Will Richard Armitage bring us together in 2017? [part 2]

Continued from here.  So: will Richard Armitage bring us together in 2017?

pax pax et non erat pax

Portrait of Patrick Henry that they have at the college.

Portrait of Patrick Henry that they have at the college.

Short answer — No. Definitely not if we keep talking about politics the way we have. Which could be another reason for not talking much about politics in fandom spaces this year. As I said, I’m not sure.

Long answer follows.

Pax pax et non erat pax is a quote from the biblical prophet Jeremiah, in which he describes his conflicts with other prophets who are prophesying peace. But most Americans are probably more familiar with it as a line from a 1775 speech attributed to Patrick Henry, [discussion of attribution here], who’s become a conservative evangelical Christian icon, but when I was a kid was just a colonial anti-British patriot, and then afterwards an anti-Federalist who changed his mind when he saw what happened in France. “Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace, but there is no peace,” Henry is supposed to have said. The general thrust of both of these contexts suggests: people who insist on peace in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary endanger their societies. Israel was under threat of destruction from Babylon and the North American colonies were about to become embroiled in a revolution that would separate them from Great Britain.

To be honest, this is kind of how I’m feeling about what Richard Armitage said at Christmas. It wasn’t helpful; it might have been harmful. I was lucky that I had finally come to a place that very afternoon about how to deal with this stuff (subject of a forthcoming post). How I felt was mild in comparison to what I’ve heard from two fans who told me that they read this message and said in their hearts some version of “I’d be happy to thrown down with you any time about who does more to help those in need,” and/or “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, you know nothing about my life.” When we talk about celebrity endorsements having a negative impact, it seems to me that one piece of it must be that most people don’t care to be told how to feel or what to do by those who have no idea of what their lives are really like. On that level, what Armitage had to say was itself a failure of empathy.

gentlemen may cry empathy, empathy …

So I guess I’m being a bit of an indecisive moderate, yet again, in taking a less severe position than that and feeling that what he said was inadequate.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-7-19-09-pm

Dr. King's police mugshot, Birmingham, 1963.

Dr. King’s police mugshot, Birmingham, 1963.

What this message said to me was something that Richard Armitage has said before. Based on what he’s said in public in the last few years, Richard Armitage definitely urges people to paper over trouble, who cries “peace, peace” when there is no peace. Here, it’s talk about having to accept isolation and division (news flash: whether we accept it or not, it’s not a narrative — it’s real) if we don’t act empathetically. There’s ample evidence of Armitage’s stance elsewhere, too. Don’t argue, don’t stand up to people who bully you, be empathetic, we’ve heard this all before from him. As blog readers know, my own position couldn’t be more different. Research is starting to show that people who could empathize are actually less sympathetic to people in situations they’ve experienced. I think it’s a fundamental cognitive and political mistake to conflate what actors do when trying to figure out how to play a character with empathy as it impacts actual social problems, and as I’ve said in regard to concrete issues in the fandom — fans don’t want to empathize with each other’s needs and I don’t fundamentally believe we want to take intellectual steps toward empathizing with what we might reasonably hypothesize Armitage’s needs might be.

And when understood politically, what Armitage typically says, has regularly been saying, is a reprise of the position that left me ambivalent before: Not talking about or confronting contemporary injustice reinforces the power of whoever benefits from the status quo. It really hasn’t been lost on me that everyone I’ve heard ask for unity and reconciliation in the wake of the election, for Americans to forget our differences, is some combination of either white and/or wealthy and/or male. Which makes it seem appropriate, given the holiday, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963).

To be fair to Armitage, of course, despite the near sainthood that King has taken on lately among people who seem to have no idea of what he actually did or said during his career, it seems to me that most Americans I know would disagree with King (the debates over Colin Kaepernick seem to exemplify exactly what King was talking about), and there are all kinds of people arguing at the moment that what we need is less protest and more empathy. In my circles, President Obama’s quotation of Harper Lee’s character, Atticus Finch, on climbing into someone else’s skin and walking around with it was the moment of his farewell address cited with the most approval overall. Now, it’s to Obama’s advantage to lean as far to the center as he can make himself lean, and he’s been criticized by me and other liberals for that choice, even as Fox News seems not even to notice now desperately toward the right he occasionally contorts himself from our perspective. But what no one seems to talk about is where the empathy is supposed to come from.

