In his Monday column for the New York Times, David Brooks evoked Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter‘s 1998 book “Civility” to recommend how reasonable people should engage with “fanatics.” I like the quote a lot, with this caveat: Brooks makes it clear, as almost all Times op-eds do now, that by “fanatic” he means all those strange, nasty, stupid, hateful people who don’t subscribe to the New York Times world view and progressive cant. As a result, I have to take Brooks’ words with several grains of sea salt, and indeed try to forget that they are coming from a pundit who has at other times implied that President Trump should be removed from office regardless of whether he actually does anything that would meet the standards required by the impeachment clause or the 25th Amendment.
That and other opinions he has put into print–always in the measured words of the intellectual he styles himself to be—marks him as a fanatic in my book, just one operating under the cover of gentility and intellectual rhetoric. Now, it would have been easy for Brooks to dispel my suspicions and also to have a larger audience for his wisdom had he chosen, as his example of a fanatic, a member of the antifa, or a college student who believes that conservatives should be censored, or any number of leftist nut cases who are as plentiful now as the autumn leaves. But no. Brooks knows that wouldn’t endear himself to his colleagues like Paul Krugman and Charles M. Blow, so his first example of a fanatic, and his only American one, was “a Trump supporter” who threatened him at a baseball game.
Thus Brooks’ column manages to be condescending and arrogant, as well as partisan, because of his failure to harness his biases. The substance of his quote, however, comes via Terry Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary and a thoughtful moderate for an arts guy, and through Amy Alkon, a moderate conservative feminist Trump-hating blogger and author, and Professor Carter, who seems like a reasonable and not especially political sort. This is enough, I think, to cleanse Brooks’ words of their inherent hypocrisy. Deciding that those who disagree with you must be the fanatic in the conversation is, after all, a poor starting point for a productive discussion.
With those reservations and qualifications, here is the quote:
The only way to confront fanaticism is with love, [Professor Carter] said. Ask the fanatics genuine questions. Paraphrase what they say so they know they’ve been heard. Show some ultimate care for their destiny and soul even if you detest the words that come out of their mouths.
You engage fanaticism with love, first, for your own sake. If you succumb to the natural temptation to greet this anger with your own anger, you’ll just spend your days consumed by bitterness and revenge. You’ll be a worse person in all ways.
If, on the other hand, you fight your natural fight instinct, your natural tendency to use the rhetoric of silencing, and instead regard this person as one who is, in his twisted way, bringing you gifts, then you’ll defeat a dark passion and replace it with a better passion. You’ll teach the world something about you by the way you listen. You may even learn something; a person doesn’t have to be right to teach you some of the ways you are wrong.
Second, you greet a fanatic with compassionate listening as a way to offer an unearned gift to the fanatic himself. These days, most fanatics are not Nietzschean supermen. They are lonely and sad, their fanaticism emerging from wounded pride, a feeling of not being seen.
If you make these people feel heard, maybe in some small way you’ll address the emotional bile that is at the root of their political posture…
Finally, it’s best to greet fanaticism with love for the sake of the country. As Carter points out, the best abolitionists restrained their natural hatred of slaveholders because they thought the reform of manners and the abolition of slavery were part of the same cause — to restore the dignity of every human being.
We all swim in a common pool. You can shut bigots and haters out of your dining room or your fantasy football league, but when it comes to national political life, there’s nowhere else to go. We have to deal with each other.
Civility, Carter writes, “is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”