Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild: American Sociologist and Author of “Strangers in Their Own Land”

Interview by Michaela Shelton (PO’ 21), Staff Writer and Jerry Yan (PO’18), Senior Editor

Arlie Hochschild is an American sociologist and academic. She currently serves as Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Hochschild’s areas of expertise primarily consist of social psychology and the sociology of emotions, gender, and politics. She has authored nine books, including her most recent work, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, which Pomona College selected as its 2017 First-Year Book. Hochschild visited and spoke at Pomona’s campus on September 13, 2017.

CJLPP: Considering events such as the hate rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and the 45th President’s plan to end DACA, do you still believe reaching over the empathy wall is the best way to solve the polarization of opposing views in America?”

Hochschild: It would be easy to say, “Charlottesville? Plan to end DACA? Deplorable. I’m going to stay in my own bubble.” This is a common response but is it a useful one? A recent Pew survey found that Democrats are more stuck in their political bubbles than Republicans are stuck in theirs, and more loath to reach out to those who disagree with them. So Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say, “oh if they don’t agree with me, I won’t talk to them.” This would be a troubling finding under any circumstance, but I find it deeply worrying response, when we consider that democrats have suffered an overwhelming electoral defeat at local, state and federal levels of government.

So yes, I think liberals, if they want change, will need to reach across this deepening partisan divide, but do it as part of a wider political approach.  I envision three pillars of activism.  The first is to defend the system of checks and balances of democracy—the freedom of the press, the sanctity of an independent judiciary. One needn’t talk to those across the aisle to do this.  Pillar two, I think, is to revamp the democratic party platform which failed to appeal to the Louisianans I came to know and to many rural and rust-belt Americans. With activism devoted to pillar two, I would count getting out the vote and defending the right to vote, and engagement in electoral politics. And again, they wouldn’t need to engage Trump voters for this. But pillar three requires liberals to reach out to others who voted and think differently from them. I don’t think we all have to work on the same pillars, but I think we have to appreciate the contribution of each of those pillars, and to work in coordination,

If you’re choosing pillar three, the question arises: what are the limits of empathy? Where do you draw the line? Some people have told me, “I don’t want to talk to anybody that voted for Donald Trump. They’re all deplorable. I’m not interested. Their deep stories have gotten enough of public attention already. But others rightly say, “eight-million people—some estimate six-million—voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and switched to Donald Trump in 2016 and I’d like to talk to them.” They draw the empathy line there. Others say, “No, actually, [not] even them, I’m tired of their story.” Then, the question arises how about the one out of three white, blue-collar workers who would have voted for Bernie Sanders had he been the candidate but voted for Donald Trump instead.

If liberals and progressives want to win, they need to coordinate activism across those three pillars. I think pillar one is the most important, pillar two the next most important, and what one learns contributing to pillar three can help enormously with one and two.

CJLPP: The answer that you gave is from a liberal’s perspective on what liberals should do. In your book Strangers In Their Own Land you discuss why liberals cannot understand the Great Paradox on the conservative side, and one of the things you cite is the empathy wall. To what extent do you see the wall working in the other way where conservatives are failing to understand liberals? 

For example, this can be seen with DACA, not understanding the emotional side of immigration as issue, solving the Affordable Care Act where Republicans went on about fiscal responsibility as well as tax cuts without acknowledging the impact it could have on low-income families and on people who are dependent on Medicaid or dependent on social security. To what extent do you see in these sort of hot point issues—especially as we have a Republican unified federal government—that there’s an empathy wall that’s preventing Tea Party conservatives or Republicans generally from understanding the liberal perspectives on some of these issues?

Hochschild: Right. I’ve often heard liberals say, “Well, you know, the conservatives aren’t interested in us. Damn, let them come to us for once. Why are we always leaning over curiously?” But yes, I think that liberals have done a poor job at getting their deep stories out. What is the deep story? What’s it like to be an immigrant? What’s it like to be a person of color? How have government policies favored whites – the GI bill, social security, housing, business loans? So for starters, the left and right aren’t living in the same informational worlds.

