More Love, Less Contempt
ARTHUR C. BROOKS
President of the American Enterprise Institute
April 25, 2019
President Worthen, distinguished guests, parents, friends, and members of the Brigham Young University class of 2019. Congratulations on this important day and thank you for this incredible honor. With this honorary degree, I am proud to say that I’m finally a real member of the BYU community. I have to confess, that up to this point, I’ve only ever impersonated a member of the BYU community.
I know that sounds bad, so let me explain. Several years ago, I came to this beautiful place, to BYU, to deliver a lecture. My wonderful host sent me home with a ton of branded souvenirs, t-shirts, mugs, you name it. You guys are great at product placement. One particularly nice gift, that I got that day, was a briefcase and it had BYU emblazoned across the front. Now, as it happened, I actually needed a new briefcase but I kinda hesitated to use it because of the logo. It felt a little weird, like false advertising. See, I’m not a member of the faculty of BYU, nor am I member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I’m a Catholic. Somebody told me, by the way, that I’m your favorite Catholic, but I figure you say that to all Catholics. So anyway, my wife Esther, when I expressed this hesitance, that’s ridiculous, use the briefcase, it’s beautiful.
So, I loaded it up and took it out on the road. I travel all the time. I’m in airports constantly. Here’s the weird thing…I noticed that people would look at my briefcase, then look up at me, and they would have this weird look on their face like, “I’ve never seen an aging, hipster, Mormon before, excuse me latter-day saint.”
Now, this gave me some amusement, but here’s the funny part, I found that it was changing my behavior. I was acting with greater love and kindness than I ordinarily would. People look at my briefcase and I would say “I want to help with their luggage, I want to give them my place in line, that sort of thing.” Why? Because I was unconsciously trying to live up to the high standards of kindness of your church and your university. At the very least, not to hurt your well-earned reputation for kindness.
You know what else? I even stopped carrying cups of coffee. Look, I love coffee, but I didn’t want people to think that a member of your church is a hypocrite. I had this paranoid fantasy, you know like, some guy telling his wife, “I saw this Mormon guy in the airport ordering a venti latte at Starbucks, I knew they were hypocrites.” I didn’t want that. You know what? That briefcase made me a happier person, a more loving person. I was like the person I wanted to be. Why? Because I was trying to be like you.
So, what’s the lesson here? It’s not that BYU briefcases have magic properties, it’s that your greatest witness to the world, as a member of this community, is the conduct of your life. Our nation, world, need you more than ever.
Today, if you pay attention to politics, television, or social media, God forbid, what do you see?
You see recrimination, reproach, insults, sarcasm. You see leaders of highest level of our country berate those with whom they disagree. You see families torn apart over political disagreements. You see political foes who treat each other as enemies. People often characterize the current moment in America as being angry. If only this were true. Anger is an emotion that occurs when we want to change someone’s behavior and we believe we can do it. According to the research on anger, while it’s often perceived as a negative emotion, it has social purpose and it's not to drive others away.
Rather, it's intended to remove problematic elements of a relationship and bring people back together.
Believe it or not, there is no evidence that in a marriage anger is correlated with separation or divorce. For 28 years I've been married to a Spaniard. The secret to the success of my decades of marriage is the lack of correlation between anger and divorce. The problem my friends is not anger, it's contempt. In the words of the 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “contempt is the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another person.”
The destructive power of contempt is well documented in the work of famous social psychologist, a relationship expert John Gottman, who teaches the University of Washington in Seattle. Over the course of his work, Godman has studied thousands of married couples. The biggest warning signs of divorce, he explains, are indicators of contempt. These include: sarcasm, sneering, hostile humor, and worst of all, eye rolling. Hmm I have teenage kids; I see lots of eye rolling. But if you roll your eyes at somebody you love, whoa be unto you. That is a little act that says you're worthless to the one person, your spouse, the person you should love more than any other. You want to see if a couple will end up a divorce court, watch them discuss contentious topics and see if either partner rolls his or her eyes.
And just as contempt ruins a marriage, it can tear a country apart. America has developed a culture of contempt, a habit of seeing people who disagree with us, not merely as incorrect or misguided, but as worthless. This is causing incredible harm to our country. One in six Americans have stopped talking to close friends or family members over politics. Since the 2016 election, millions are organizing their social lives and curating their news and information to avoid hearing viewpoints differing from their own ideological polarizations at higher levels than at any time since the American Civil War.
Listen now to the words of church President Russell M. Nelson, “hatred among brothers and neighbors has now reduced sacred cities to sites of sorrow.” He said this in 2002, today it's even truer, isn't it?
This is harming more than our nation. Remember that America is a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. We are an example of democratic capitalism that has pulled 2 billion of our brothers and sisters at a starvation level poverty over the past half century alone. This is a nation that's attracted you, or your ancestors, with a promise of equal opportunity, religious freedom, and a good life for you and your family. When America is torn apart, we become incapable of living up to the plan, the Holy plan for our nation, which is to shine of light for the rest of the world.
So, what do we need? Some say we need to agree more, but that's wrong. Disagreement is good because competition is good. It makes us sharp and strong whether in sports, politics, economics, or in the world of ideas. We don't need to disagree less; we need to disagree better.
Other people say we need more civility, that's wrong too. Civility is a hopelessly low standard for us as Americans. Imagine I told you that my wife, Esther, and I are civil to each other, you'd say to get some counseling. If we're going to beat the problem of contempt, we're going to need something more radical than civility, something that speaks to our hearts true desire. We need love, which was defined by Thomas Aquinas as: “to will the good of the other”. We need a new generation ready to model lives of love in the midst of the culture of contempt.”
We need young people who can live out in today's culture. The words of the book of Helaman, chapter five, “And it came to pass that they did go forth and did minister unto the people. And as many as were convinced did lay down their weapons of war, and also their hatred, and the tradition of their fathers.” He was talking about you. Make no mistake, this isn't easy to do, it requires people who will not run away from the problem. We’re unafraid to infiltrate the culture of contempt. We're capable of modeling a better sense of value, and values. This requires the agility to be in the culture, but not of it.
When you think of it, it's kind of like missionary work, isn't it? Missionaries have the training and experience to participate in society without getting sucked into its pathologies. They have the courage and fortitude necessary to face resistance and go forth with a joy that comes from sharing the truth. Just out of curiosity, do you happen to know anyone with missionary experience? Well guess what, it's time to dust off that experience and use it in a brand-new way, starting today.
Near my home, there's a Catholic Retreat Center, where my wife and I teach marriage preparation class to engaged couples. In the chapel, there's a signpost over the door, but not the door coming in, it's posted over the door before you go out into the parking lot. It's written for people to look at as they're leaving. Here's what it says, “You are now entering mission territory.” The message is simple, but it's really profound.
You're here because you found what's good and true, but you're going out to where people haven't found what you've discovered. You have the privilege of sharing it with joy and with confidence. That should be a message to you who want to make America in the world better. You know what our world needs: more love, less contempt. You have the skills and you have the training to make this a reality.
Most of you have been raised your whole lives with the values that I magically got for a few minutes from my BYU briefcase. You've received an education through hard work at one of the world's greatest universities. Some of you know, maybe all of you, that this university has an unofficial motto “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve”.
You get to live up to that model starting today, to sanctify your learning and ordinary work by lifting up and bringing together a great nation. So ladies and gentlemen, of the BYU class of 2019, I pray that our Heavenly Father will bless the world abundantly through you. Congratulations on this accomplishment, and don't forget, you are now re-entering mission territory. God bless you. God bless America. Thank you very much.