Friday, June 9, 2017
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild
The concept of this book is exactly what I had been thinking about for the past two years. I am so grateful for Hochschild for structuring a study to investigate the political divide in the United States as evinced by Louisiana, a deeply conservative red state facing environmental degradation and widespread poverty. Hochschild focused on a single issue upon which voting age people might be expected to converge in attitude, environmental pollution, and ended up asking a question which illuminated other attitudes: why do those living in polluted states want less federal oversight from environmental agencies rather than more?
The statistics and studies Hochschild shares at the end of this book are very useful for placing beside the statements, beliefs and attitudes of those she interviewed in Louisiana to judge discrepancies. Hochschild found that many attitudes are not based in economic self-interest so much as emotional self-interest, something with which every person struggles in our lifetimes. Sometimes our emotional response to a problem or issue colors our perceptions, and puts our economic self-interest at odds with what we decide to believe. (There are lots of examples of this in everyday life anywhere: a mother allows an adult child to move back home rent-free while looking for a job, a sister lends money to a drug-addicted sibling promising repayment, etc.)
Hochschild postulates that the individuals she interviewed belonging to the Tea Party in Louisiana were reacting to preserve emotional self-interest rather than economic self-interest with regard to environmental pollution controls (or the lack of them). She concludes these folks experienced a psychological high of belonging to a powerful, like-minded political majority, and as a part of this group felt released from politically-correct rules that usually govern polite society. [It might be worth noting a similar phenomenon is exhibiting in liberal groups with the campus demonstrations refusing permission to conservative speakers, or by destruction and violence during protest marches.]
Looking over the work Hochschild did in Louisiana, we realize that doing sociological research in the field is messy and hard to categorize. In order to determine if there was a shared narrative that connected the attitudes and emotions of the people she interviewed, Hochschild generated something called a “deep story,” which removes the particular facts and judgments that define individuals and just tells us how things feel to those individuals.
The Tea Party supporters she interviewed agreed that the deep story Hochschild generated did resonate with them and could be said to define them: That life is hard, and they must endure; that they felt like they were waiting in line, patiently, for their rewards for working hard but they see federal government-subsidized line-cutters getting benefits before the hard workers, i.e., Negroes, women, immigrants, refugees; the government appears to be helping the line-cutters using taxpayer money and is therefore antithetical to the hard-workers; God teaches how to endure; gay people were not godly; America, especially the America of their youth when fish and fowl were plentiful and air and water were clean, was something to preserve; everything was changing so much they’d begun to feel like strangers in their own land, not getting the benefits citizenship in America promised.
The connection between pollution and jobs gets tangled in the subjects’ emotional self-interest and they can’t seem to extricate themselves from a loop created by what they hear from their former corporate employers, from their state representatives (Bobby Jindal was in office), and from Fox News. It almost seems as though when corporate representatives said they would not clean up the river/lake pollution, that the pollution is not that bad, or they could not afford to clean up, residents felt powerless. In order not to feel powerless, they blamed someone else, like the federal government, or the line-cutters.
The people Hochschild interviewed for this study* were subject to the most egregious environmental pollution I have ever heard of. In some cases their houses were destroyed or blown up by gas leaks, the rivers surrounding their houses were so polluted plants and animals died when in contact with it. The interviewees were retired or near retirement. Their neighbors and spouses were dying of various cancers.
At the end of the study, when she was drawing her conclusions, Hochschild was remarkably restrained. She’d become friends with these folks, and though she might occasionally, gently, point out areas of disagreement with them to see what they might respond, for the most part it did not appear that she interfered with their belief system. Her conclusions were that these people, who struggled their entire lives to make a living, who were often lied to by those with power over them, felt a kind of collective excitement to be part of Donald Trump’s supporters where they felt secure and respected, and were released from the bonds of political correctness, e.g., caring about those further back in the line, the needy around the country, around the world.
Personally, I think it might be the release from political correctness that made everyone so giddy to be part of Trump’s team, because let's face it, the man was not respectful. Though he was rich, he was low class; he made it look as though his level of success was attainable to ordinary folk. There is a certain amount of willful delusion and economic self-interest in these beliefs, it seems to me. I understand compassion fatigue, particularly when one’s own world is so needy, so I am not going to criticize that. There is, however, something we [should] all learn as we grow older that these smart, mature, experienced folks don’t seem to have grasped, and perhaps this is our fundamental disagreement: Happiness and satisfaction in life is not a zero-sum game.
Although we might be able to feel sympathy, empathy, compassion—something other than steaming anger—for individuals in the world Hochschild studied, I don’t think it is so easy to do the same for a group. I found myself steeled against their resistance to coherent argument on commonsense pollution controls. They can react with their emotional self-interest if they wish, but I don’t think it is healthy if I do as well, because then we’re at loggerheads. If I react with my economic self-interest, we are likewise at loggerheads. These people want what I want, e.g., family, community, a measure of security. They must want a clean environment as well. We disagree on how to get there. I don’t see that changing unless perhaps we agree to set standards of accountability and hold each other to those standards.
This was really a spectacular study, enormously important, and deeply skilled in execution. I am in awe of how the author was able to approach the problems she could see in our society, measure them, and explain what she found to us. This book was published in 2016, the result of at least five years of labor and study. It was a 2016 Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
*[We never get an explanation why younger people, with presumably more at stake, less history in the area, and more energy for resistance to corporate interests, were not interviewed for the study, except maybe it was necessary to limit the scope of the interviewees so they could all operate from the same deep story.]
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