[understanding as the basis for empathy]

empathy-four-elementsCommon notions about the sources of empathy seem to include elements something about information as the basis for understanding. This is the purpose of a recent book by one of the more prominent proponents of empathy, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a UC-Berkeley sociologist whose book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016), is getting a lot of press right now as the book that’s going to make liberals empathize with all the angry Trump voters out there. Of course, she was researching it when that position seemed like a dwindling minority and not the compass for the political future of the U.S.; perhaps she’d argue differently if she published the book now. It’s an okay book — not as tightly argued as Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016), which makes the same points, but it’s more accessibly written.

Hochschild’s book presents the results of her study of the attitudes and political stances, and (sometimes counterfactual) beliefs about society among conservatives in the state of Louisiana in the last five years or so — the state with the highest allotment of federal subsidies, the worst or second worst schools in the U.S., one of the most segregated societies, and the site of numerous notorious catastrophic environmental disasters in the last decade, from hurricanes to oil spills to earthquakes. She wanted to try to overcome her (reader’s) “empathy wall” against people who live in places like this and continually vote for strict conservative politicians who fail to protect them, against their rational interests:

An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances. […] But is it possible, without changing our beliefs, to know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes, to understand the links between life, feeling, and politics; that is, to cross the empathy wall? I thought it was.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: Free Press, 2016), p. 5.

strangers_in_their_own_land_final_revTo explain politics in Louisiana (and by synecdoche, for the rest of the “red state” voters in the U.S. — this recent change has confused me — “red” now means conservative and not Communist), she develops a “deep story” that reflects the attitudes of this social segment. They have been working hard forever to attain the American Dream, which is simultaneously ever receding; other people who are not like them and don’t share their values “cut in line” with the support of the federal government (women, Blacks, refugees, immigrants, even endangered species); transformations in the economy mean that aging people have a hard time adjusting and the federal government exacerbates their difficulties by increasing giveaways and transfers, which they resist supporting (even if they accept them in practice) because they refuse to see themselves as victims. To top it all off, they feel that liberals make fun of them by calling them “rednecks” and worse, see them as stupid and uneducated and look down on them or harass them because they are Christian. Hochschild’s book illustrates the effects of this “deep story” in the lives and political choices of some of her informants, shows how it explains the Trump phenomenon, and then concludes that all we need to do to tear down the empathy wall is think about each other’s experiences. (She also describes a liberal deep story, but she doesn’t spend much time on it, and frankly, while it may be the deep story of a Berkeley liberal, it has almost nothing to do with my deep story, but whatever, this wasn’t a book about liberals.)

I learned some things I didn’t know about Louisiana by reading this book; I’ve only been there twice, as a tourist. A lot of historical and political perspective that could have been helpful in understanding Louisiana was simply left out of the book (what is the pattern of populist movements in the U.S.? what is the difference between far-Right conservatism [Mike Pence] and demagoguery [Donald Trump]?) There were analytical points I agreed with or disagreed with, and one major political argument about big business / small business alliances that I was unfamiliar with (although that apparently came from Robert Reich). But the purpose of the book — tearing down the empathy wall? — well, I found it kind of condescending. Maybe I wasn’t in her core audience. Maybe Hochschild (or Armitage?) really lives in a bubble where there are no conservatives at all and everyone thinks the U.S. should take in all the refugees and normalize immigration and absolutely everyone was totally horrified by the results of the last presidential election and so on. But you know, that’s not my real-life political world. I know exactly two people who I see, face to face, on a regular basis, who I know for sure didn’t vote GOP in the November election. I know I am the only person in my nuclear family who voted Democrat. Wisconsin was a state subject to recount with a GOP margin of only ca. 22,000 votes, so I know theoretically there must be people around me who also voted for Clinton, but I’m damned if I know who they are. Most of them live in Madison or Milwaukee, I guess. So the features of Hochschild’s “deep story” are familiar to me, even if the way it impacts Wisconsin is naturally different than what happens in Louisiana. And I’m not a liberal who looks down on Christians because they are Christian, or calls people who eat wild game or fish “rednecks.”

Another applauded moment in President Obama’s farewell address came when he admonished, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.” With all due respect to our soon-to-be former president: I don’t need to talk to strangers to get exposure to a different political view. I can talk to practically anyone I meet here. Strangers in their own land, Professor Hochschild? I’m just as much a stranger as anyone else. Maybe more of one.

