Nuggets From Arlie Hochschild's Call

Posted by Cynthia Li on Sep 26, 2020
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Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Arlie Hochschild.

“Everyone has a deep story,” says Arlie Hochschild. “Our job is to respect and try to understand these stories.” She is one of the most distinguished sociologists of our time. Considered the founder of the “sociology of emotion,” she is professor emerita at UC Berkeley and author of 10 paradigm-shifting books. Her most recent, a New York Times bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, had her immersed in southwest Louisiana. She was determined to get out of her comfort zone and climb “an empathy wall” to be curious about the experiences and viewpoints of people she knew she would have differences with. In the end, she became friends with many she interviewed. “Caring,” she insists, “is not the same as capitulating. The relationships in Louisiana enlarged me as a human being.”

Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me (excerpts from the transcript follow)...
  • The sociology of emotion begins with the idea that our emotions are essential to understand our world. They’re one of the senses, just like seeing and hearing.
  • We either evoke emotions or suppress them; we manage them according to “feeling rules.” People have different feeling rules depending on where they live or how they might identify.
  • When Arlie was doing immersive research in Southern Louisiana for her book Strangers in Their Own Land, those she interviewed took pride in managing their fear. Yet, the other side saw them as reacting from fear. Each side of the current American political divide sees “the other” as fragile in different ways.
  • On both sides, there’s more sensitivity to emotions than meets the eye.
  • What Arlie calls “an empathy wall” is a barrier to putting ourselves in someone else's shoes because the differences feel too vast. Climbing over this wall begins with turning our alarms off, stepping outside our comfort zones, and to trying to “stretch our symbols.”
  • We’re all called to step up to be the bridge builder—to bring our whole selves, to listen generously. When engaging with people who had different beliefs and frameworks than Arlie, she chose the posture and language of “Tell me,” instead of “This is about me.”
  • Arlie told a story about her book tour four years ago. At a university in a conservative region, she was welcomed with curiosity and gratitude. At a college in a liberal region, she was judged for reaching out to “racists.” The experience opened her eyes to hidden assumptions and ironies.
  • “The country is currently a powder keg of unprocessed emotions.” (from our moderator Preeta)
  • The bubbles we live in—political, regional, racial, social—are partly self-made and the walls are not as far away as they may seem.
  • Programs like Living Room Conversations (civil dialogues between liberals and conservatives) and the American Exchange Project (a domestic exchange program for high school students) seek to connect people across the divides, heal the grief, and foster unexpected friendships.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!

