If you know me, chances are that you have gathered that my social and political leanings are a BIT left of center. Being a “liberal” in a conservative family and church tradition can easily put me into an “us vs. them” mindset if I’m not careful. In order to keep my mind and heart more open, I follow a handful of conservative writers, speakers, and theologians on social media as well as reading as many books and articles as I have time for. I do this selectively, relying on people I trust to lead me to people who do not present a caricature of conservatism but offer well-thought-out ideas. The result of this has been (to my delight) that I actually have a lot in common with these folks. I may not align fully with their politics (okay, I may not align AT ALL with some of their politics), but I find that the things we do have in common give us a place to start in reasonable disagreement.
David Brooks is one of these people. He is probably best described as right of center or even centrist by some. We are (roughly) the same age, and we view the world in VERY different ways, but he brings an intelligence and varying degrees of openness to his column in the New York Times and his other work as a political commentator. I almost never agree with his conclusions (well, except for the fact that neither of us have much respect for our current president), and I can only take small doses of his snark (can someone PLEASE come up with a new insult for liberals besides ‘snowflake?’), but I always enjoy the way he processes his thoughts and the journey he takes to get to those conclusions.
When Brooks’ book, The Social Animal, became popular a therapist friend of mine said that it was a great day for therapy. He took what my friend indicated therapists have known for a long time and puts it out there as new and exciting insights. Now people want to know about their unconscious decisions and hidden motives. I’m not a therapist, but I get the point – Brooks doesn’t really offer a lot of new information but he packages it in such a way that people who might never think about the way we process information can otherwise get on board.
One of Brooks’ tools in this book is a narrative written about Harold and Erica, which Brooks tells us in the very first sentence is “the happiest story you’ve ever read.” In the narrative, Brooks introduces the ideas about subconscious life and thinking through the lives of these two people.
Maybe Brooks should stick with non-fiction because this is NOT the happiest story I’ve ever read, and Harold and Erica may be two of the most boring characters ever to exist. They are bland and, even in the angst of an extramarital affair, boring. No fire, no passion, no excitement.
I appreciate what Brooks tried to do with the narrative and, based on the fact that it is a New York Times best-seller, it seems he struck a nerve with people. He presents some good science on our need for socialization, the importance of experience and memory in intuitive decision-making, and the influence of “hidden” memories on our actions. (His thoughts about the importance of relationships in education, for example, are stellar and I would love to see him work with educators to work on a new kind of education reform.) The problem is that it is sometimes difficult to follow his logic and understand whether or not he has any proposed solutions. As reviewer Thomas Nagle notes, “When we discover an unacknowledged influence on our conduct, what should be our critical response? About this question Brooks has essentially nothing to say.” Even in his postscript, Brooks offers only that we should “develop an attitude of epistemological humility, an awareness of how little you are likely to know and how little you will understand the things you do know.”
The beauty of science that is not fully explained by Brooks is that there is a pathway for change through the same influences that Brooks explains form who we are. We change as we learn, and we learn as we experience. Yes, we have to be aware of how little we know and how little we understand. We have to be open to the fact that we have biases and hidden motives. But to do this we must learn. “No matter how we behave, whatever our attitudes, whatever we believe, it all comes from a brain that got that way in the desperate struggle to survive…no outside influence or force can cause a brain to learn…one important rule for helping people learn is to help the learner feel she is in control.” The science Brooks presents helps us understand likelihoods and possible outcomes, but understanding how we become open to learning helps us bring about change.
. David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011), xiii. Brooks states in the introduction that this narrative was styled in the manner of Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Having read excerpts of Emile, I can only say that perhaps Brooks was broadly influenced by the idea.
. Thomas Nagle, “Book Review – The Social Animal – By David Brooks.” (The New York Times, March 11, 2011, sec. Sunday Book Review.) Accessed March 13, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/books/review/book-review-the-social-animal-by-david-brooks.html.