody else's argument without attacking that person as immoral, you're much more likely to have a rich conversation and not rip your relationships apart.

INSKEEP: One of the thing, Arthur Brooks, before I let you go - we should remember this is a very big country with a lot of different kinds of people and serious differences over the way the country should be. Should we all get along?

BROOKS: No. It's funny. We have the wrong standards. When people are saying, yeah, the country's too divided. I hate it. They say, oh, what we need is more civility or more tolerance. Those are garbage standards. You know, Steve, if I said - hey, you know, my wife Esther and I, we - we're civil to each other. You'd say, man, you need counseling.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: And if I said we need to agree, you should reject that, too, because the competition of ideas is also known as disagreement. And disagreement in a democracy is the source of our strength. If it's performed with respect and warm-heartedness - even with love - that's how we avoid stagnation and mediocrity.

INSKEEP: Arthur C. Brooks is the author of the book "Love Your Enemies." Thanks so much.

BROOKS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.