September 03, 2018

Bridging Divided Values?

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

Our national political divide seems to be widening. Our opinions have diverged, and we seem to have developed an ever increasing “us and them” national character. This summer I read four books on the topic, varying in their political and intellectual perspectives.

Sociologists have long been interested in our how our values (moral beliefs) and norms (the rules and expectations by which a group guides the behavior of its members) shape our culture. From Max Weber to Talcott Parsons, we are justifiably curious about how culture bends our beliefs into actions. We have a pretty good sense for how culture serves to push people into groups through accentuating differences. We have less of a handle on how to bring people from different belief systems together.

The 2016 presidential election certainly made differences in values a national conversation. Do Americans have polarized value systems? What are the differences in values and norms between “us” and “them” (Democrats and Republicans, Whites and African Americans, urban and rural, working-class and “coastal elites”)?

Two recent popular books tackled these issues and gained prominence in the foreground of this national debate: sociologist Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, a study of inner city Milwaukee, and author J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up in Appalachia, Hillbilly Elegy. Both books offer rich narratives of the values and norms in two different American working-class communities.

Vance shows that the values in rust-belt Ohio’s “surprisingly cohesive culture” get passed down from generation to generation, despite the world changing rapidly: from loyalty and dedication to family and country to a deep suspicion and resentment of outsiders. (Here’s a write up of Vance’s book in The New Yorker.)

Desmond offers an important sociological response, illustrating how economic class and the U.S. housing system trap poorer Americans—regardless of racial or ethnic backgrounds—into a set of unforgiving choices. (Evicted has been discussed twice in Everyday Sociology, once by the author here, and once by Karen Sternheimer, here).

Desmond’s study details the unwinnable decisions of those who live in poverty (paying 70% of income on rent vs. satisfying other basic needs, dangerously out-of-code housing vs. the street), and the profits to be made from the poor. Please check out his Just Shelter project.

Values, beliefs, practices, and attitudes persist. But these two books diverge on why. Hillbilly Elegy repeats the mistaken takeaways of the "culture of poverty" debates, reinforcing the idea that working-class people make bad choices (e.g., “We spend our way to the poor house”). On the other hand, Evicted not only shows how those trapped in poverty share commonly held values (as did William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged and Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk before it), but also explores who profits mightily off of the system of poverty. Primarily: moving companies and payday loan businesses, the opportunistic landlords and trailer park owners.

Can we change? Vance’s own personal story attempts to illustrate how someone who is raised in poverty can transcend culture, as he goes on to attend Yale University (learning that sparkling water is a thing, that you need to wear a suit to an interview) and become a Silicon Valley investment manager. Whereas Vance offers his own story, Desmond highlights how economic class and the U.S. housing system trap poor Americans—regardless of racial or ethnic backgrounds—into a set of unforgiving and inescapable choices, and how our predatory housing system is not just the result of poverty, but the cause of poverty for millions of Americans. Not everyone will be able to go to Yale, as Vance did.

How can we bridge these divides in values? This summer I read two other books about campus culture that attempt to illuminate the struggle over having conversations across political perspectives on college campuses. What are the values of a college campus?

A book from the conservative side of the spectrum, The Coddling of the American Mind attempts to encourage students to seek out ideas that challenge firmly held beliefs and engage with them, rather than avoid them. (If you don’t want to read the book, you can take a look at their piece in The Atlantic.)

Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt take on college campuses because they are the exact moment in their lives when people should be finding new ideas: college! (This is why Lukianoff works at FIRE, an organization that vehemently describes itself as a campus free speech nonprofit, not a right-wing campus nonprofit.) The book is a little more toned down than the article, as they acknowledge that students likely come to campus “having faced varying degrees of bigotry, poverty, trauma, and mental illness.”

They also say that colleges should “account for those differences, reevaluated old assumptions, and strive to create an inclusive community.” The authors suggest 1) seeking out challenges (rather than avoiding what’s unsafe), 2) not to rely exclusively on trusting your own feelings, 3) be generous with others, and 4) look for nuance.

Although I do not agree with their politics, those principles seem like a fine start. (The authors attempt to make a case against trigger warnings, seeing them as an extreme form of what they call “safetyism.” While they use psychological studies to show that avoidance is not a healthy pathway through trauma, the idea that a trigger warning is a tool for automatic disengagement for students rather than a notification that gives students the autonomy to figure out what level of engagement is best for them, is somewhat laughable. Here’s a fine critique of their argument.)

This “engagement perspective” is also held by Zachary R. Wood. In his new book, Uncensored, he explains how as an undergrad at Williams College he led a group called “Uncomfortable Learning.” Wood has become a cause celeb for the right because of the vitriol he received after inviting people to speak who held very different political beliefs from his own. (His experiences were cited in Lukianoff and Haidt’s book.) He has a nice TED talk about “Why it’s worth listening to people you disagree with.”

Wood’s position is that engagement with controversial and heinous views doesn’t make those opinions go away, and that listening to others’ values—again, some of them he disagrees with—makes us both better able to understand others’ view points and the importance of making effective arguments more generally.

Returning to Desmond’s Evicted reminds us of the sociological perspective that runs through much of our research. Often such arguments over discussion and engagement conveniently avoid the issue of power: The power of administrations to limit speakers on campus, the power some people have to speak over others who have been marginalized, the institutionalized power of capitalism that hums along in the background as people on the same side of the spectrum argue over minor disagreements, the power of privilege and race that often enshrouds those who feel that their voices are being silenced on college campuses, etc. Should we value perspectives that illuminate those hidden forms of power?


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