In a recent lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School, Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), regaled the audience with a lesson from the Dalai Lama. Brooks asked how to respond to those who approach you with contempt, including in politics. See here.
The ever wise and insightful Dalai Lama offered this: respond with warm heartedness. In his lecture, Brooks went on to admonish the importance of political leaders, and individuals more generally, responding to contempt warm heartedly. He explained that once you treat others with contempt, they find it impossible to forget. Responding to contempt with contempt creates a cycle of despair, a never-ending whirlwind of contempt.
This past Tuesday was our Fourth of July, celebrating the independence of the United States. This year, I’ve struggled a bit with the message. I’ve long considered myself a proud American, not because I think we are better than anyone else. We aren’t. Not because we have figured out something that others have not. We haven’t. And not because we are somehow more deserving. Surely, we are not. Rather, to me the pride arises because being American means holding a set of aspirations that I personally find valuable and inspiring: resilience or pluck; reward for hard work; caring about merit, not birthright; caring for others less fortunate and even when we disagree; allowing others to live as they prefer, without regard to caste, race, religion, nation of origin, gender, sexuality; a commitment to something greater than oneself minus the self-righteousness that too often accompanies that sensibility. To be sure, we have as often as not failed to meet those aspirations, but we have fought, and continue to fight, hard for them, again and again. Perhaps more than anything else, societies are defined by what they are willing to fight for. They are not defined by where they are; they are defined by where they are going. In life’s marathon, slope is more important than altitude. The United States has long dedicated itself to fighting the good fight, the fight for goodness. And so, yes, that makes me proud.
But I hold our current president and those who have empowered him in contempt and thus, without warm heartedness. To be sure, I do not mean to include Trump’s many supporters, those who voted for him having been egregiously misled, although yes, they too bear responsibility.
Because I value linguistic precision, let me be clear. As defined in Dictionary.com, contempt means:
“noun 1. the feeling with which a person regards anything considered mean, vile, or worthless; disdain; scorn. 2. the state of being despised; dishonor; disgrace. 3. Law. a. willful disobedience to or open disrespect for the rules or orders of a court (contempt of court) or legislative body. b. an act showing such disrespect.”
See here. I use this term to characterize Trump and those who empowered him in the literal sense of those “considered mean, vile,” or worthy of “disdain; scorn.” And also in the sense of a person to be “despised; dishonor[ed]; disgraced.” Secondarily I include the legal definition, given Trump’s frank disdain for legitimate legal, or any other, authority than himself.
Donald Trump deserves contempt because he embodies the opposite of each of the values that I hold central to being American. He favors class, wealth, status, Alpha-maleness, beauty (preferably female, although he views himself eminently qualified also to rank male physicality, other than as applied to himself), “loyalty” (above all), intellectual laziness, lack of curiosity, callousness, insult, rudeness, particular religions over others, and I could go on. He embodies the antithesis of so much that I personally hold dear—and that I believe defines American decency, or more simply its goodness (as distinguished from the false, selective, and callous claim to past greatness)—that with respect to Trump and those who have empowered him, no, I will not exhibit warm heartedness.
In the Harvard lecture, Brooks does not speak of religion; when offering a nearly identical lesson at Catholic University, he was more explicit. See here. When I first heard the Harvard lecture, I immediately thought that this was a Christian message, akin to “turn the other cheek.” This is not a lesson with which I was raised, and I have never considered this value Jewish. I’m not a religious scholar, but I found interesting this link disclaiming it as a Jewish value, and linking the analysis to a famous line from King Solomon: “There is a time to kill and a time to heal… a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” See here.
I’m secular, but I am affected by the values of my upbringing. I also believe that it is important, and admirable, to respect those whose core values, especially those informed by religious belief, differ from one’s own. I suspect this different philosophical premise might help to explain why viscerally, I found myself less enamored than some friends on Facebook, who responded favorably to Brooks’ message. These are friends I admire, even if our politics don’t generally align. This lesson seems more Catholic perhaps than Christian writ large, and in this sense, Buddhism appears closer to Catholicism. I respect this world view even if I don’t embrace it; with respect to those who do, I truly feel warm hearted, but the warm heartedness stops there; it does not thereby extend in some sort of infinite regress.
I don’t believe in a universal religion, one characterized by any single overriding norm or set of norms. Those who exhibit contempt for everyone but themselves do not, in my view, warrant warm heartedness. I believe that Brooks and the Dalai Lama, and also my FB friends, are sincere. Others might not be, and so it is important to say this as well. One might imagine that the best way to defeat those who are contemptible is to appear to exhibit warm heartedness however insincerely. In my view, that isn’t truly warm heartedness; it is a strategy of deceit. Such a person pretends to be what she or he is not, accepting and kind, when instead this person is being manipulative, using the pretense of kindness to encourage others to join. It is fighting with stealth, appearing to gracious solely for instrumental reasons. This too is not my set of values, and I don’t think it is the most compelling set of values.
I think it is proper to acknowledge that others are embracing reprehensible views, to explain why you believe that, and to fight for values that you find worthy of aspiration. And when you deal with those who hold reprehensible values, I believe it is proper to hold them in contempt. Up front. Openly and honestly. Actually, I think that too is American. And yes, despite it all, I remain a proud American. A belated, and warm-hearted, Happy Fourth of July.
Your comments are, as always, most welcome.