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
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.
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]
Common 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.
To 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.