The Conditional Compassion of Liberals

On September 10, 1979, I was sitting in a history class during my sophomore year of high school and experiencing a lot of anxiety. This wasn’t because a test was coming or I had to answer a question, but rather because I was raised a Christian and some of the other students had been talking about a prediction that the world was going to end on that very day. On “good authority” — a booklet with “the Lord” in the title that had been discussed in their churches — we were told the world would burn. I hadn’t gone to church since I was 11 years old, but I remembered talk of “the rapture” and “the mark of the beast.” I was scared that the end was indeed coming.

My fellow students were also frightened and one of them asked our teacher — a tall, bespectacled man with a bushy mustache who wrung every molecule of interest out of history before serving it up to us — what he thought of the prophecy. The teacher asserted with absolute confidence that, if one knew one’s bible, the end of the world would absolutely not come to pass on that day. There were signs and portents, or some other such nonsense, that had not yet occurred.

As I sat there and felt some small amount of relief at what the teacher said, I thought about how there were people all over the world who weren’t raised as Christians and had no access to the bible or whatever pamphlet was spreading the word that the end was near so we’d better repent. Would God punish them and send them to hell when they never had a choice based on culture? That was the beginning of an understanding that would shape the my worldview from that moment of realization to the present day. It was also the thought that ended my Christianity as I realized that the belief I embraced was a factor of random chance.

The wheel of religious fortune spun and landed differently for each of us, and we had no choice in the matter. Unless others woke up in a moment as I had and made a conscious decision to change, they were going to remain mired in their original orientation. Even if one had moments of questioning, I realized there were potent factors surrounding me that made the change difficult. Everyone I knew was a flavor of Christian. My mother had pictures of Jesus on the cross on our wall. My grandmother liked to sooth her fears about death by quoting scripture. If I overtly rejected their dogma or announced my abandonment of their faith, I risked being ostracized at worst and being verbally abused at best so I quietly lost my religion. This brought on a long and lonely existential struggle. Others remained wrapped in the warm comfort of the faith and like-minded community and I envied them, but I couldn’t go back.

In college, I chose to study psychology and a big part of the reason I did so was the question of nature vs. nurture and to what extent those factors interacted to make us who we are. Decades after acquiring my degree and with an enormous amount of lay study in sociology, psychology, and culture behind me, my opinion is that worldview is determined largely by culture over chemistry. What is more, I know that we have little to no choice in the doctrines and dogmas we experience during the years in which our brain is doing its most active wiring.

My education pushed me even further away from the prevailing sentiments of those around me. I was and remain the only person in my immediate and extended family to have a Bachelor’s degree of any kind. My father’s side of the family is full of high school drop-outs, welfare queens, criminals, and drug users/sellers. My mother’s side is lower middle class people who are over their heads in debt in order to live in greater material wealth than their paychecks can afford, but who are generally stand-up citizens doing skilled jobs. My family was in the middle of these two classes. We lived in squalor and poverty, and my father is an alcoholic, but we escaped the teen pregnancies and lack of education that peppered the paternal side of the family thanks to my mother’s sensibilities from her family culture. Because of my college experience, the world that nurtured me grew bigger and more diverse while most of the people around me stayed in the tiny cultural bubbles they grew up in.

I used to think that any one of the people around me could have chosen to leave the small spaces that they inhabited physically and mentally if they wanted to, but it became increasingly clear that that was not so easy. The circumstances that lead my cousins to introduce me to cigarettes at the age of 10 and to smoke both tobacco and cannabis as teens as well as for one of them to get pregnant at 14 also kept them from making the choices I did. Their mother was divorced with six kids and an income that consisted mainly of waitress pay and tips. Their behavioral issues were brought on by a lack of supervision, nutrition, enrichment, and support for any of their productive endeavors. I don’t know if any of them had the intellectual candlepower to manage college, but I know that they likely didn’t finish high school because they turned to substances and bad relationships to fill the holes in their lives created by shortcomings in their upbringing. They never had a chance to escape, and it wasn’t a matter of choice.

