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A reader recently asked me a pretty pointed question.

“Are you even a human being?” he pondered in an email to me. He had found a column I’d written on Michigan’s costly auto insurance to be beyond the pale.

Similarly, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently called me and this paper “hate mongers” for a column I’d written questioning her actions toward Catholics.

The examples are numerous, and no doubt most of you have experienced this kind of disgust if you are brave enough to talk politics on social media.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, is well aware of these deepening divides and has sounded the alarm in recent years. In fact, he has written a new book, “Love Your Enemies,” on this very topic.

Last week, I had the chance to hear from Brooks directly on a conference call about his book.

Brooks says he wanted to explore a concept called “motive attribution asymmetry,” which ultimately means two groups with opposing viewpoints have similar ideas about each other. One group is certain it is motivated by love, and the other is fueled by hate. And vice versa.

Polarization is worse in the U.S. than it's been since the Civil War, Brooks says, and this has led to growing contempt in our culture. And contempt, according to Brooks, is far more insidious than incivility or even intolerance.

Contempt leads us to see others with different views as not only worthy of disgust but as worthless. And it’s clouding a distinction between hating a person’s viewpoint — and hating that person.

This doesn't mean we all have to see eye to eye. Freely debating diverse ideas is part of what makes this country great. 

But contempt is different. 

In an essay adapted from his book in the New York Times, Brooks highlights the problem: “This ‘outrage industrial complex’ works by catering to just one ideological side, creating a species of addiction by feeding our desire to believe that we are completely right and that the other side is made up of knaves and fools. It strokes our own biases while affirming our worst assumptions about those who disagree with us. Contempt makes political compromise and progress impossible.”

Other recent studies have looked at how even seemingly positive traits such as empathy are creating alarming levels of tribalism, if empathy is only shared with those we agree with.

Fritz Breithaupt, director of the Experimental Humanities Lab at Indiana University, has warned of “selective empathy” and what could happen if it spreads too far.

“Basically you give up on civil society at that point,” he said in an NPR interview. “You give up on democracy. Because if you feed into this division more and you let it happen, it will become so strong that it becomes dangerous."

The emergence of contempt and tribalism is exactly why the Russians were so successful in their social media meddling ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The Mueller report showcases just how easy it was to turn Americans against one another and fuel existing divides.  

A divided America is a weaker America. While U.S. political leaders should fight interference from Russia — and elsewhere -- we also need to take a hard look at ourselves.  

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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