Reviving the lost art of persuasion starts with stories.
In September 2017, two groups met on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Tommy Hodges, pro-Trump organizer of the “Mother of All Rallies,” was at the microphone when a group from Black Lives Matter New York, there to counter protest, came on the scene. Insults were exchanged in the crowd, and the situation became combustible.
Then Hodges did something unexpected—he handed the microphone to Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter, and gave him a few minutes to speak. In that time, as Newsome told his story of why they were there, the jeers changed to cheers as the two groups were able to rally around their uniting principles.
This is the power of stories, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, tells us in his latest book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt. This story of meeting contempt and distrust with respect and compassion is the example we need to follow in our current culture.
Today’s political climate is not the product of anger; it is the product of contempt, according to Brooks’ diagnosis. "Love your enemies" is his prescription for escaping the downward spiral of cynicism and revenge.
How did we get here? Republican and Democrats “suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable to that of Palestinians and Israelis.” In other words, the majority of members of each political party believes they are acting out of love—love of country, love of community—while the other side is acting out of hate.
Brooks believes we can counter this by meeting the contempt aimed at us with warm-heartedness and appeals to our common humanity. We need to look at what we have in common and stop focusing on our differences. In a recent podcast, he encouraged us to “focus on our shared ‘why’ instead of our divided ‘what.’”
We need to seek out those with different perspectives and learn to disagree well. After all, disagreement is another way to say “competition of ideas,” and when we learn to disagree in a spirit of love and warm-heartedness, we hone those ideas into something better than they were before.
More than anything else, Brooks calls us to a countercultural movement. “Go find someone with whom you disagree,” he says. “Listen thoughtfully; and treat him or her with respect and love. The rest will flow naturally from there.”
I had the good fortune to hear Brooks speak in person on these same themes last summer, and although I had heard many of the stories before, I still found them compelling. Our contemptuous culture feels too entrenched to overcome, but he is right that much of the solution starts at the grassroots level with each of us choosing a better way to relate to one another.