Ethical Quote Of The Month: David Brooks, Channeling Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter

First, a bit of a disclaimer:

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.”

22 Comments

Filed under Citizenship, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Quotes, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, language, Love, Quotes, U.S. Society

22 responses to “Ethical Quote Of The Month: David Brooks, Channeling Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter

  1. Pennagain

    I shall remember this lesson when next I encounter people weeping and screaming at the sky. Someone’s been peeing in Carter’s “common pool,” . . . from the left side.

      • Nor does it work on entire swathe of society that has enough of the population and enough powerful institutions in bed with the errant ideology agreeing with them that they can just hide in their echo chambers.

        • But at least the insane alt-right is just a fringe group.

          • Sue Dunim

            Telling the difference can be hard though.

            If someone is claiming that Jews control the International banking system, that the Protocols of the Learners Elders of Zion is factual, that there is an International Globalist Conspiracy to destroy the USA and pollute our precious bodily fluids… Then they may just be Trolling, attention seeing, and out to put in the boot to the Left – leftists like George Bush.

            The Right equivalent of Cynthia McKinney, with her tales of mass graves from massacres of Blacks after Hurricane Katrina. Alt Facts.

            Or they might be stark staring bonkers, and planning to spark RAHoWa starting with bombings and mass shootings. Just like the Symbionese Liberation Army planned to spark the People’s Revolution.

    • Good examples from fringe groups.

      I wonder what are your opinion of the leftist fanatics (which seem to be remarkably mainstream)?

      Any salient research there?

      • Sue Dunim

        My opinion of Leftist fanatics – Spartacists, Neo Healyites, Trotskyites, Maoists, etc has always been about the same as my opinion of the KKK, Aryan Nation, Golden Dawn etc.

        Dangerous loonies.

        Those who consider the Rotarians to be fascists, or the NYT to be communists, they’re not dangerous in general. They may even be worth listening to, even if they’ve turned the volume up to 11.

  2. Steve-O-in-NJ

    “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.”

    This sounds like an instruction to sealion and repeat the words of those you disagree with back to them in a mocking fashion, a sure-fire way to come off as arrogant and jerky.

    ” Show some ultimate care for their destiny and soul even if you detest the words that come out of their mouths.”

    This is just the secular version of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” which was roundly condemned when applied by the right to homosexuals and other sexual deviants. Hypocrisy.

    “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 you’re already a rotten, condescending, arrogant jerk like Brooks, your “love” means absolutely nothing, and is just another way to tell yourself you’re on the side of the angels.

    “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.”

    Twisted way? Dark passion? Doesn’t have to be right? Mmmhmmm, that’s one surefire way to endear yourself to someone who doesn’t agree with you.

    “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.”

    Lonely and sad. Wounded pride. That sounds like rationalizing away bullies by saying they are all just insecure. The fact is a lot of the other side is pretty damn successful and they scored the biggest success of all last year. They don’t disagree with you because they are hurt or wounded, and after last year the question of not being seen is a non-issue.

    “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.”

    Emotional bile. Comparing the other side to slaveholders and yourself to abolitionists. Riiiiight.

    “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.””

    And there it is. The other side are bigots and haters and all the right-minded people want to slam the door on them, but that can’t be done, so all the correct-minded progressives have to tolerate the fact that they share a country with these scum.

    Sorry, Jack, but this just comes off as a jerk justifying jerkiness as long as its hidden behind a polite exterior, which you specifically placed among the ethics dodges recently. It also comes off as self-reinforcement of values, and justification of the attitudes of “I’d like to see you shut out of the national discussion altogether, but that’s not possible…yet…so for the moment I’m just going to try to exasperate you by being unfailingly polite while I take you apart,” and “I hate you, I think you’re scum, but I won’t say so, because I’m just awesome that way.”