In one of his engaging YouTube lectures on psychology, Stanford lecturer and neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky said the worst thing you can be in America is poor. It dictates worse life outcomes than any other factor (gender, race, culture, sexual identity). I see this in my extended family that remains in my hometown, and, to a lesser extent, I’ve lived with the limits poverty has brought to the table for me biologically. I’ve escaped it intellectually, but I’m aware of just how much of an outlier I am in this regard. I made a choice after high school to go to college because I saw no other way to secure a reasonable job. Had there been a factory job around at that time, I would not be the person I am today as I would have taken the economic security that was at hand rather than than jump into the academic pool.

Sometimes, I think about the sort of mentality I’d possess if I hadn’t gone to college. What would my worldview be if I had never left my hometown and had worked a blue collar job for decades only to see it move overseas in my middle age? What opinions would I hold about the world and what bitterness would I feel at the loss of income and identity? I can’t know for sure, but I think that I’d be in a state of despair at the loss of local opportunity.

People often talk about how rust belt denizens need to get over the loss of their jobs and just find new professions, but it’s not that simple. When you are poor and live in an area which doesn’t posssess geographic privilege (e.g., does not have a lot of jobs or educational or enrichment opportunities), you also don’t have the capacity to move somewhere with such privilege. It takes money and/or connections to relocate. The last time I moved, it cost over $1,000 to do so and that is simply out of reach for poor folks.

What is more, when I moved, it was for my husband to take a decent paying job as a therapist. Most poor people don’t have the skills or education to take a job in a new location with the prospect of making back money they may borrow to finance the move. In fact, they generally don’t have much in the way of marketable skills at all. Walking away from your established home, friendships, and family to eke out a living as a cashier at Walmart or cook at a fast food joint is too much of a sacrifice for no change in status or economic potential. There is also the loss of the comfort of your current culture, and — make no mistake — each area has its own particular culture.

The culture of rural and rust belt living is poorly understood by those who aren’t from those areas, but it is as valid a culture as any other. Their worldview is shaped by this culture just as someone who grew up in an Islamic society is shaped by hers such that she is comfortable wearing a hijab or that of a black person makes him wary of the police. It’s a culture born of limits with no safety net other than the friends and family at hand. The hardship for those who have not experienced it firsthand is unimaginable. While not one liberal-minded person would consider forcing a change of worldview onto a minority or person of another culture by invalidating the significance of her experience, no small number of them feel it is their place to do so with white rural and rustbelt folks. We wouldn’t tell a woman in a scarf that covers her hair as part of her Muslim faith that the indication that she is a possession of her husband and must hide away some portion of herself for him and him alone isn’t a part of the mainstream culture so she must remove it, but we will tell a poor white person her worldview is “wrong” and makes her a bad person. This is done with little to no understanding of the poor white experience.

My point isn’t to say we shouldn’t have discourse about the cultural divide currently shaping the political and social landscape in America. It is to say that we need to have conversations with empathy and perspective taking for the culture that exists outside of coastal and urban areas in America. We have to start where I started in my tenth grade history class with the recognition that people don’t choose their culture, faith, or economic status. We also can’t assume one worldview is “correct” and the other is wrong among people of no color. We somehow manage this with people of color and other ethnicities, but stumble with white people.

We need to stop talking about whether or not there is any value in offering empathy to poor and rustbelt white people because of assertions that they are too stupid, narrowminded, or hidebound to change. The very conversation is insulting as it implies that compassion is conditional on the likelihood that such folks will adopt our worldview. It reflects poorly on liberals if they feel the only reason to feel sorry for and attempt to understand people who live in hardship and who happen to have white skin is to get something from them that benefits us. If you only practice empathy for personal gain, then that speaks to the limits of your character as well as how truly liberal-minded you are.