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ASM Speaker Arthur Brooks Discusses Political Polarization and the Need for Breaking the Cycle of Hatred

Mac Doucette

During the All-School Meeting (ASM) on Friday, October 15, social scientist Arthur Brooks discussed the importance of political polarization and loving people with whom you disagree. Brooks is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School. He also served as President of the American Enterprise Institute from 2009 to 2019, is a columnist for “The Atlantic,” and has authored eleven books.

Brooks opened his speech by discussing the issue of our increasing inability as a society to talk to individuals with whom we disagree, stating that “93 percent of Americans hate how divided we are as a country.” According to Brooks, there is a need for disagreement in order to create a competition of ideas.

Brooks referenced a 2014 psychological study of a phenomenon called “motive attribution asymmetry,” a situation where conflict stems from both sides believing that they are motivated by love while the other is motivated by hatred.

Brooks warned about the mixture of anger with disgust, when anger transforms to contempt—a true measure of hatred. Brooks stated that despite disagreement, one should not treat another person with contempt, as contempt always fails to be persuasive. Brooks argued that we treat others with contempt out of habit—one that Brooks encourages us to challenge. Rather than becoming dismissive when faced with disagreement, Brooks encouraged a change from a simple reaction into the perspective of “I care what you think and I want to change it,” and urged the audience to remember that “nobody in history has ever been insulted into agreement.”

When treated with contempt, Brooks believes that the best response is friendliness. Brooks instead encouraged the audience to strive to always choose warm-heartedness.

“True moral courage is not standing up to the people with whom you disagree… it is standing up to the people with whom you agree, on behalf of those with whom you disagree… [those who disagree] are not here to defend themselves, and they’re not stupid and they’re not evil. We need to persuade them with love—that’s moral courage,” said Brooks.

Students’ reactions to Brooks’ ideas were varied. When asked for a comment, Karsten Rynearson ’22, who asked Brooks a question at the end of the ASM, pointed towards a statement he made on his Instagram account on October 16.

“We need to place less importance on this idea of ‘open discussion’: there is such a thing as ideas bad enough that they aren’t worth hearing out or having included in conversations. If your ideology preaches hatred of people on the basis of their identities, I’m not inclined to sit down and convince you using the power of love to see me as a human. That’s not my responsibility. Why is it always people who are targeted with hatred and oppression who are told that they must be the most loving and forgiving of all to those who perpetrate that intolerance? Comparing conservatives hating left-wing people for their politics and left-wing people disliking right-wing people for the actively harmful bigotry they spew is a massive false equivalency. I don’t think I have to like or love the people who deny my existence, nor am I interested in meeting them halfway on the validity of my identity. I’m fascinated with how deliberately vague language like “love” and “understanding” is applied by people like Dr. Brooks to justify considering the validity of reductive and harmful ideologies,” wrote Rynearson.

Amelia Quintero ’24 reflected back on Rynearson’s question at the conclusion of ASM and Brooks’ reply to it.

“I thought it was interesting how the students clapped more for Karsten’s question than for the actual speaker. I think it shows that Dr. Brooks left many counterpoints unanswered. Especially compared to how much people seemed to like last week’s speaker, to me it showed that there is a fair amount of disagreement among the student body with Dr. Brooks’ perspective,” said Quintero.

Camila McGinley ’23 shared a similar sentiment with Quintero and believed that Brooks could have provided a more thoughtful, better-worded response.

“I thought that the speaker brought an interesting perspective, however, I was not too keen in his response to questions. I think the way he responded to Karsten, in particular, was a little patronizing and should have been better-worded,” said McGinley.

On the other hand, George Stoody ’24, co-president of the Andover Conservative Club, thought Brooks’ speech highlighted an important message on the need for approaching polarizing conversations with love rather than contempt.

“Dr. Brooks had a great presentation about approaching differences in opinions with love, and looking to persuade those who disagree with us instead of attempting to argue. He theorized arguing only widens the political gap we see in America today. A powerful message overall, and one Andover should take to heart when discussing controversial topics, especially with the high tensions we see in political discussions on campus such as APUs [Andover Political Unions]. It was a great speech overall, and the ideas of free speech he mentioned were definitely relevant to our environment of lack of political communication on campus today. I’m glad he came,” wrote Stoody in an email to The Phillipian.

Andrew Ohn ’24 had a similar reaction to Brooks’ speech and believed Brooks had shared a meaningful message.

“I personally thought the speaker brought a very non-polarizing view. The whole point of his speech was against extremism and being divisive. I thought it was a good message, I mean, how could it be a bad message? His whole point was that responding with love is always better than hate,” said Ohn.

At the end of his speech, Brooks stressed four points as key takeaways from his presentation: Be a free thinker; come to your own opinions. Stop believing that when you disagree you need to hate. Seek out contempt and run toward it—it is your opportunity to make progress and in order to “be a missionary for love,” you have to go where it’s not and find people showing hate and surround it with love. Make a list of the things you are grateful for; it will make you happier, and happier people are more persuasive.