Tout comprendre n’est pas tout pardonner, as I’ve said before. Knowing why people behave as the way they do doesn’t make their behavior acceptable to me. Especially when it has a grave impact on my well-being, as the results of this last election will unless something hugely unexpected happens. I’m not normalizing something that has started to show significant signs of fascism.

I understand why these people made these choices from their own frame of reference. I still don’t agree. And I don’t think I was the one who was isolating or dividing others in all this. When does the obligation start on the other side not to isolate me? Every single economic factor that affects Hochschild’s Louisianans also affects me. I also live on the same planet. When do I get to say, have some empathy for my position that we shouldn’t let big oil destroy the planet?

… but there is no empathy

So, yeah. Will Richard Armitage bring us together this year?

Richard Armitage has certainly been influential on my life — one might say decisive — but not in the sense that he’s affected my political views or actions. I suppose it comes down to the fact that I think there are things that Armitage knows way more about than I do, and I’d like to learn about those things from him, and there are things that I think he’s got nothing to teach me about and so, while I’m curious about what he has to say and support his right to say it, I don’t find it motivational or think that it has any necessary normative value. There are some things he’s demonstrably wrong about, which doesn’t separate him from the rest of the human race, including me. I’ve made a concrete decision about how to deal with this recently that I hope will have me spending less time angry about his tweets and FB statements. One of my best friends would call this: managing expectations. (forthcoming post.)

Even if I grant that empathy is possible, despite my skepticism, I honestly do not believe that empathy can be taught, at least not to adults. If you’ve read The Chosen, you may remember that a significant plot point revolves around the question of whether a brilliant child can be taught compassion — and that the price of teaching empathy is emotional abuse. As my favorite bartender used to say: “I can teach you how to be a faster, more efficient waiter — but I can’t teach you how to genuinely want people to have a good time at your table or your bar.” It’s a feature of good (successful) bartenders that they have both this interest in other humans and a capacity to manage it effectively (I’ve got the former but not the latter). My personal preference would be to encourage people to be more self-critical about their notions of equity — to think, rather than to feel. The politics of emotion are (as Hochschild’s book implies, correctly, in my view) a big piece of what got us Trump.

But in terms of Armitage’s Christmas sermon: no. I don’t hate anyone who voted for Donald Trump and I am certainly not afraid of them. I know at first hand that GOP voters are a diverse bunch (even when I look just at my own family, each of them voted GOP for an entirely different reason, some of which make more sense to me than others — and Flower’s vote is the only one that is really explained by Hochschild’s theory). I’ll help people as I always have; I’ll seek to understand them as I always have, my entire life. Incidentally, these are values I learned from my very politically and religiously conservative parents. But I’m not someone who’s going to paper over problems. I won’t cry “peace, peace” when there is no peace, and I’m not up for being cured slightly (to cite Jeremiah more accurately than Patrick Henry did). I think we have to acknowledge that we are divided and that a lot of us are isolated for various reasons, long before we can even talk about empathy. I don’t think empathy is really on the table. First of all, it hasn’t been offered to me, but more importantly, trying to understand the circumstances and needs of the majority of Americans who voted against the GOP Presidential ticket is clearly not where this governmental transition is going, as the political news reveals in more disturbing detail every day.

In the end — if I want anything in the world to change, I have to deal first with the world as it is. It doesn’t help me to lie about the empathy of others, and I don’t see why I should grant others something they have already indicated they will not grant to me. I’m not going to politicize everything in fandom. But I plan to continue as I’ve been. When there’s something to say I will say it, whether another person finds that “empathetic” or not. Let every woman have her own conscience — particularly while the law still allows us to do so.

***

OK, I think I’ve said what I wanted to say about politics. I promise the next post will be friendlier and Armitagier. It’s time.

~ by Servetus on January 17, 2017.

14 Responses to “Will Richard Armitage bring us together in 2017? [part 2]”

  1. I would like to speak about the most important notions for Richard Armitage, that are:
    – not to be afraid:The wizard of Oz replied to the fearful lion: “What you lack is confidence in yourself … Everyone who lives is afraid in the face of danger, so the true courage is to face the danger that scares” and not to leave the USA, to regain the relative security of London.
    – invisible man: He announced that he wants to take on the role of the invisible man. But since a long time ago, he has been becoming the invisible man by erasing his tweets, taking part of movies that do not come out on screen and offering a sanitized image of himself to the fans.
    – truth: who can find truth. I only find advertising informations, propaganda.To present realities would only silence the false informations, the speculations.
    – empathy: For me the problem is to have a conscience or not to have one. Nobody can occult the attacks on democracy, on freedom of speech, on minority representation, on truth, while forgetting oneself and integrating the ideas of others, so that there will be no waves. What becomes of the moral sense compass, the free will!