But one needs to learn the skills of a mediator in begin talking across the divide.   A lot of Louisianans I came to know felt slapped in the face. “Oh, you’re a racist, or you’re against immigrants, you’re a mean person.” They just feel like liberals were insulting them and reducing their honor which is scarce in their worldview anyway. So I think it points to a job to be done to convey in an appropriate and sophisticated way with mediator skills.  Who was there at Charlottesville? What does DACA mean?  The people I talked to—blue collar white Louisiana Trump supporters—virtually all told me, “everyone should have stayed home”.  A number told me, “if you’re white and southern, they think you’re a white nationalist, but we’re not.”

At the same time, a number of them didn’t want confederate statues removed. When I asked if they would go along with the idea of establishing two statues—one of Robert E Lee, and one along side it of Frederick Douglass—that was a novel idea for them, and gave me a nod, “yes”. But one woman added, grudgingly, “that would be okay, so far as they paid for their status.”  So she still thought of the hypothetical statue of Douglass as “theirs”, and not hers. In a sense this models the kind of “common ground” America could find across differences in racial attitude. Its not perfect. Its not overall agreement. But it’s a way forward from where we are now.

CJLPP: Is there something in the way that prevents communication from both sides? From how liberals perceive conservatives and how conservatives perceive liberals?

Hochschild: That leads me to think about method. Actually, there is something called “Reaching Across Red/Blue Divide.” You can Google it. It shows how to lift away from the attack/defend posture that’s so common in all the news networks. It’s attack/defend. And [Reaching Across Red/Blue Divide] offers something called the reflective structure dialogue, “RSD,” which I didn’t know about. I just headed out [to Louisiana] in 2011.

I’ve participated in a program called “Living Room Conversations,” which is one of some 70 or 80 grassroots organizations that are trying to mediate across the divide. It was started by Joan Blades, who’s a mediation lawyer and is also the co-founder of MoveOn.org, which is the largest liberal website. She’s got these living room conversations—there are hundreds going on nationwide. I participated in one, and there was an interesting method. You get a dozen people, we did one in my own living room, half Republican and half Democrat and you pick a particular issue to see if you can find common ground. You start with what we have in common: “What kind of world do you want to live in? What would you like America to look like?”

Generally, we got agreement on that. Usually, the people that join such a program actually want to find some common ground, they break bread together, and there’s a respectful culture of discourse. Then, you actually start with the specifics. I didn’t participate on one on DACA. But I’m sure they’re going to have one on that, and if you were to email Joan Blades, and I’ll give you her email, she would be able to direct you to a living room conversation going on somewhere where DACA is the issue, and what anxieties does it give rise to? What fund of information do people have available? Often, these are information exchanging sessions. For example, for DACA, they’re the A-plus students, they’re really winners as students, but most people on the other side don’t actually know that. That doesn’t come through on Fox News. Anyway, I think we all need to develop mediation skills. The whole nation—we need to be grown-ups, and I don’t think we’re getting good modeling from the highest levels. We’ve got to step up at the grassroots level and even higher at the local leadership level to model to the top instead of having the top model for us.

CJLPP: Mediation is particularly interesting because the question of why can’t we all compromise on something has become, more or less, why doesn’t everyone agree with me? How does mediation address that kind of mentality?

Hochschild: Well, one of the initial kind of premises of this reaching across the red-blue divide is that you develop this curiosity. You actually have to be interested in people you know you’re going to disagree with. You have to be curious, interested and respectful and take the alarm system off—a capacity for self-detachment. It’s kind of like a clinical thing. Psychiatrists know how to do it. They’re talking to crazy people who think they’re the King of England and ask them, you know, “How do you feel about being the King of England?” You have to really get good at listening and especially listening for metaphors. I think people often become deeply attached to strips of belief that turnout to have a metaphor echo in something that actually did happen. I present that analysis in the book with regard to the rapture.