    Frankly, I think it’s equally an obligation on the other side to call out fake civility and game-playing, in a properly measured fashion, as much as you would like to tell the other guy to shove it up a bodily orifice or give him a punch in the mouth. There’s nothing wrong with telling someone that you have nothing to say to him, and he has nothing to say that you want to hear, so he needs to move on, and there’s nothing wrong with nodding unsmilingly as greeting, passing the salt when asked, and giving a noncommittal “hmmmmm” before turning away if he tries to get a conversation going, even in polite terms.

  3. Glenn Logan

    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.

    Carter’s premise gives me heartburn, in the way that “make love not war” gives me heartburn — it denies fundamental humanity and encourages emotional overreach, as if “love” can be summoned at will, like the Force by initiates in Star Wars.

    When I engage someone in a conversation, “love” is not in my mind. Instead, my position is to treat them as I would want to be treated — with respect, patience and empathy toward even a crazy opinion or attitude along with the determination to engage that opinion or attitude with care, even if it is unworthy of that level of engagement in a objective sense.

    One of the problems with the world today is that we over-emote, and couch our discussion in terms of emotional rhetoric and feelings instead of facts and opinions. If someone presents an opinion to us, they are inviting us to engage that opinion. If someone presents feelings to us, they are warning us to be careful and not engage too much. In other words, couching everything in terms of emotion is an attempt to shield our opinions from engagement on pain of “hurt feelings.”

    So when Carter invokes “love” as an engagement technique, he’s dealing us an outside straight of wishful thinking. Human beings don’t emote like that with strangers, particularly strangers they don’t know well or have just met. For me, it’s better to engage such people with patience and empathy, and a determination to keep the discussion in bounds of opinions rather than feelings. By doing that, you can successfully talk with most people not automatically hostile and have a meaningful conversation. But trying to use “love” is asking too much of the human animal in such a situation.

    I use this technique every time I go to my old college fraternity, now full of young people with often extreme positions that I personally reject. It allows me to have long, useful discussions that might otherwise end quickly with a polite agreement to disagree. But I don’t lead with “love,” that’s for sure.

    • Steve-O-in-NJ

      Perfect articulation of something I’ve thought for a while but never really tried to put into words. I’d go a step further and say I am suspicious of too much mention of words that are unassailable, like “love,” “peace,” “unity,” and so on. Too often they are just attempts to leverage a concept to either force agreement or silence disagreement. It’s easy to say “love is love.” It’s not so easy to try to explain why and how extending the umbrella of marriage to same-sex couples is right and how it isn’t a gateway to loosening a fundamental building block of society. It’s easy to say “give peace a chance.” It’s not so easy to explain why we should give the diplomats yet another try at resolving a problem that has stubbornly resisted their best efforts, rather than admit they didn’t work and let the generals take a crack at it. It’s easy to say “we need to move on from this election for the sake of unity.” It’s not so easy to explain that attempts to overturn the results have a minimal likelihood of success and are just going to generate more anger and more problems. I have to say that last one needs to be qualified depending on who won; if a Democrat won and the Republicans are claiming irregularities, then proceed as above, gotta turn the page and turn it quick. If a Republican won and the Democrats are fighting the results then we don’t wanna hear it, all claims of irregularity must be fully investigated and put to rest before we move on, and even then, if nothing is found, someone probably got to someone or someone probably covered his tracks a little too well.

      Patience and empathy are also good things, at least on paper, but their value only goes so far. I see no value in engaging in discussions with people whose opinions you already know and are unlikely to sway. A quick “I think we will just have to agree to disagree,” or “I really don’t think we’ll get anywhere with this discussion,” before moving on is a useful way to get the other side out of your hair with a minimum of fuss and not resorting to yelling or violence.

    • Glenn and Steve-O-in-NJ put into words thoughts I have had for a long time. I note that Brooks enumerates a host of unholy horrors mostly at odds with deeply held Leftist theology.

      In church, the priests’ sermons always place “love” as the highest of the theological virtues (from 1 Corinthians 13), commonly interpreted as charity. In university, the political science courses frequently heralded Gandhian and Kingian calls for us to “love” one another (which I always found ironic as most professors extolled the secular over the religious until they got to Gandhi and King, whose religiosity/faith was somehow more honorable and superior to the local baker’s faith). Pop songs all declare that “love” is all you need (a song I ironically have hated for many years), that “love is the answer”, and “love, love, love”, ad nauseum.