  2. A lot to digest with this post. Can there be more than one interpretation to RA’s writing? I ask because when I read his “extend myself towards my fellow man? and “To not fear my neighbour” I interpreted those words to mean don’t buy into the agenda Trump etc. are pushing – don’t be fearful of Mexicans, Muslims, transgenders and whoever is currently on the hit list. I didn’t interpret his message to mean “having to accept isolation and division” and “don’t argue, don’t stand up”. To me they said the opposite – don’t fear your neighbour, don’t give in to the ‘narrative of fear out there…to resist’ or the consequence would be acceptance and acceptance would mean giving in to (unfounded) fear. I felt his words were directly opposing Trump and his like. I didn’t read it as meaning to be empathetic, but to not be afraid of when fear mongering is what seems to be happening all around. And then I read the rest of it to tie in to the season of giving. But perhaps I am reading it with that interpretation because that is how I feel (?).

    • It is how I feel too! But I understand the opposite. So it is always the same problem, what do his words mean? Interpretation can be false, as I do not read English fluently. Sorry!

    • I didn’t say that this message said “don’t argue, don’t stand up.” I pointed out that those are messages he’s consistently given us via Cybersmile in the past. My reading of this message was based on the assumption that, since we already know he doesn’t agree with Trump, and he’s asking for a gift for himself (however difficult that might be), he’s not asking for courage to help out the people who will be Trump’s victims (since he already agrees they should be helped, and in fact has gone to a refugee center in Berlin to draw attention to the issue). In fact, he is already not afraid of those people (refugees, Muslims, illegal immigrants, etc.). If he’s asking himself or us not to be afraid of someone, then, who’s left but those who agree with Trump? (This position is fairly consistent with his support of May this summer, incidentally). And what else is “let’s be thankful for ability to empathize” other than a suggestion that we should empathize / act empathetically?

  3. Armitage on politics and society – a never-ending can of worms. For every fan who likes what he has to say, there is another who doesn’t. I’m interested in his views, I agree/disagree. I put my own opinion in relation to his to gauge where we stand, and mostly I am glad to see that he is interested enough to care about issues. But in the wider scheme of things, I don’t think he has much influence, though, neither on me nor on a significant proportion of the public.
    To me it looks as if he just doesn’t really think that deeply about the reactions he provokes. He sits down spontaneously and thinks “oh, I should really write a Christmas message/a comment on current politics/clarify my position on what I said in an interview”; he falls back on his old, tried and tested messages (“play nice, be kind, empathise”) and he throws it out there (for a while).
    I think it is quite interesting, though, how he has progressed from a firmly unpolitical stance (“I am just an actor; no one wants to know what I think”) to a more confident approach where he volunteers political opinion (as opposed to answering an interview question). That may be due to various factors – age, maturity and confidence; availability of social media as an outlet; exposure to politically active friends/colleagues. But I like it, even if I disagree with some of his opinions. It shows an awareness and a confidence that I need to see in people who I want to respect.
    But to get back to your title “will RA bring us together” – no, at least not in the sense that he will UNITE his complete audience under the umbrella of his mild and liberally-vague messages. But he may bring us together in discussing issues – which is an interesting extension from uniting fans from the POV of shared appreciation of his work, to uniting readers from a shared awareness of issues.

    • I respect that he’s developed a political opinion although frankly, I think he’s always had one and the only different is that now he states it to fans; the opinions he has articulated so far are not sufficient as a reason for me to respect him because of them. Could you tell me why you think he would bring fans together in discussion issues? Do you mean privately? What I’ve seen publicly is that he speaks, fans tell him what they think of his opinion (usually it’s either “I disagree” or “you’re naive” or “Richard your opinions are wonderful”) and then if they say more, they go on to talk in vague terms what they think of other people whom they disagree with. That’s the pattern of discourse on FB. (“People who think X are ______” [negative adjective]). I don’t see that as the basis for “discussing issues,” but perhaps you’ve seen something I haven’t seen. My impression is that people in the fandom “discuss” with people they already agree with.

