Thursday, October 26, 2023

David Brooks is Spot On

You have to listen to this.

I always thought of David Brooks as being a hopeless neoconservative ideologue with not much of substance to contribute to the American political dialectic, but now I realize that I was unfair in my assessment. He is, on the contrary, a thoughtful mind with valuable and noteworthy insights. 

A few days ago, Brooks shared his thoughts on our plague of cultural and social atomization. 

In a short audio snippet (just six and a half minutes in length) the New York Times columnist walks us through his personal evolution. "I grew up somewhat aloof", he explained, "I was not a guy who was necessarily intimately involved with others." He described himself as being a sort of "observer", who looked at life from the sidelines, but didn't really participate in it. 

This kind of disposition is, needless to say, anti-Communitarian. Brooks, though, possessing the - what seems like, nowadays - rare ability to self-reflect, knew that he had to change if he wanted to participate in civic life in a meaningful way. He could no longer be, as he worded it, "an emotionally numb person."

But Brooks' case was not at all unique.

As he notes:

So there’s all these terrible social statistics of rising depression rates, rising suicide rates. The number of people who say they have no close personal friends has quadrupled, declines in happiness. So we’re in the middle of some social and emotional breakdown. And it’s because we’re not good at the act of being a considerate person in the daily circumstances of life to each other. And so I found this, as a journalist, I just see this epidemic of invisibility, of rural people who feel that coastal people don’t see them, of Republicans and Democrats looking at each other in blind incomprehension.

So, given all this, what did he do to turn things around for himself?

Well, he embarked on a 4-year journey to become "a more fuller human being." 

Brooks advocates (though, not explicitly) for what IR author and publisher of the Nonzero Newsletter, Robert Wright, often calls "cognitive empathy". Cognitive empathy is simply when you put yourself in someone's shoes (even an evil, Hitlerian figure), without endorsing their position. 

Brooks explains:

And so I’ve concluded that in these bitter and hard, and sometimes, cruel times, the right thing to do is to double down on being a defiant humanist. It’s to double down and say, I will not be calloused over. I’m going to double down on spending as much time as I can, as effectively I can, and seeing another person, in trying to understand their point of view, and trying to make them feel seen, heard, and understood.
Being a "defiant humanist" means that you are making every effort to see the humanity and merit in other people, though you may vehemently disagree with their worldview. Today, this seems like a radical idea. And, in the heat of the moment, it is easier said than done. Being a staunch conservative (I grew up reading Pat Buchanan), neoconservatives and leftists often make my blood boil. Like, I can actually feel my body temperature rising. But, this isn't healthy, nor is it humanist. Instead, we have to force ourselves to really see each other and engage in cognitive empathy. 

Watch this conversation between a conservative man with confederate ancestry and a black BLM advocate:

Pretty incredible, right?

On paying attention and being an active conversationalist:

I’ve learned that’s a moral posture. You’ve got to be able to say, I’m going to pay more attention to you than I am to myself. But it also requires skills. And one of them is, treat attention as an on/off switch, not a dimmer. If you’re in conversation, you should be paying 100 percent attention or 0 percent, but not 60 percent.

I'm guilty of sometimes having only one foot in a conversation. Sometimes I catch myself nodding my head while the other person is talking, but not listening to a word they say. This is a bad flaw in my character, but one I know I have to work on. 

What Brooks has to say about listening is particularly good: a loud listener. You should be listening so actively to people, you’re burning calories. Like, I have a buddy named Andy, and when I talk to him, he’s like one of those congregations of a Pentecostal church. He’s like, uh-huh, yeah. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Preach, preach, preach. Just love talking to that guy. He’s a loud listener.

Lastly, the "gem statement":

...keep the gem statement in the center. If my brother and I are fighting over our dad’s health care, we may be disagreeing about that, but we both want what’s best for our dad, and that’s the gem statement. If you’re in the middle of a disagreement and you can return to the gem statement, then you preserve the relationship amid your argument. And those are just very practical skills to make you and me better conversationalists.

Heed Brooks' advice. It is invaluable. 

We ought to always be in a place of self-reflection and, ultimately, self-improvement.  

1 comment:

  1. We need to have productive and open conversations with people adamantly opposed to our own views. This is how the freedom of speech and free discourse in an open and self governing society of well informed citizenry has always been meant to work. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening in modern America when leftists are absolute Marxists opposed to the principle of a free exchange of ideas.