People think that the world is going to end suddenly, and the good people will be sucked up to Heaven, and the bad people will [deal] with climate change and misery, and I think that had a metaphoric ring of what already people are seeing as upcoming events, what actually did happen in their world—that is the blue-collar world of high-paid union protected jobs—that is gone. They lost it. And there has been a divide, but it’s between rich and poor, and with a shrinking middle class. Actually, the rapture is telling—I think in a religious language—a secular reality in a language that predicts the future. Something actually did happen in the past. If you’re listening analytically and interpretively but with your own self-protective value guard suspended, that kind of listening—active listening—turns out to be hugely consequential and necessary for us all to develop. Not one little specialized sociologist in the corner, but we all now need to actually learn this skill. It’s like another language. We need to be bilingual. It’s an emotional language.

CJLPP: In your book, you discuss the need for candidates to appeal to emotion, but a considerable amount of literature has been written analyzing the difficulties female candidates, in particular, face when making emotional appeals, or just showing emotion in general. I was wondering if you think this complicates national campaigns made by female candidates, if they want to be an emotions candidate like Donald Trump was.

Hochschild: That is a fascinating question. In other words, because of the stereotype of women as emotional, do they have to counter that stereotype and seem coldly reasonable? Not a good move, I think. No, we can’t be afraid of the stereotype. Just need to shove it aside and realize that emotion goes to the heart of both male and female, a kind of political conviction. I’m trying to think of what female leaders have been good at that. Indira Gandhi, maybe. Angela Merkel is a little more of the analytic person. But I think Maggie Thatcher took kind of a red state perspective but expressed it emotionally. So, I understand your wonderful question and I would draw the analogy to Barack Obama not wanting to seem like a combative black man but above it. The gentleman. The mediator, actually. In a way, I think we have to pick up his mediator message and continue with what he established the model for. I think he suffered from that stereotype avoidance. I think we just have to stare it down.

CJLPP: To bring it closer to home, if the goal is to understand the “Great Paradox” personally, then do you think institutions like Pomona and UC Berkeley should be adapting their pedagogical goals to achieve that aim? That includes things like bringing in speakers, altering admissions processes in an effort to incorporate students from rural areas in the South, such as where you visited in Louisiana, or other more traditionally Tea Party or right-wing places in America?

Hochschild: Yes. I think we have to respond and ask questions about what are the most effective ways to respond. I think one effective way to respond is to get exchange programs going. Actually, I think this should actually happen at the high school level. Since so much of politics is regional, I would like coastal kids to go inland, inland kids from farming families to go to the coast, south to go north, and north to go south. In junior year of high school, a three-week program where they’re all involved in some common project, like building homes for the homeless or something, where they’re not just talking, where they’re doing something together. I would like an actually structural program that quite essentially creates this. I would like to see church exchanges through churches as well as schools. And on campuses, exchanges of campuses. I’m trying to get one with Louisiana State University, where their students could come to Berkeley and Berkeley could send some students there. So I think rather than recruiting, I would like to see the exchange first and I would like to see a more open culture of free speech and dialogue on campus. And what my idea was not just to invite these highly polarizing attack/defend speakers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos but to set up debates, such as happened when the Iraq war began. You had defenders and critics and a ballroom of two thousand students listening to each side. I’d like to see mediated debates about DACA and healthcare and the cost of it. Take these issues one-by-one with knowledgeable people who are articulate and respectful–kind of model the thing that there isn’t enough modeling of. So when Milo Yiannopoulos comes, I’d like it to be one of twelve events that day at Berkeley. And I’d like theater to get involved—by the way there’s a musical based on this book, I haven’t seen it yet. But so, you know, widen the arena of expression, enrich it, have book things like this on a variety of books and informal book groups and reads. Again with this spirit and again with these mediation skills, it’s—I don’t think of free speech just as something we suppress or borrow the Trump model of polarization and bring it to the campus, that’s no good either. I want a richer culture of debate where we’re not afraid of it either. Oh my god, you know, that side, we’ve heard that story too much. “No, I’m sticking in my own cathedral or my own bubble”. I think that’s sad. I get it, we do need protection. We have to put a culture of free speech together with respect and protection. But I guess what I aspire to when I say that I would like a richer culture of debate and free speech is that we’re not afraid of difference. I think at the moment people are panicked, people are anxious and feel attacked. And we need somehow to create an atmosphere where DACA and healthcare costs are issues of great interest and go to debates and we don’t feel afraid to hear someone who disagrees with us.

