Americans, like other humans, live in bubbles: The place you live, the media you consume, and the experiences you have shape what you take to be the world. To get out of hers, Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a self-identified liberal progressive, headed to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for five years of field work, resulting in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a book that’s being called one of the best things you can read to understand the election.
In interviews with her subjects — a gospel singer, an oil-rig worker, “an obedient Christian wife” — Hochschild was careful to make them feel safe, allowing them to reveal to her what their views are, rather than prying it out of them. “I was acutely aware of the fragility of the ground rules I was trying to set, to promise them no judgments, so that they would be honest with me,” she tells Science of Us. They avoided the topic of race altogether, and when she did finally raise it to them, the immediate reply was, No – I’m not racist.
Her subjects’ sensitivity underscores a fact of political life that gets overlooked: If you want someone to listen to you, don’t offend them. Even if you think their views are deplorable.
“The word racist is one of the country’s most powerful triggers,” she says. It immediately puts people on the defensive, and political-science research suggests that shaming people isn’t the best way to convince them of your worldview. Her subjects assumed than anybody from the North would think of them as a racist — a bad, brutal person associated with slavery and the oppression of minorities. “They were allergic to the word,” she says. When conversations did arrive at race with her 40 in-depth subjects, she saw “every expression of every viewpoint.” One guy described himself as a “reformed bigot”: He used the N-word in the 1960s, when everyone around him was, but hadn’t used it since. While he has a Facebook page heroizing policemen, he also doesn’t tolerate racial slurs on it. His was “a mixed story,” she says, and “there are so many mixed stories if you don’t start with that word racist.”
Like Science of Us has argued before, just about the worst way to get someone to open up enough to think critically about their views is to call them something they find offensive. (Cut to: basket of deplorables.) Racist in particular holds a charged and ambiguous space. Benjamin Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, says that the word is emotionally fraught like a conventional swear word, but it’s not quite the same thing: If you were to ask a representative sample of Americans if it should be bleeped on television and radio, they’d say no — even those offended by it.
“What’s it’s most close to is a slur, but it’s not like chink or nigger or wetback,” he says. “These are terms that are problematic as sequences of sounds or letters — racist is not that.” It functions a bit like a slur in that it’s a way for one group to label another, but it’s not like the word captures a demographic group representative of everyone who has ever been called racist in American history.. “You wouldn’t say that Malcolm X and David Duke belong to a natural category of people,” he says. “And it’s not a group that’s been marginalized over the course of history or much in the present. It’s not like people are suppressed because they are racists. I think it’s most like a derogatory term, like idiot or deplorable.”
If you’re trying to talk to someone who lives in a bubble opposite yours, it might be helpful, Bergen suggests, to borrow from disability advocacy and the notion of “people first” language. Instead of saying, “She’s autistic,” say “She has autism.” Rather than “the handicapped,” “people with disabilities.” While subtle, this phrasing avoids being “definitional”: that all you are is a particular trait, you are this kind of person and always will be. (Relatedly, when experimental subjects are manipulated to think they “are a voter” rather than “someone who votes,” they have greater voter turnout.) Similarly, if you say that someone’s actions or words are racist, rather than declaring them to be a racist, then — following the logic of “people first” language — you’re not reducing their identity to their views. (Hochschild was careful to note to me that the discontent she witnessed in white Louisianans “doesn’t just reduce to racism”; they’re the losers of globalization, automation, and, as new data suggests, drug dependency.) Still, if what you’re trying to do is actually relate, getting at the structures and viewpoints underlying racism without getting the conversational bridge blown up by the emotional charge of “racist” looks like the best way forward.
It’s a version of the writer’s practice of showing rather than telling: Instead of summarily saying that someone or something is racist, demonstrate why it is so. “If you label something as racist, you are intrinsically editorializing, and people’s reactions will vary depending on whether they feel they are being targeted,” Bergen says. “Obviously, people are never wrong, so they’ll react by assigning blame or negative intent — they won’t hear the message probably.” What does work, according to the political-science research, is appealing to their values, which may be — surprise, surprise — different from your own.