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The contamination of contempt

“America is addicted to political contempt.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more accurate diagnosis of what we’re looking at in the United States right now.

I’m quoting from a new book by Arthur C. Brooks, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt.” I had read that before going to sleep this past Thursday night. When I woke up on Friday, I saw the truth of Brooks’ words playing out.

I arose to the news of a massacre of 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. But when I checked Twitter very early in the morning, the first tweets I saw weren’t directly about the bloodshed. What I saw were exchanges with and about New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She had tweeted, “What good are your thoughts & prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?” She went on to provide a litany of mass shootings in places of worship in recent years: New Zealand, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Sutherland Springs.

Here’s what Brooks writes: “While most of us hate what it is doing to our country and worry about how contempt coarsens our culture over the long term, many of us still compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers and some of the news media. We wish our national debates were nutritious and substantive, but we have an insatiable craving for insults to the other side …. (W)e indulge our guilty urge to listen as our biases are confirmed that the other guys are not just wrong, but stupid and evil.”

Brooks defines contempt as “anger mixed with disgust. These two emotions form a toxic combination, like ammonia mixed with bleach.”

He makes the point that “When somebody around you treats you with contempt, you never quite forget it.” How many times a day does this happen on social media? Contempt, he points out, “crowds out love because it becomes our focus. If you have contempt for ‘them,’ more and more people will become ‘them.'”

To solve the epidemic polarization in America today, he says, we need to eliminate contempt from our mental toolbox. So, his book is full of practical wisdom about how to go about it. And as the subtitle suggests, we all have more power than we realize.

My first mistake on Friday morning, of course, was checking Twitter before I did much of anything else — save for a very quick prayer. My prayer was too quick because it didn’t give me the kind of pause that would have drawn me deeper into the heart of God before I went to see the morning headlines.

I could hear the words of Arthur Brooks in my head, as I perused my screen: “What’s going on here? The answer is addiction, of course. Addiction clouds our ability to make long-run choices in our own interest.” I wanted to know what was going on — but I’m also addicted to what people are saying. It’s a professional hazard, in my case. But it’s a bit of an existential crisis for our nation, too.

About contempt, Brooks writes that it is “driving us apart and making us miserable. It is holding us hostage.” He then asks: “What exactly do we want instead?”

Friday morning, I didn’t want to get sucked into the rabbit hole of anything that Ocasio-Cortez, a young media favorite, says and does, with all the attendant hoopla and vituperation. Once I realized what the commentary was about, I wanted to experience a closeness with the people who were killed and their families. I wanted to believe that if I poured out my heart in prayer, it could be some contribution to God’s mercy on those who died, not expecting that their Friday prayers would involve their brutal deaths, and His consolation to those whose lives were forever changed hours before.

“We are called to find common ground where it genuinely exists, improve our own arguments and win over persuadable Americans by answering hostility with magnanimity, understanding, good humor and love. We cannot do that while hiding in our narrow ideological foxholes,” Brooks writes.

Brooks provides rules for moving forward, all rooted in the idea that love can and will save us: “The next time you are about to engage in disagreement over a contentious issue, ask yourself a question: Am I about to use my values as a gift, or as a weapon to attack the other side? If you are about to use them as a weapon, stop. Find a way to use your values as a gift instead.”

Gratitude grows love. Love changes everything. It’s hard. It’s simple. A revolution of love is what the doctor has ordered. Let’s get to it.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at

Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Lopez

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