“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.” — Arlie Russell Hochschild

Vengeance or Forgiveness?

On March 4, Donald Trump gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference declaring, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” The former president is threatening retribution but is that what we really need? What we need, instead, is forbearance. We need compassion and we need forgiveness.

To understand what is happening in this country and specifically within the Republican Party, you must understand the intense sense of fear and grievance that drives so many of its voters. Unfortunately, these intense emotions have given rise to a profound desire for retribution and revenge, especially towards Democrats, progressives, and other perceived enemies. Those negative emotions existed before Donald Trump ran for the presidency, but he tapped into them masterfully. The question is, where do these emotions from the Republican party stem from?

People have reasons for why they believe what they believe. To this end Arlie Hochschild a sociology professor at Berkeley spent five years with some of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters, researching her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right to better understand the conservative right. Her work took her to Louisiana bayou country.

Hochschild interviewed 60 people, forty of whom were Tea Party enthusiasts. She wanted to climb what she termed an “empathy wall,” to try and see how it felt to be them. In an interview with Juan González and Amy Goodman, Hochschild shared an interesting story concerning the first woman she met in Louisiana.

“She was one of the first women I met. She was a gospel singer in a Pentecostal church, very friendly, and outgoing. I met her at a Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana meeting. She was across the table. She said, ‘I love Rush Limbaugh.’ I thought to myself, ‘I should talk to her. I don’t know why. I’m interested. I’m curious.’ So, at sweet teas the next day, she said, ‘Oh, I love Rush Limbaugh because he hates feminazis.’ OK, took a little while. And I said, ‘Well, what is a feminazi? What?’ And, ‘Well, it’s those feminists, you know, that are hard and tough and mean and ambitious.’ I thought, ‘Well, I don’t like hard, tough, mean people, either, you know?’ thinking that. And then she said, ‘Has it been hard to hear what I’m saying?’ I thought, ‘Well, she’s looking back at me.’ And I told her, ‘Actually, no, it’s not, because I have my alarm system off, and I’m trying to find out what life feels like to you, so…’ And then she said, ‘You know, I do that sometimes.’ And then we had that in common. And then she explained, ‘You know what I really like about Rush Limbaugh? He seems to defend me against all the liberal media that think I’m a redneck, that I’m backward, that I’m Southern, that I’m uneducated, that I’m homophobic, racist, a sexist. And thanks for coming.’

What was remarkable about this story is that it described how a lot of the conservatives felt and is what Hochschild talks about as a “deep story.” She explains: “It’s a story that feels true to you. You take the facts out, you take judgment out. It’s as felt.” Contained within the story are people’s hopes, fears, anxieties, shame, and resentments. When Hochschild asked the people in Louisiana “Why do you hate the government given all the things the government does?” the reply would be that it was a deep story. Hochschild describes their deep story this way:

You’re waiting in line for something you really want in the end: the American dream. You feel a sense of great deserving. You’ve worked very hard. A lot of these guys were plant workers, pipefitters in the petrochemical—you know, it’s tough work. So, you’ve worked really hard. And the line isn’t moving. It’s like a pilgrimage, up to the top. It’s not moving.

Then you see some people cut in line. Well, who were they? They are affirmative action women who would go for formerly all men’s jobs, or affirmative action blacks who have been sponsored and now have access to formerly all-white jobs. It’s immigrants. It’s refugees. And from—as felt—the line’s moving back.

Then they see Barack Hussein Obama, who should impartially be monitoring the line, wave to the line cutters. And then you think, “Oh, he’s their president and not mine. And, in fact, he’s a line cutter. How did he get to Harvard? How did he get to Columbia? Where did he get the money? His mom was a single mom. Wait a minute.”

And then they begin to feel like strangers in their own land. They feel like the government has become a giant marginalization machine. It’s not theirs. In fact, it’s putting them back. And then someone in front of the line turns around and says, “Oh, you redneck,” you know. And that feels like adding insult to injury. It’s just the tipping point at which they feel not only estranged—demographically, but they’re also getting smaller. They feel like they’re religious in an increasingly secular culture. Their attitudes are denigrated, and so they’re culturally denigrated. And then the economy begins to shake. And then they feel, “I need another leader.”

Hochschild understood the power of emotions in politics, and how reason is so often hijacked by our passions. When people feel disenfranchised, disrespected, not seen, or not heard they can become destructive. On the right, there is a toxic mix of fear, anger, frustration, indignation, and feelings of betrayal and victimhood. No wonder there are calls for retribution.

The antidote to the politics of revenge is the politics of forgiveness. Political forgiveness is usually not thought of as a virtue but forgiveness is thought about as something very personal. Some of the attributes of a forgiveness process that can play out in a political arena are a willingness to show patience and to be understanding, tolerant, empathic, and compassionate, recognizing that our perceptions are not always accurate, and colored by our beliefs and perceptions. Forgiveness doesn’t ignore differences; it deals with those differences with integrity and grace. If we allow ourselves to engage with the deep stories of the “other” these stories help us reflect on our humanness and allow us to recognize our common ground. This is part of a political forgiveness process.

Political forgiveness begs the question of what we want to aspire to, for ourselves, our communities, and our leaders, and asks what kind of culture we want to build. A culture of political forgiveness supports qualities of understanding, empathy, and compassion—qualities that add to life’s meaning. But to aspire to these qualities we will need to let go of vengeance and hatred and be touched by something far greater, the power of forgiveness, that which is our better angel.