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Finding Common Ground

Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild Speaks about Her Upcoming Keynote Address at the 2017 Honors Convocation

Renowned author and sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild will give the keynote address at the Ogden Honors Convocation on Thursday, August 31 from 7:30-9:00 PM at the Shaver Theatre (rescheduled due to university closure August 30). Hochschild is the author of this year’s Shared Read, Strangers in Their Own Land, required for all incoming Honors students, recommended to all members of the Ogden Honors College community and the focal point of the latest round of the critically engaging HNRS 2000 seminars. Strangers explores the perspective of conservative Louisiana citizens in the wake of the political upheaval surrounding the 2016 presidential election.

The Ogden Honors College has the privilege of being Hochschild’s first Shared Read appearance for Strangers. In preparation for her address, Hochschild took a moment to discuss her research and share her hopes for the Convocation. 

According to Hochschild, the project for the critically acclaimed Strangers began at LSU.

“I thought, [Louisiana] looked exactly like where I wanted to go,” Hochschild said. “And as luck would have it, I had one contact.”

Hochschild’s contact — the mother-in-law of one of her graduate students — was an LSU alumna who lived and worked in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Though the mother-in-law was a self-proclaimed liberal, her best friend was a staunch Tea Party supporter and an enthusiastic advocate for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“If these two people can have keys to each other's houses, and their children love each other, and parents knew each other, you know, they go to art museums and play together, then I had better find out how they do that friendship,” Hochschild said. “The whole nation needs something like this. So, I accepted the mother-in-law's invitation to come to Lake Charles, Louisiana.”

The extended title of her work — Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right — contextualizes the fraught nature of Hochschild’s Louisiana sojourn. A University of California, Berkeley professor emerita of sociology hailing from a famously liberal city, Hochschild explained that the idea for her research of conservative America sparked when she realized that she was living in a geographic and electronic “bubble” — an echo chamber of politics and ideology.

“Our society was splitting into two separate paths, and I didn’t understand what was going on in the other half,” Hochschild said. “I wanted to find a bubble that was as far right as Berkeley, California was left. I wanted to turn my moral and political alarm systems off and to permit myself a great deal of interest in discovering…the truth they lived.”

Puncturing her bubble required Hochschild to step outside of her comfort zone and immerse herself in a different culture and worldview. Strangers details her research interviewing Louisiana natives struggling to come to terms with their place in a rapidly changing country, while Hochschild attempts to surmount what she calls the “empathy wall” that separates liberals and conservatives.

“I think sometimes people go home for Thanksgiving, and there is an opinionated uncle, and they feel helplessly caught in an atmosphere of intransigence on one side or the other,” Hochschild said. “People become afraid of becoming invisible in the eyes of the ‘other.’”

Strangers articulates the danger that lies in failing to bridge the divide between left and right. However, Hochschild also suggests what could perhaps be an antidote to the invisibility one feels when confronting difference: adopting the language and attitude of mediation.

“Mediators have a wonderful set of skills,” Hochschild said. “They know how to start with the kind of world you'd like to see. Can we agree on an underlying vision? Very often people do agree on that, and don't know that they're agreeing on that. And then when spoken to respectfully, and with respect…you can get them to trust. Now, I think, we all need to learn to be mediators.”

During her address at the Convocation Hochschild also plans to speak to the issues that have arisen since the publication of Strangers in 2016, as well as discuss students' responses to the book, particularly their readings of Appendix C.

“I am especially interested in how students carry the book, where it sits in their heart,” Hochschild said. “Was it difficult to read? Did it make them inspired to do something about the problems the book talks about? Have they made efforts to cross an empathy bridge with people that they know they have differences with, and what have been their experiences?”

The Ogden Honors College, established in 1992, is a vibrant, diverse and prestigious community located at the heart of LSU. The Ogden Honors College provides students with a curriculum of rigorous seminar classes, as well as opportunities for undergraduate research, culminating in the Honors Thesis. Its focus on community service, study abroad, internships and independent research helps today’s high-achieving students become tomorrow’s leaders.

The Shared Read program is supported in part by Shell.