CJLPP: In reflecting on your research processes, would you say that your positionality with your background as a teacher at a liberal institution, and also as a white woman, do you think that it had any effect on your analyses? Did it hinder or enhance your findings and your research when you were in Louisiana speaking to these families?

Hochschild: Did it alter me, you mean?

CJLPP: Yes.

Hochschild: No, not my politics. No. And I’m a former civil rights worker too, that was Mississippi, not Louisiana. But it deepened me as a person and it made me sadder, more troubled, more concerned. And it made me appreciate the depths of what we’re up against here. And it told me that I could really come to feel extremely fond of people that I know people differ from, like the Areno family, where he at the end of the book he was saying “I’ll see you in the rapture.” I don’t believe in the rapture, I just told you what I think. But I’m driving home and thought “oh, these dear people.” So—it enlarged me as a human being.

CJLPP: Your call for empathy for the other side has already been answered by some. For example, Ilia Calderon, a Afro-Colombian journalist, volunteered to interview a family that were KKK members in Yanceyville, North Carolina in August of 2017. Calderon was the first black woman that this family had ever let into their house. After the interview, Calderon stated that she had never felt so much hate or contempt in her life but had volunteered to do the interview because she represented everything they hated. In your book, you mention how race was unspoken despite it being everywhere you went. Can you shine light on why that was, in your opinion?

Hochschild: There are people like Van Jones who does exactly the same thing. Intrepid. There’s also this guy whose name is Darryl Davis who goes around—a black guy who’s a musician—and meets with KKK folks and he now has sixteen robes that he’s been given by people who’ve given up their white nationalism. So he just makes it a thing to do. He says “I never challenge them, but if they get to know me, they find nothing to hate. I have a family, they have a family”. That isn’t a work everyone has the capacity to do, but I admire it. I think Martin Luther King was in the same ecumenical spirit. He wasn’t polarizing at all, he had goals, but he was wanting buy-in for those goals. And I think that the Reverend William Barber II has a congregation in South Carolina is in that model, and we should look to them for models for how to do this. I think in my case—they could Google me anyway, what an oddball name, only one with that first and last name—I told them how different I was from them, and that I was worried about the divide, and it wasn’t as a white woman hard to open that door. They came in with, “Yeah, you people have us wrong. So you tell ‘em–your people.” So that was the door. And you know what I really learned at a most basic level is the power of recognition. It’s a powerful thing. I couldn’t get out of these interviews. It wasn’t hard to get in, it was hard to get out. “And one more thing I didn’t tell you!” You know? If you really are emotionally open—and they can tell if you are or aren’t—in this peculiar kind of way, they know it and they feel it. One woman said, “I felt better after talking to you.” And one said, “you touch all the burrs under my saddle. When are you coming again?” And so, it’s, in other words, a good experience even though it has assaultive information. If you go in absolutely clear, they’re not under any apprehension that you’re going to agree or that their talk has the purpose of convincing you. From the beginning, you’ll say that’s not what this is about, I’m learning what you think. It’s a particular cultural zone, and I think we need more of it. I’ve found a hunger for it on the other side.

CJLPP: That is all the time we have. Thank you so much for your time.

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