By Laura S. Abrams, MSW, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Social Welfare, Luskin School of Public Affairs
I have begun to reflect more on these words in a time of divisiveness, blame, and unimaginable grief. If we are to honor and embrace the dignity and worth of all humans, including those on the “other side,” are we called to understand those with whom we disagree?
Over the last few months, as white supremacists gun down Latino folks, and parents and children seeking refuge from violence are dying and starving at the border, I want to find someone to blame for these atrocities. I scan my Facebook and Twitter feeds and they are routinely filled with people who are largely on the same side of the issues. Blame is hurled in many directions: gun policy, Trump, mental illness, Republicans, white supremacy, and toxic white masculinity. And yet, I receive no real comfort from reading these posts. For no matter who is right, it does not reverse the carnage. Lives have been lost, irreversible trauma has been inflicted, and to the best of our knowledge, this suffering and these deaths could have been prevented.
It is natural to want blame someone for the miserable state of our country. Ought we to blame the president himself? Congressional inaction? The voters who elected him? The legacy of slavery and genocide in America? Or do we look inside ourselves at our own implicit and explicit biases? I fall into this trap routinely. I am anxious and angry; I am teary and numb; I am in an intangible state of grief for lives lost, for the decay of democracy, for the hatred that fuels violence, and for the current realities that my children may internalize as normal. Even if I take stock of my own part, my class, citizen status, and race privilege, my complacency and inaction, there is still a need to look for someone to blame so that I can even begin to make sense of this mass state of despair.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, many people in my liberal and left-leaning world blamed those who were duped by the media and propaganda for Trump’s rise to power. The poor white, Midwesterners who voted against their own economic interests; the white women who elected a known sexual predator. I tried to resist the sweeping generalization of Trump supporters as undereducated and fooled after reading Professor Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on in the American Right. This is a beautifully written ethnography of economically marginalized white people living in southern swamps of toxic waste and disease, who hold a narrative that a political leader such as Trump will fight wasteful government spending and rescue them from the “welfare cheats” and “immigrants” who want to take their jobs. Professor Hochschild humanizes these voters, their values and passions, through compassionate empathy and deep listening. Her understanding helps to lift the veil of mystery around support for Trump even while these communities remain impoverished and subject to diseases borne from environmental toxins. In a nutshell: Hochschild values the dignity and worth of the human beings in her study while holding fundamentally different values and beliefs.
The NASW principle of valuing the dignity and worth of all humans may be easy to embrace in theory, but three years after the devasting election of 2016, our worse fears have come true. We have mass shooters spewing racial hatred, children falling ill and dying in American concentration camps, and the reality of Trumpism is ever more horrifying than perhaps we had even anticipated. How do we then embody our principle of respect for the worth of all humans — even, the president himself? Those who carry out his policies? Those who still, after all of this, support this regime? Those who incite hate and lies through the mass media? Those who rationalize the horrors that this administration has inflicted on the most vulnerable members of our society? I must admit that while I am extremely challenged by these questions, I feel compelled to contemplate them. We have reached a point in our nation that is so divided. Families and friends have been torn apart by differing political beliefs. Others try to separate the goodness of people’s hearts from their politics (e.g., “She’s a Trump supporter, but still brought my mother soup when she was ill. Is she a good person despite her beliefs?”). Yet right now we are either for or against racism; for or against science; for or against Trump; for or against a humane country. The dividing lines are sharp.
In her book, Hochschild writes: 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. In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties.
The balance of fulfilling all social work values simultaneously are clearly challenged. If we are to uphold social justice and fulfill our primary goal of service, can we will still value the dignity and worth of all humans, including those with whom we disagree? Should we even bother to cross that empathy wall? I write this piece not to suggest that social workers have the time or energy, while standing with those who are the most vulnerable, to engage in this dialogue. Rather, I wonder if social workers have a role to play in gathering a deeper understanding of how Americans in many contexts, cultures, and regions are experiencing this time of social fracturing.
Can we help to understand the endurance of public support for Trump despite all the policies fueled by, and perpetuating hate? Should we even try to cross that empathy wall? For while we must first and foremost advocate for social justice, I invite us to dialogue about if and how we can use our skills; our ability to see complexities in people and yes, even our most compassionate listening, in order to heal from the divisiveness, blame, and grief that permeate our current time.
Hochschild, A. R. (2018). Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press.