February 2, 2019

by Jennifer Tiedemann

What’s the biggest problem in America today? To American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, it’s how we treat each other. But there’s a solution—and we can all work to make it happen. 

Last week, Brooks spoke at a Goldwater Institute event about that solution. (You can watch his full speech here.) And in an interview with the Institute, he made a special call-to-action for those who care about the future of our country:

“We can’t let up. We have to support the Goldwater Institute. We have to support it with our time, and our talent, and our treasure. If we do that, then we’ll be voting for a better America and basically taking our values, and our careers, and our resources and saying ‘I dedicate these things to making a better America in my name and for the good of my kids and grandkids.’ If people really want a better America, support the Goldwater Institute. You’re serving your country.”

Born in Seattle into a politically progressive family, Brooks knows what it’s like to be around people you disagree with. Even though he sees himself as a staunch conservative—after all, he leads a nationally prominent free-market think tank—he recognizes the commonalities in all of us that supersede politics. He said of his liberal family members, “We agree on almost everything—except all the policy. We agree on our religious faith. We agree on the love we have for our kids…I remember something that my dad taught me as a kid which is the mark of moral courage, the mark of character, is not to stand up against people with whom you disagree, it’s to stand up against people with whom you agree on behalf of those with whom you disagree. That’s the true mark of moral character.”

That’s the main idea behind Brooks’ forthcoming book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. To Brooks, there’s a real difference between defending the opinion of those who disagree with you and defending their right to express it and respecting that their heart is in the right place, even if you think their opinion is misguided. Brooks told the audience that a “culture of contempt” has taken hold in America—one in which people regularly express “the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being.” 

That’s a pretty unflattering picture of how we speak to and act toward one another—but it’s not hard to see in our modern society. Take social media, which Brooks called “a contempt machine”: It’s easy to sit anonymously behind a screen and vilify another person. From television to college campuses, there’s a widespread culture of demonizing the other side. 

Treating each other with contempt is a habit—one that can be hard to break, and one he falls victim to every so often, he admitted. So Brooks turned to a close friend for help: the Dalai Lama, the world’s leading Tibetan Buddhist. While shooting footage for his new film, The Pursuit, Brooks asked his friend how to deal with feelings of contempt. The answer? Practice warm-heartedness. “The Dalai Lama told me he starts every day praying for the Chinese leaders—not that they’ll give back his homeland, but they’ll live good, happy lives,” Brooks said. “And that’s when I realized warm-heartedness is not weak. It’s the ultimate strength. When somebody treats you with contempt and you answer with warm-heartedness, you’ve displayed raw strength. See, answering contempt with contempt is what weak people do.”

While some would preach tolerance, Brooks rejected that answer (as AEI’s president, he said, he doesn’t want his employees to just “tolerate” him). The real contempt-killer isn’t tolerance: It’s love and gratitude. “Love kills contempt,” he told the audience. “And that’s what we need. We need to be agents for it…Who would ever think that the conservative movement would make love cool again?”

Living in such a way—exercising warm-heartedness, love, and gratitude in the face of criticism and contempt—leads to greater happiness. And boosting that happiness is truly a rising tide that lifts all boats. “All entrepreneurs know that when there is discomfort, when there is unhappiness, when there is a lack of something fundamental, that is the greatest opportunity for a new kind of social enterprise,” Brooks said. “I believe that we’re at the beginning of that. I believe that the Goldwater Institute is at the epicenter of a new American movement that can start with all of us if we follow these principles.”

This is where the embrace of free and open societies is so important, Brooks explained in a sit-down interview with the Goldwater Institute. Freedom is the best way to achieve happiness because “one of the pillars of the happiest possible life, of a life of purpose and meaning is earning your success and serving others”—and the free enterprise system is the best way to get there.