Becoming Strangers in Their Own Land: How Myth and Prejudice Pervert Experience

Recently, I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. As a sociologist, Hochschild spent a few years getting to know Tea Partiers in Louisiana who had in various ways been affected by environmental disasters and economical downturns over the course of their lives. They were all White, working class, conservative southerners. She wrote early in her book of her desire to scale the empathy wall and understand as much as possible why the people the people she gets to know are members of the Tea Party and virulently anti-environmental regulation and anti-government everything.

The empathy wall is the psychological barrier that often divides people of different beliefs, with scaling the wall or overcoming the barrier requiring an effort to understand why someone might hold different beliefs than one’s own. It is recognition of the legitimacy of diverse perspectives and the ability to understand and appreciate those perspectives even as one doesn’t agree. Over 45 years ago, Wayne Booth referred to it as the rhetoric of assent, and saw such assent as essential to democratic debate.

Hochschild is a self-proclaimed liberal professor, and her Louisiana friends (in research jargon, her participants—yet they become her friends) knew her as such and appear to have enjoyed joking with her about Berkley hippies. She wrote of trying to understand their deep stories, or those life-framing experiences that her friends had that led them to believe what they believed even when, to an outsider or someone with a different perspective, that belief appeared irrational.

It is by understanding her Louisiana friends’ deep stories that Hochschild scales the empathy wall and understands why they believe what they believe. She suggests that because of their deep stories, her Louisiana friends’ beliefs are rational, in part, because the beliefs support emotional and psychological interests, even as they don’t necessarily support their economic and social interests. In my own research I have analyzed why people adhere to beliefs that appear to be detrimental to their economical and political well-being. The beliefs are legitimate because they reflect an understanding of the world that makes sense to the holder of the belief; the belief provides stability to their emotional and psychological well-being. My work refers to these beliefs as practical gender needs because my research was of women in writing programs. Practical gender needs are very much formed and nurtured by experiences evolving over a lifetime, so oftentimes they are foundational to the holder’s identity. Hochschild appears to be suggesting something similar.

I’ve always tried to understand why it is a person believes what he or she believes, especially when I don’t hold similar beliefs. Now more than ever I feel an urgency to do so. That is why I read, first, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (for a later post) and then Hochschild’s book. My upbringing reflects the worlds Vance and Hochschild write about. Having been raised in a White working class family, I have an affinity with the espoused work ethic, sense of loyalty, and determined self-efficacy of the southern Whites Hochschild writes about. I understand their sense of pride and independence. I know, too, how difficult their lives can be as I can remember the times money was low, pipes were frozen for weeks at a time, and work was hit or miss or the next pay check wasn’t coming fast enough, especially during the winter.

I empathize with Hochschild’s friends in this regard, and their deep stories ring true in that I don’t question what they have experienced, although admittedly my experiences did not involve the environmental destruction Hochschild recounts. She reveals, however, a few things that belie my empathy, not because her friends’ perspectives are different or their experiences are suspect but because their perspectives aren’t so much grounded in experience as they are in myths that, in some cases, are contradicted by their experiences. We all adhere to some beliefs that are, at least in part, based on myth. That is not the problem. The problem is when the myth adversely defines others or makes others susceptible to oppression. Also, although their perspectives are limited as all of our perspectives are, they fail to recognize those limits and instead suggest or operate from the assumption that their experiences are universal or the Truth. They lack a critical awareness or a sense of doubt about the world around them.

For example, regarding myths, the assumptions Hochschild’s friends have about the government, taxes, welfare, environmental protection, and businesses are mostly false (Hochschild provides Appendices to suggest as much without ever confronting her friends about these disparities). The evidence in most cases suggests the opposite of their beliefs, such as their belief that the government spends over 40% of tax revenues on welfare when it is actually less than 3%. There is also the belief that most of those on welfare are Black or immigrants. In fact, the majority are White. And unlike what her friends believe, those on welfare are not living middle class lives (are not welfare queens) and are not on welfare their entire lives. Welfare provides an income still below the poverty level and the vast majority of people are on welfare for short periods of time, usually less than 9 months. Many of those on welfare work full-time at jobs that pay minimum wage, thus qualifying for welfare even as they work as much or more than Hochschild’s friends. Similarly, people in Louisiana, who believe the federal government is draining them of resources via taxes, don’t believe the fact that Louisiana actually gets much more return in federal taxes (federal funds flowing into the state) than nearly all other states. The Federal government subsidizes Louisiana’s conservative government or corporate oligarchy for its bad decision-making. These myths are the beliefs many of Hochschild’s friends point to when they talk about why they support the Tea Party.

