Philanthropy and data, oxytocin and neurological unity, and love and charity in Arthur C. Brooks’ new book on the culture of contempt.
“Until a decade ago, I performed research on the behavioral economics of philanthropy, and even wrote a textbook on nonprofit management,” according to Arthur C. Brooks’ new book Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. “I specialized in collecting and analyzing data on people’s charitable giving. I could tell you how much people gave, and to what, and how different cultural and policy levers would change these things,” continues the former Syracuse University business and government professor.
“However, I had never looked anyone in the eye and asked the person for a contribution,” Brooks notes. Then, in 2008, he succeeded Christopher DeMuth as president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
AEI “is totally reliant on voluntary donations—tens of millions of dollars a year,” as Brooks tells it in the book. “I was a recognized scholar in the subject of charity, but was in a complete panic because I didn’t know how to ask people for money.”
His brother, he writes, advised him “to remember this one little inequality: 1 > 10,000,000.” Brooks’ brother meant that “[w]hen you are talking about people, ten million is a statistic; one person is a story, and stories win when you are trying to get people to support a cause.”
Singularity and statistics
Brooks, now a professor at both the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School, offers some illustrative stories of a singular human being’s exemplary experience trumping statistical summaries of a problem or challenge in convincing people about its seriousness. It’s easier to relate to and fully comprehend the danger of unsafe drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa upon hearing what it’s done to “Joey” in Tanzania than that 180,000 children die from it each year.
Stories, as we know, can be very telling.
“[S]eeing Joey stimulates oxytocin in our brains,” according to Brooks.
We feel neurological unity with him, we understand his plight at the human level, and we want to do something. We don’t feel unity with the number 180,000. But we do feel unity with a child who is suffering, because that’s how we’re wired. We feel human love for people, not statistics.
Brooks also insightfully addresses the dehumanizing aspect of “storylessness.” As well, he recognizes that stories should be genuinely reflective of the larger truths they’re meant to convey, and for which there’s evidence, even numeric.
At the end of Brooks’ book, relatedly, he recommends “using your values as a gift, not as a weapon,” giving another illustration. “We can’t beat someone over the head with charity, for example. If we do, it’s no longer charity.”
Charity itself is a gift, of course, and shouldn’t be creatively (or legally) morphed into something else, as neither should be stories cleverly into untruth, or values sanctimoniously into a weaponry of attack or retort. On these points and in general, Love Your Enemies helps provide a good, healthy, and well-timed reminder and exhortation to us all.