Feeling Larry’s Pain

I don’t know Larry personally. He is one of many thousands living in American cities that once were the pride of the manufacturing world, but have recently been decimated by the outsourcing of jobs, leaving him jobless and his city littered with abandoned plants.

It is all too easy for academics, sitting around a seminar table discussing the pros and cons of globalization, or for politicians, debating the merits of a proposed trade agreement, to ignore the pain that Larry feels, and, therefore, not factor such a realization into their deliberations. So, although I don’t know Larry, let me imaginatively attempt to speak on his behalf.

The job that Larry lost was the same job that his father and grandfather also worked, and that he thought his son would one day work.  Larry didn’t just lose a job. He lost a way of life that was passed on through generations. Larry once had a reason to believe that this way of life was stable, likely to continue for generations to come, But that stability was displaced by disruption. And this disruption has had a devastating effect on Larry’s very sense of who he is. The story of his life has been broken. He feels the pain of no longer being sure of his personal identity and his place in the world.

So when Larry hears academics and TV pundits pontificate on the benefits of globalization, he easily responds the way we all are inclined to respond when our personal identity is threatened, by expressions of dissatisfaction that can morph into rage, including name-calling and demonization of those “experts” who have not walked in his shoes, who have not felt his pain. As sociologist John W. Hawthorne has pointed out, it is “the gap between the stories people have grown up with and the reality that they see around them” that easily leads to deep dissatisfaction

Now that Larry has had his say, so to speak, what can be done? Nostalgia is not the solution. While there is room for legitimate debate as to the advantages and disadvantages of globalization, a topic that goes far beyond the boundaries of my expertise, and how to “steer” globalization in a direction that will minimize the negative effects on Larry, it is impossible to go back to the good old days for the former citadels of American manufacturing.

Hawthorne, in a splendid unpublished paper titled “Broken Stories, Identity, and the Restoration of Civil Discourse,” suggests that the “broken stories,” of Larry and others, that were associated with particular social arrangements in the past, need to be replaced by new stories that are “rich enough” to handle the social changes that have taken place.

Of course, this is easier said than done. How does Larry forge such a richer story? Not by himself. That story can only be forged in conversation with others, including those who share his pain, those who don’t have a clue about his pain, and those who, intentionally or unintentionally, have contributed to his pain. Although it stretches the imagination, it is conceivable that such a “larger conversation” will lead to agreement as to aspects of our common humanity that can help to shape this richer story. Hawthorne dares to suggest that “when we come to recognition of commonality, the richer story is crafted.”

The above reflections have enormous implications for the political process. First, if the results of any potential political legislation can significantly impact the lives on non-politicians, which is the case for virtually all political legislation, then those who will be affected must have a voice at the table. It is simply not acceptable for those who legislate trade agreements with other countries to ignore the voices of those whose very identity will be threatened by those agreements.

A second political implication is to realize that when Larry is invited to the table, he will not be persuaded by a host of rational arguments. That is because his crisis is not intellectual but existential; it is tied to a deep identity story. Larry is dissatisfied or enraged because his very identity is being threatened. Politicians ignore that fact at their peril. In my wildest dreams, politicians will give Larry room to express his dissatisfaction and rage, and having heard Larry, will contribute positively to crafting that richer story that will reflect those common features of the humanity that they share with Larry.

Finally, these implications for the role that Larry should play in the political process can be generalized to all Americans. It is foolhardy to ride roughshod over any citizen’s sense of identity, whether that identity is formed by generations of continuous employment at the same plant, or by any other aspects of our stories, such as our particular religious or secular worldview commitments. The factors that shape our various identities need to be given a welcoming space for expression in the public square.

[For readers wishing to correspond with professor Hawthorne, he can be contacted at john.hawthorne@arbor.edu].