These are only a few examples of perspectives grounded in myths, myths that are actually fairly easy to dispel even without access to Hochschild’s appendices. All of the information is public knowledge. However, Hochschild’s friends hold to their myths as if they live them daily and there is no possibility of an alternative view. The myths are foundational to why they believe what they believe.

Although it is important to honor different perspectives and it was my hope that that is what Hochschild’s friends would offer, it hardly makes sense to honor and even convey legitimacy to perspectives that can so easily be proven to be myth.

Similarly, while it focuses on the perspectives of Tea Partiers in Louisiana, Hochschild’s work fails to note how little credence or appreciation that the Tea Partiers give to perspectives different than their own. That is, her friends see the world in a very specific and limited way that centers on them and their experiences as quintessential and normal. All others’ perspectives—especially people different than them—are discounted or essentialized as abnormal. For example, Hochschild’s friends constantly spoke of how hard they have worked and how they more than others have earned their place in society. They have, they said, lost their rightful place because of the intrusion of others who have “cut in line ahead of them.” Those others are typically minorities, immigrants, women, disabled, and so on.

I don’t doubt how hard the Hochschild’s friends have worked and that they have lost ground despite that hard work. What I doubt is the idea that others have somehow undeservingly passed them by. Hochschild’s friends do not realize that those others that they say cut in line were for many years at a great disadvantage in American society, faced with bigotry and institutional racism that guaranteed their inability even to get in the line, much less move up. Although those barriers have lessened (mainly because of Federal laws Hochschild’s friends despise), they still exist. Hochschild’s friends also fail to realize that, just as they worked hard, others, too, have worked hard, often just as hard if not harder than them. Similarly, many of those others now face many of the same hardships and diminishing opportunities that Hochschild’s friends face.

Hochschild didn’t consider the limits of her friends’ perspectives and how those limits inhibit their ability to see and understand the historical and current circumstances of others’ lives, as well as of their own. In other words, her friends were not inclined to scale the empathy wall and try to understand others’ deep stories, especially those deep stories born of segregation, oppression, and racism. They also failed to see the economic and social struggles each group faces, and how similar those struggles might be to their own. They assumed only the worse of those who were not like them and saw them unfairly competing for, and getting, diminishing opportunities and resources.

I don’t know if Hochschild purposely left unsaid the irony of what she was trying to do in relation to what her friends revealed to her. I think she wanted to be as kind as possible toward those who opened their homes and lives to her, and understandable so. Yet, as a reader, I don’t feel inclined to be as kind even as I have empathy for their lives. My empathy ends with the failure of her friends—and all people in general—to question why they believe what they believe and to ask why others might believe differently.

In this regard, I was expecting more from Hochschild’s book and went looking for a reason to like her Louisiana friends beyond the fact that they were nice and open with their lives to her. Knowing that much of their experiences resonated with me, I wanted their perspectives, as different as they were from mine, to resonate also, even in their differences. They didn’t. Although I ended the book still respecting their experiences and believing them to be sincere in their beliefs, I could not assent to those beliefs as legitimate. It is not because those beliefs didn’t jive with mine (I knew at the outset that they wouldn’t), but because those beliefs really didn’t even jive with their own experiences, at least not when those experiences are look at critically.

I say all of this this cautiously because I know my analysis is based on very limited information that comes to be second-hand. I don’t really know these people, so what I have been told is fraught with possible misinterpretation. Based on what I do know—what I read—I can distinguish myth from fact, and I know that experience, as significant as it is for all of us, is ambiguous and often contradictory. But that really is my point, without embracing diverse perspectives and having doubt about one’s own interpretation of experience, we fail to recognize our own ambiguous and contradictory beliefs and are often led to believe things that are far from being true for others.




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