Excerpts from Transcript
  • About the sociology of emotion:  our feelings, our emotions, are so elemental in understanding our world. They're like sight. If you can't feel your feelings, you can't see. You can't hear. They’re a sense .... And then all the while, as we're managing our feelings, there's a sphere around us -- ... a sphere of “feeling rules.” Like, we're in the middle of the Covid epidemic and in the middle of a period of political turmoil, and many of us are economically frightened for our lives. How should we feel? Should we feel panicked? Should we call our friend, “Oh my god, what am I going to do?” Or should we be stiff upper lip – “Okay, things have been worse before”? Or are we balancing our anxiety with good times in some self-conscious way? All of that has to do with feeling rules. People in Louisiana do it differently than people in Berkeley, California, and in India; so these are culturally informed norms, or ways we think, ... [T]here are so many different ways of holding our feelings. We may not know it, but we're holding them, and they differ, the ways we do, by social class, by religious group, by ethnic group, by region, by occupation.
  • The view of those in Louisiana toward "fearful" and "snowflake" liberals: people who I came to know [in Louisiana] are responding to Covid, for example, differently. They’re more stoical and they see people on the coasts and liberals as sissies. So there's kind of a stiff upper lip: “Well, we've had bad luck before, but we’ve gotta get to work. And let's not make a big deal about it. Don't elaborate on it: ‘Oh my goodness, this is terrible!’” They look down on people they think who too readily move to fear. So they don't like to feel fear. They do feel fear, but they take pride in managing fear, and one of their favorite epithets to throw back to the liberals and the people on the coast is “Oh, you snowflakes!” One friend said, “Oh, when Trump was elected, someone in Marin County had to get a care dog to handle the stress.” So that would be an example.
  • On building empathy bridges:  you don't start with politics. You start with just getting to know each other. ... [W]e need kind of a grassroots movement that permits empathy bridges where they are now fragile or missing.
    • Reaching out just a little bitSo if you reach out a little bit, what you realize is that there are people, good people, who will reach back. Not everybody, of course, but you pick out the ones who are responsive to you and it helps you then respond. So I think that the whole idea of empathy bridges as something you build and don't take for granted came from feeling displaced like that.
    • Just listening to stories: the first thing we have to do is establish a civil floor, not to come to agreement but to disagree well. To disagree well. You have your deep story. I have my deep story. ... It's through stories that we’ll connect.
    • All capable of empathy:  I think people are all capable of empathy. Some more than others, surely, but most people can empathize well. I think it's one of the human gifts we’re given, but we’re used to expressing it toward our children, toward our friends, toward our loved ones, and not toward people that we've decided are the “other” .... I think we should be fearless in who it is we're trying to understand. Understanding is good.
    • We don't have to travel far to cross the empathy bubble: I think the walls of our bubbles are partly self made. You're not too far from someone who's going to disagree with you. It might be a co-worker. ... So I think we walk around with walls. I certainly do and have. And I've seen it in my own work. ... And so, for people who are within bubbles, I would recommend thinking about if the walls of your bubble, the boundaries of it, are within you.
    • Liberal universities often have big empathy walls:  I gave a talk at Pomona College, a very affluent, very quote “liberal” college in California. And I thought, “Oh, this is a piece of cake. I'll be talking to the choir.” Not at all! They said, “What? You want us to talk to those racists? No! In fact, who are you, that you’re a kind of middleman to those bad people?” I was shocked actually, and I came to think, “Wait a minute. Where are these walls that are preventing empathy bridges?” Well, they’re right in liberal land. They are, they are. And in universities. And there was a sense of -- I went away sad. I felt like a lot of goodwill was being taken up and cocooned, turned on itself, into a little judging, blaming machine so that people felt it was a good day's work, even political work, to blame the other. That was really based in anxiety, a sense of, “Oh my god, this world, here we are in the university. We thought we were safe.” You know, first-generation, African American, women, sort of thing. “Finally, we're safe in this university and now it's all being threatened.” That they felt like strangers in their new old land and that we need to break through that, you know. Yes you are. We see it. But the answer isn't to build a fortress. The answer is to find the right avenues for reaching out.
  • The "deep story" of conservative Louisiana -- waiting in line for the American Dream in the face of line-cutters:  [Y]ou tell it like you would a dream. That you're, like, in a pilgrimage, you're waiting in line, facing the American Dream, and you feel like you don't begrudge anybody, you feel like you’ve worked hard. You're deserving. And that then there are line cutters – blacks, women, public servants even, environmentalists -- who are all pushing you back and being rewarded by a Democratic president, Obama at that point. That's the paradigm of the right-wing deep story: an entitlement and yet a sense of marginalization. There have been new chapters added to that deep story recently, and one is, “Ok, now we have a savior.” I would even use -- the sense for many is they feel that someone has come to rescue us from this endless waiting and backwards motion. And it is Donald Trump, and now he's suffering for us. It has a religious tone, I think. And we must defend him. He is ours, and we must defend him. And so all of political news is read through those latest chapters to the deep story, I feel.
  • Her history of unfreezing in her emotional world as an early influence:  I also think there was a period in my life when I felt emotionally frozen and overmanaged. I lived in a lot of different places and was on my own a lot and was brought up with a sort of Protestant sense of autonomy: “You should be able to handle things.” And it was overload for me and I got frozen. And so actually through therapy, which was hugely transformative for me, really important in my 20s and 30s, I slowly, gently, in the hands of a very kind, good man, got unfrozen. And it feels precious. So I think that has a lot to do with it. I'm very grateful for that.
  • Learning from her interviewees -- "they were my teachers":  
    • I learn from the people who I talk with in interviews. They are like books to me. I feel it’s sacred, these interviews. It's not just a job for me, and I'm touched by them. A recent acquaintance, getting to be a friend -- a young man who overdosed four times in his life, and he's now in recovery, a very thoughtful, very deep person, and his teacher in this recovery is also very thoughtful and deep -- and he described to me what it was like to go rock climbing. And he said to me, “When I climb a rock …” He said, first of all, “In recovery, I feel like a six-year-old. I'm learning my feelings and learning how to feel.” And he's also learning how to manage his feelings. But first, are they there? What's the shape and size of them? He’s getting acquainted with himself. He's not blocking it out anymore. And he said, “As I'm rock climbing, I realize that the rock is going to be there. That’s steady. It's I who can move.” And I just felt moved by his wisdom, and that in this recovery, he was saying something for us all.
    • One woman, big evangelist for Donald Trump, she took me around to her church and opening the trunk of her car, there were all these plastic plates. “What's that?” “Well, we're doing a fundraiser for our boys in Afghanistan. You know, we're going to send them one-touch pillows. These are 18-year-olds, you know. They're suddenly in Afghanistan. They've never been away from home. They're frightened, and if they put their head on this pillow, they feel God is with them. It reassures them.” And I thought, “Wow. That's empathy. She’s being extraordinarily generous. This isn’t a local life. That's the shape of her empathy wall, whereas a lot of the people I know in my Berkeley bubble aren't thinking about the 18-year-old in Afghanistan. They want to bring him home. They think he shouldn't have been put there, but they're not empathizing with him because he is there.” So I came to appreciate it.
  • Not sharing her own views with her interviewees:  I didn't do that [sharing her views] very much. That wasn't the project. I came with open ears, with interest, but not with the purpose of telling people how the world looks to me. And they didn't ask very much. That was kind of interesting, how little they did ask. But what it told me, though, is how starved they were for being seen and acknowledged and prodded into. Why was that? Why is anybody that starved for a sense of being heard? I think that is a larger question that Awakin can help us think more deeply about. A lot of people don't feel heard, don't feel seen. Yeah, so that's not a good sign.
  • On triggers and symbol stretching:  (discussing a time when she was triggered by a man decrying the role of government in a living room conversation in Berkeley):  I had a moment. I just burst out: “Look, I've spent five years looking at the costs of the dysfunctional government, or no government, and when you just let the market go, look at the pain. Look at the cancer rate.” And I went on and on and on. I completely disrupted. I lost it. And the Republican, in a very mannerly way, said, “Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot that that is one of your liberal symbols, or signal points.” In other words, I thought, signal point is symbol. Oh, so yeah, a button was pushed in me and that person had me so understood that they all pushed the wrong button and Hochschild lost it. So I learned a lot and I thanked him, “Look, I've just learned a lot right now -- that you're sensitive to my symbols. I have to learn to be sensitive to your symbols, and then we need to symbol stretch to say, for example, ‘You have a symbol of being an American. Great. I do, too. But does being American mean not only that you would die for your country, which I've been told many times, but that you value the Constitution and the whole idea of division of labor?’” That's a symbol stretch, and we need to do that -- not to stamp over and ignore other people's symbols, but to be deferent of them the way this Republican was for me. But then to get inside the symbol and see if it couldn't be applied to other things that that person isn't applying their symbol to.

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