Guest opinion: Contempt, warmheartedness and booing Mitt Romney

Sitting in the Maverick Center on Saturday, I marveled just to be with thousands of people under one roof after a year of social distancing. It was the Utah State Republican convention, and as an elected delegate from my neighborhood, I was there to help choose the next party state leadership team. So far, we had heard a bagpipe band play military anthems and a children’s choir sing “One Little Voice.” Following that tear-jerker were some great talks from the current party leadership and from the congressmen and senators serving in Washington. The theme of all the talks was the need for unity in the party, the need to listen to others, the need to work together, the need to be bipartisan, the need to leave anger and rancor behind. I was proud of my party.

Then Senator Romney stepped to the mic. The arena erupted into boos and jeers. Romney attempted to speak over the uproar but could not be heard. The nice-looking blonde woman seated behind me was booing and jeering, screaming into my ear. (As in all stadiums, the seats were almost on top of each other.) 

Amid the uproar, I turned and tapped her on the knee to get her attention. I cried out, “We believe in free speech. Let him talk!” She shifted her gaze to me for an instant and screamed, “Don’t you dare touch me!”

Finally, the current chair of the party came to the mic, his 5-foot-6 frame dwarfed by Romney’s stature. But he got the attention of the crowd. “This is what we’ve been talking about. Let Senator Romney speak.”

What was happening? The people in that stadium were normal people, ranchers and moms and business owners. I’m sure they are kind to their families and neighbors. But what made them feel like, when it came to partisan politics, they could leave behind all the rules of civil dialogue?

Now, certainly not all the people in that stadium were booing—many if not most were like me, appalled to witness what happened. And, later on, the resolution to officially censure Romney did not pass. 

But the woman behind me clearly felt her indignation was righteous, that she had not only the right but the responsibility to speak out against evil doing. She was not just angry at Senator Romney–she held him in contempt

I’ve seen this on the other side of the political spectrum as well. During the presidential election last fall, a friend of over twenty years, a dear friend, wrote on her FaceBook page “Shame on Republicans. Shame on all Republicans.” I commented on her post, gently (I thought) reminding her of our friendship and my political leanings, “Do you mean all Republicans?” She responded with a curt and angry, “Yes.” 

Another long-time friend told me, “I just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly vote for that loudmouth, selfish, racist, idiotic, power-hungry jerk!” I somehow knew that she wasn’t really interested in hearing any other point of view. She also felt it was her responsibility to speak out strongly again evil doing. She held all those who did not see the election the same way, not just with anger, but with contempt.

Recently I read again Arthur C. Brooks’ excellent book, Love Your Enemies. In it he makes a strong case for avoiding the contempt that has so infected our society. 

Instead, Brooks proposes that we practice “warmheartedness,” seeing our adversaries as people like us, trying to understand their point of view and where it comes from, being willing to listen. He explains that such an attitude does not mean changing our own beliefs. Brooks suggests we think, “I may not agree with you, but what you have to say matters.” 

Here are some other suggestions from Brooks:

  • Don’t attack or insult. Don’t even try to win.
  • Never assume the motives of another person
  • Use your values as a gift, not as a weapon. Don’t call others are evil because they don’t share your values. 

In other words, while we may and should disagree with ideas others hold, we should still understand and care for the person.

But here’s the deal. Practicing warmheartedness is hard. Contempt, like all sins, is most evident to us when we look at others, but much harder to identify in ourselves.

So, let’s just revisit those stories at the beginning of the essay. Looking back, can you see, as I do now, more than a little self-righteousness? How can those people boo? How can my friends treat me that way? Why are those around me so filled with contempt?

Which is, as I’m sure you see too, a very contempt-filled feeling. I am showing contempt as well, in the very act of describing theirs.

Let’s go back to those stories—what would it look like to respond, not with contempt, but with warm-heartedness? This is hard. I was angry at those booing. I was hurt by my friends’ remarks. But what if I could have controlled my anger and my hurt? What if I had practiced warmheartedness?

Maybe when the lady behind me was booing, I should have waited. Maybe that tap on the knee was a violation. Maybe sometime during a break, I could have asked her why she felt that way. Maybe I could have shown some respect for her opinions.

Maybe when my friend said, “shame on all Republicans,” I could have not assumed her motivations. Maybe instead of posting a somewhat snarky comment on her Facebook thread, maybe I could have called her and asked what was behind her frustration. I could have listened. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with her, but I could listen.

Maybe when that other friend shared her opinion of Trump, I could have agreed with what I could agree on. Then maybe, instead of just focusing on a person, we could have talked about our differing opinions on some issues and policies. 

Maybe, if we can listen to each other without contempt, maybe if we can show some warmheartedness, we might just find ground we can agree on. If we can respect each other, we might just find a way forward that we can all feel good about. And maybe, just maybe, through the competition of good ideas and respectful cooperation, we might find ways to improve our country, to improve the world, together.

Maybe that is too much to ask. But if we are to come together as a country, it seems to me this is what needs to happen, in our neighborhoods and in our Congress.

After the election was called, I was encouraged to hear a Democratic member of Congress speak of his respect for his colleagues across the aisle, of his desire to work with them to govern the country. This reminded me of the way my Republican representative told me he thought his Democratic colleagues were good people who wanted to do what was right. He felt they could work together for the good of all the people. 

The current President won the election, but he did not receive a mandate for his platform. Nearly half the country opposes it and about half the Congress. As a country, as a government, we need to listen, learn, and figure out what is best for the whole country. We need to eschew contempt. We need to approach each other with warm hearts. We need to show the world how a democracy can govern on behalf of all of us, for the benefit of We the People.