      • You are right, of course. He has always had an opinion – he just didn’t communicate it publicly, voluntarily. I guess that was my main point, really, that he is volunteering his opinion.
        As for bringing people together in discussion – I mean that both in a private sort of way, as in “making people consider the issue and think about it, not necessarily with fans but in their RL”, as well as on blogs. I have no idea about FB because I am not active there (and what I hear other fans say about the discussions on FB, doesn’t attract me at all), but I think your blog is a case in point. We wouldn’t discuss the issue here, if he hadn’t mentioned it. (We might possibly discuss it off-blog, though, too.) But I take your point – I am discussing it here where I think my opinion will be heard, understood and respected, so it is unlikely that a proper controversial debate develops.
        Armitage is probably only a “Stichwortgeber” – he throws the ball into the court and doesn’t pick it up again. That probably suits people like me who do not have a long attention span, anyway…

  4. I think that to “paper over problems” and to try to see the good and get along is a very English way, from my experience with my English mother. Some in my family found that really annoying and “false”. But really it was her way of existing happily in the world.
    Speaking out and taking on issues can take a lot of courage. Depending on your line of work and who you depend on for “approval”, there can be potentially devastating consequences on one’s career. I love that song from the Dixie Chicks that you included above. I saw them in Vancouver on that tour. They had had a terrible time getting bookings, but in Vancouver there was a full house and a standing ovation in recognition of their speaking out and how they were treated after Natalie Maine’s remark about Bush onstage. If you haven’t seen their documentary “Shut Up and Sing”, it’s really a fascinating look at what happened after she said, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The backlash included death threats and an unbelievable impact on their career. Personally, I had a lot of empathy for them!

  5. […] we discussed on me+r how and whether the political opinion of an the actor divides, unites, enhances or detracts […]

  6. Over the years (yes, years!) I have continued to return to your blog because I appreciate your analytical take on Richard-related issues and even personal ones. Even as my tastes have changed I still read your blog regularly.

    Sometimes I wonder what the purpose of political discussion really is, especially here on the internet. It can’t be to change minds. I’ve never seen it happen where poster #1 says something so truthful and meaningful that poster #2 replies that it has changed his worldview from conservative to liberal or the other way around.

    No, it just turns into a non-sequitur debate over some pointless remark. It seems to be the modern equivalent of standing there and hitting each other over the head with clubs like cavemen in those old cartoons. I truly can’t imagine any statement that could change my core values or critical beliefs, no matter who says them. If Richard had said the ubiquitous ‘give Trump a chance’ it wouldn’t have changed what I already believe or my enjoyment of his acting (his personal choices would be suspect, though.)

    If this is the case, perhaps political discussions are supposed to be
    cathartic, a way to have others validate what you already believe as kind of self-affirmation?

    I don’t know. This is just late-night musing after reading a few of your recent more political blog posts. Anyway, I can say that reading your posts makes me more thoughtful about these issues, but then I tend to agree with you and this feeling of thoughtfulness could be the result of said catharsis. Anyway, I enjoy your blog. Thanks!

    • Wow!! Nice to hear from you.

      I think what is useful to me about “political discussion on the Internet” is that it has measurably expanded my awareness of things that I sort of knew were there, but didn’t know much about. I don’t always agree or get my opinion changed but I learn a lot about what people think. But mostly in cases like that I don’t try to argue with people; at most I would ask a question. I agree with you about the core values issue. Most of my specific positions come from a few core principles I have (or my attempt to resolve those).

      I do think words matter (a lot) but I also think people can get focused on what might arguably be the wrong words (like I would say, this weekend, if you’re focused on what Madonna said at that protest, you’re focused on the wrong thing in the light of everything that was said); on the other hand, if those are the words that mean the most to them, it’s hard for me to fault them (on either side). People tell me all the time I’m focused on the wrong piece of what Richard Armitage said and all i can say is, “well, that’s the thing that stuck out for me.”

      Thanks for continuing to read.

    • You know — when I think about the two major seismic shifts in philosophy that I’ve had — (from conservative to liberal, from Christian to Jew) both required exposure to different information than I was getting and meeting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. But neither of them was sudden; each of them took at minimum several months. Probably the value of the Internet lies in those exposures — if one can ever let oneself be confronted fully with information that makes one uncomfortable. (I know, it’s the question of the hour in media studies.)

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