Uncertain Place of Empathy in Today’s Turbulent Political Reality

In 2016, not long before Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, influential sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild published “Strangers in Their Own Land,” in which she expressed her concern for the growing political divide in American society. She asked her politically progressive public audience to “scale the empathy wall,” or to try the best they could to see the world through the eyes of their political “Other”: conservative working Americans, primarily in the American South and Midwest. Without understanding the source of their “anger and mourning,” she argued, we had little hope of stemming the tide of political antagonism that gave rise to the Tea Party movement in the early 2010s and then fueled Trump’s rise to national prominence.

Hochschild departed from the usual fare of opinion polls and “objective” analysis, and endeavored to focus on the subjective views and experiences (a much more complex undertaking, if you ask my opinion) of ordinary Americans, many of whom are poor, rural and ailing, yet reject progressive policies that could improve their own lives directly and significantly. It took the “traveling to the heart,” physically and metaphorically, to gain an insight into this “great paradox,” long rides in their pickup trucks, many afternoons on their porches, and evenings around their kitchen tables, to listen to their stories and see through their eyes, until she uncovered the emotionally charged underlying story of the broken dream and betrayal, deep underneath their seemingly irrational political leanings.

When I taught this book for the first time in 2018, my students and I were, like Hochschild, alarmed by the widening chasm in our society and yet, we wondered whether it would be possible to change America’s political landscape through such “traveling to the heart.” I am about to teach this book again this spring and wonder what I will say to my students now.

Hochschild’s trope is uncannily familiar to any anthropologist worth their salt. Making sense of what is at first strange and unfamiliar is the torch our discipline has carried since its beginning. Many anthropologists took it to be their intellectual purpose to make unfamiliar familiar. Take Bronislaw Malinowski, for example. In the 1920s, he argued against European and North American scholars who considered non-Western societies “primitive,” and pointed out that tribal people, when studied without ethnocentric bias, had an equally sophisticated mental capacity for reasoning as Europeans. From this point on, the idea of “cultural relativism,” or understanding the cultural Other in their own terms (or at least as close as we can get to it), became anthropology’s core principle.

Many anthropologists also considered it their social responsibility to speak in defense of the cultural Other, who did not have a public voice of their own, at least in the Western intellectual sphere, of which they themselves were part. However, the idea that the Other needed an academically trained outsider to make their voices heard is slippery ground indeed to stand on, as they began to recognize in the latter decades of the 20th century. It appears that Hochschild’s political Other, too, found a voice of their own after all — though not the kind of outlet she imagined or hoped for — when they stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, in the most violent public display to date of the anger she had spoken of five years earlier.

Ultimately, my question is this: What is the role of empathy in the sharply divided world in which we live? Cultural relativism has already been under scrutiny as it seems to blindly accept any widely held ideas or common practices in a given cultural context and negate the possibility of critical analysis. A similar criticism has been directed toward Hochschild’s use of empathy, and some have argued that her “deep story” obscures the effects of underlying politico-economic forces and ideological manipulation, even as it claims to reveal a deep-seated interpretive structure in the collective consciousness of the American Right.

Does this mean that an effort to put ourselves in the proverbial shoes of others has become obsolete? Are we so sure of the correctness of our own viewpoints that only those who share them deserve our empathy — precisely the stance that Hochschild critiqued in her book? And if so, should we stop regarding our social/cultural/political Other as equal to ourselves and considering their beliefs as carefully as we hope for them to consider ours?

Perhaps, some may argue, Hochschild’s approach is outdated for today’s turbulent political reality. But — call me too 20th-century — I am not yet ready to throw out the empathy with the bathwater. After all, the capacity to empathize, to feel the other’s hurt or joy and act as though these emotions are our own, is one of the defining qualities of our species. We must be mindful of what historical circumstances have taught us: Whenever we permit ourselves collectively to suspend our empathy based on perceived difference, whether it may be defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, beliefs, place of origin, age or ability, the outcomes are always ugly, destructive, inhumane.

But the truth is, what I think matters less in many ways. More importantly, I wonder what my students will have to say — what they think about Hochschild’s urging to reach out to those whose worldviews are so far apart from their own. For it is they who will be called to take up the torch and shine the light upon the future of our society.