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Ehrenreich and empathy

April 17, 2010 / CC BY 2.0

The salient fact about Barbara Ehrenreich is that she is a radical. By this I don’t mean that she holds extreme positions, though that may be true for the sake of my present point. Nor do I mean, simply, that she is a woman of conviction. I mean something subtly different, that she prosecutes her views without ever stepping outside herself. She’ll walk, quite literally, in your shoes but no further, never making the leap of imagination necessary to get inside your bones, your mind, your experience. No matter what, it’s always her in those shoes.

Ehrenreich is perhaps most famous for going undercover, first among the working poor in Nickel and Dimed and then among the unemployed middle class in Bait and Switch. For Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich spent a year working around the country as a waitress, a maid, and a sales “associate”. For Bait and Switch, she threw herself to the white-collar job market, seeing employment coaches, sending out resumes, and going to networking sessions. She’s adventurous, and she’s certainly done more than most to try to understand the plight of others firsthand. But these books are basically personal journals devoted to logging the minutiae of Ehrenreich’s struggles as one of the (ersatz) downtrodden. She aims to understand the poor by understanding her own experience donning the mask of poverty.

This self-attention serves her larger goals. The first is to disprove, in a kind of controlled experiment, that piety of the well-off according to which the hard-up are simply lazy or foolish. If an exceptionally savvy and driven person like Ehrenreich can’t make it, who can? The second goal, the one left mostly implicit, is to show that the experience of economic hardship in the USA is a seriously unpleasant proposition. In America poverty, let alone middle class unemployment, is not manifestly outrageous in the way that, say, the slums of Mumbai are manifestly outrageous, a moral emergency. In absolute terms, the worst off in America are still far better off than tens of millions in the Third World. This helps explain the widening gap between rich and poor in America: the poor among us, who eat fast food and drive cars and receive welfare and subsidized housing, no longer strike those in power as genuinely, desperately poor. Their situation does not register as urgent.

The righteous thing, then, is to make vivid their suffering and the suffering of the unemployed, so that we may better feel its true weight. I have no doubt that Ehrenreich contributes meaningfully to this effort. My criticism is that she does so in a crude, limited, and limiting way. This may be good enough to make her political point—the self-satisfied indifference she wants to eradicate is itself crude–but it distorts the lives of the poor even as it serves their political interests. In effect, Ehrenreich proposes a trade: she will bring her literate, upper middle-class readers into sympathy with the poor, but by pushing their inner lives further out of reach, by showing their lives to be horrifyingly alien.

The problem, as I see it, is that Ehrenreich has too much incentive not to empathize too deeply with those around her. As I say, she is out to show us as close to firsthand as possible the misery of the poor. And admirably so, but in practice this means that every distasteful, frustrating, or annoying aspect of her experience becomes a data point in support of her thesis. The result, in turn, is that she has little occasion to give her reactions a second thought, to separate warranted discontent from mere petulance, or to ask whether the whole experience might have other dimensions for other people. Of course, there is little point in doing this for things like the deadening exhaustion of working a double shift. But not when it comes to things that simply strike her as inane, dull, or pathetic, insults to the intelligence: things like silly training videos, vacuous management-speak, company cheers, the sunny platitudes of her evangelical co-workers and the resigned obedience of the others. Do these signal existential impoverishment? They very well may, but it’s impossible to know the precise degree and texture of that impoverishment when your reaction never moves beyond simply being appalled.

Ehrenreich is appalled, often with apparent relish, by downmarket religiosity:

[W]hat is a person of limited means and no taste for carousing to do [on Saturday night]? Several times during the week, I have driven past the ‘Deliverance’ church downtown, and the name alone exerts a scary attraction. Could there really be a whole congregation of people who have never heard of the James Dickey novel and subsequent movie? Or, worse yet, is this brand of Christians thoroughly familiar with that story of homosexual rape in the woods?

By unfortunate fashion:

Standing at the fitting rooms and facing toward the main store entrance, we are looking directly at the tentlike, utilitarian plus sizes, also known as ‘woman’ sizes. These are flanked on the left by our dressiest and costliest line (going up to $29 and change), the all-polyester Kathie Lee collection, suitable for dates and sub-professional levels of office work. Moving clockwise, we encounter the determinedly sexless Russ and Bobbie Brooks lines, seemingly aimed at pudgy fourth-grade teachers with important barbecues to attend.

And by the kitschy enthusiasm of her job-coach:

Kimberly, when our first session rolls around, is ‘excited’ by my résumé, ‘excited’ by my fantasy, and generally ‘excited’ to be working with me. … Already the excitement level is beginning to exhaust me. In my irritation, I picture her as a short-haired platinum blonde, probably wearing a holiday-themed sweater and looking out from her ranch home on a lawn full of reindeer or gnomes.

One of Ehrenreich’s persistent themes is that in late-stage American capitalism—the kind of economy built more around marketing and fast food than mining and manufacturing—management doesn’t so much coerce its workers as get them, in effect, to coerce themselves. Workers, white-collar included, are so manipulated that they don’t even see how their beliefs and preferences have been sculpted to serve others’ economic interests. There is much truth in this. But it also erects a barrier even, perhaps especially, for those in sympathy with the poor. For if their inner lives have already been decimated by late-stage capitalism and reduced to a set corporate clichés, then the only task that remains is to pity them and catalogue the damage. There is not much point in looking into the deeper meaning of their lives—they are already the walking dead. This is compassion without empathy–better, I suppose, than empathy without compassion but still in its own way a tragedy of alienation and class division.

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