      Nobody defines what “love” is, though. “Love” is thrown about as this all-knowing-all-meaning, amorphous term, impelling us to stop and think about what we are doing. But, what does the word mean? If it is the pop song version of “love”, we are toast. How about philial, or brotherly, love?Is it agape, from the Greco-Christian term referring to love, “the highest form of love, charity” and “the love of God for man and of man for God”?

      This is what the author does. Brooks quotes Carter, “The only way to confront fanaticism is with love . . .” What does that even mean? Does it mean that love will call us to embrace the values of the Left or the Right? As we all know, conservatives and Republicans are mean, so that can’t be it. That leaves us with the Left. Can that be right? Some pretty awful things happened in the 20th century in the furtherance of the Left. So, that can[t be it, either, no?

      Brooks’ Carter quotation leaves us with a clumsy message. According to Brooks, those who support Trump (with vulgarities, no less) are bigots and impossible to engage in conversation. So, we are called to love the Trumplodytes. Likewise, we are called to love the White Supremacists and neighborhood racists. I don’t but okay. Done. Now what? That guy nextdoor still kicks my dog when he sees him. I don’t like him. Should I love the dog-kicker but hate the dog-kicking? Wait! There’s that word “hate”. I am called to love so I can’t hate either the dog-kicker or the dog-kicking, but he really makes me mad when he kicks my dog. What am I supposed to do now?. My head hurts.

      As I read the David Brooks piece, I came away thinking that if I did not embrace the theology promoted by the Left, then I am a bigot. Maybe I am – I don’t like asparagus in any of its manifestations, so I must have preconceived, a priori prejudices that cloud my view of the Golden Truth. Hmmmm . . .. Nope. I don’t like asparagus but I will defend your right to eat it.

      Yet, where does David Brooks get to the right declare that my opposition to national health care or abortion on demand or gay marriage or open borders or cake decoration or wedding photography is bigoted? What if I just don’t like cakes (I do, by the way – I LOVE them) or photography? What if my religious belief (just as deeply held as Dr. King’s) leads me to conclude that gay marriage or abortion on demand or no-fault divorce are immoral and social ills? Why is it that my beliefs, based on the love encouraged by Carter and Brooks, are antiquated and bigoted, in need of re-education? When did the Left get to decide that the Left is arbiter and dispenser of all things virtuous and lovely? I didn’t vote for that.

      As I read along Brooks’ piece, I could not help but conclude that the real bigot is David Brooks. Why? Because he is arrogant and presumptuous that his virtues are more virtuous that those of the local cake baker. Where does he get the audacity to look down from his ivory castle on a cake baker who does not want to use his/her cake bakery arts to promote something he/she does not agree with (and yes, having watched my wife decorate cakes, cake decorating is an artistic expression, just as valid as Brahms, Rembrandt, Poe, Ansel Adams, and Rodin – I think the SCOTUS will agree, too)? If Brooks is the example of Carter’s love thy enemy line, then we are toast along with all those insipid pop love songs.

      jvb

  4. What a perfect endorsement of patience and well articulated process for enacting patience as we enter into a period of time where I’m going to have to deal with JFK conspiracy theologists (because it’s a religion for them at this point)…

  5. Other Bill

    I’m having a hard time differentiating Carter’s statement from run of the mill passive aggressive virtue signalling by your standard issue Unitarian.

  6. Isaac

    I don’t accept the use of “hater” or any argument that uses it sincerely. “Hater” is a term popularized by Puff Daddy to dismiss basically any position less than completely supportive of one’s own. It doesn’t suit smart or secure people.

    • #48. Ethics Jiu Jitsu, or “Haters Gonna Hate!”

      This vintage of obnoxious rationalization is recently pressed. Its objective is to turn the tables on legitimate critics of unethical conduct by asserting that it is the act of criticism itself that is wrong, thus allowing the object of the criticism to not only escape unscathed, but to claim victim status.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s