Read this book

Today is the beginning of my blogging year (Blogging Year 2017) [1] and I’d like to start by recommending a book. The book is Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

It’s a good book for right now, I think, because the “American Right” has just risen up and bitten political liberals (like me) in the butt. All over America and all over the rest of the world, people are asking, “What were they thinking?” [2] Hochschild’s answer is that they weren’t thinking. They were feeling. So this is a potentially fruitful topic for “the new year.”

arh-1Hochschild is a wonderful choice to begin the new year. She is a sociologist at Berkeley and has written on some very sensitive topics. She came to my attention when I read The Managed Heart: the Commercialization or Human Feeling. [3] in 1979. It was an adptation of what “labor” means from the Marxist notion to a much richer sense that is broadened to include “emotional labor.” To study that, she studied flight attendants, who are paid to maintain a certain emotional demeanor and who suffer, as a result, from what Hochschild calls “charm depression.”

Her method of study is to go sit down with people and get to know them and the learn about their lives. Then she brings her own keen mind and her sociological training into play and devises a way to represent what she has learned. That’s what she did this time, too. She went to Lake Charles, Louisiana and got to know a lot of Tea Party voters. She got to know them across the span of all their life conditions and interests, including politics.

The politics is what particularly interested me, of course and particularly her emphasis on “feeling rules.” Every culture tells you how you ought to feel about some event or relationship. And when you don’t feel that way, you wonder what is wrong. [4] And the culture tells you also what resentments and angers and sadnesses are “appropriate.” Think about the “anger” and “mourning” in the subtitle if you are looking for examples.

I have now recommended the book and appreciated Dr. Hochschild. And now I would like to use her book to make one small point. This is the point: you can’t weigh the costs and benefits of a policy if you don’t have any policy goals. Consider this grievance: [page 69]

At a meeting of the Republican Women of Southwest Louisians, across-the-table talk of regulation focused on the promotion of fluorescent or LED light bulbs: “The government has no right to regulate the light bulbs we buy,” one woman declared. “I made my husband change all my light bulbs back to the old ones.”

If I were there to reason with this group—a fool’s errand, surely—I would begin by saying that it is hard to have to change from products and practices we are familiar with. I would use a self-deprecatory example. maybe, about how I had to get used to a different kind of cake mix. Then I would say that as uncomfortable as change can be, sometimes it helps to achieve a goal we all want to achieve and in those cases, the discomfort is worth it.

Then I would say that America (not “the United States”) has begun to work very hard to reduce the amount of energy we use. I might, in some settings, talk about the harmful effects of global warming, but with this group, I might try “energy independence.” I might, if encouraged, make a snarky remark about “oil-rich Arab states” and how dangerous it is to give them power over us.

And then I would say that their grievance—having to change to more energy-efficient light arh-4bulbs—is actually an important part of achieving the goal. I might remember to call it “our goal,” hoping that that term might cause them to think of themselves as “Americans” and not as the “victims of federal regulation.” At that point, the wheels would come off the wagon.

You cannot work in the cost/benefit frame of reference if there are no policy goals. If there is no goal, there is no benefit that comes from reaching the goal, and if there is no benefit, then any cost at all, will outweigh it. The smallest inconvenience; the least grievance. Even a new kind of light bulb.

But, of course, it isn’t really the light bulb. The light bulb is just an instance of a larger category—“the government has no right to regulate us.” And the feelings of resentment about government regulation are so intense and so near the surface that reasoning about “how to reduce energy consumption” will not survive. [5]

And the feeling rules apply because we have “every right to be angry” when the government invades our lives and tries to tell us what to do. The feelings are attached to the regulatory process. They have nothing at all to do with energy consumption or, indeed, any other policy at all.

You can’t justify the means by reference to the ends if there are no ends. “Feels good” and “feels bad” is the whole range of policy responses. Along with a little “don’t tell me what to do,” which amplifies the resistance to every policy initiative, not only from the national level, but from the state level as well.

That, Hochchild says, is what is driving our politics. You can’t reason with it, but for people like me, it might be a good idea to try to understand it.

[1] There are, of course, reasons why I start at the beginning of December, but they need not detain us here.
[2] In the U. S., “they” refers to Trump voters. Everywhere else, it refers to all of us. That embarrasses me, but I think it is largely true.
[3] Whoever writes her subtitles is worth his or her weight in gold—not saying it isn’t Hochschild herself.
[4] I have tried and—so far—failed to establish the word orthopathy to refer to “having the feelings you are supposed to have.” This word would join orthodoxy (believing what you are supposed to believe) and orthopraxy (doing what you are supposed to do). You can find those two words in any good dictionary, but you will not find my proposed word, despite both the logic of it and the need for it.
[5] Leaving aside for the moment that this is the energy dependent part of a state that has mortgaged itself to attract oil companies.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Read this book

  1. thinkydoug says:

    The toddler in all of us hates to be told what to do, no matter how reasonable the order. Government regulation isn’t a request or an appeal to common sense or decency, it is an order one must comply with, and that’s a hard pill for people who haven’t bought into the reason for the law or who will be economically affected.

    Your post reminded me that a neighbor of mine, after the election, said that finally people would hear the voice of the common man, since a majority of people voted for Trump (not true, of course) and she would finally get some relief from all the rights she’d lost under the current administration (I didn’t ask). I would have loved to correct and pushback on both of those assertions, but knew that “facts” didn’t matter and would do nothing to change her feelings or her devotion to them. She was VINDICATED and would no longer be denied.


    • hessd says:

      It is hard. People make sounds that seem almost like conversation, but they have no real contact with the world of shared facts and meanings. It’s awkward, isn’t it. It is time for all of us to remember what phatic communication means.

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