The empathy bridge

The question was chiefly about the west’s moral imperative to take responsibility for climate change and freak disasters like the flash floods that have inundated one-third of Pakistan this year. But in the run-up to the question much had already been said about the rise of climate deniers like Donald Trump in the west. This rang a bell. When I got the chance I quoted Arlie Russel Hochschild’s remarkable book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. I read the book as soon as it came out in 2016. While the whole story of a liberal professor emeritus uprooting her life and dedicating five years of her life to studying ruby red conservative parts of America to gain a deep understanding of what divides the country is worth your time and hence highly recommended. But the book also actively seeks and finds enough anecdotal evidence in the American state of Louisiana to solve many puzzles faced not just by the country but the world at large.

One paradox that the professor was seeking to solve was the voting pattern. Louisiana is among the country’s poorest states, its conservative leaders have made a right little mess of the environmental policy. Consequently, it houses an area dubbed as the cancer alley, a 137-kilometer stretch of land that houses over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries and for obvious reasons reports cancer rates higher than the national average. Disproportionately affected by the prevalence of cancer are this region’s minorities. Despite all that and more until the publication of the book Louisiana was repeatedly voting for the same Republican leaders responsible for such disastrous environmental policies. As she peels off layer after layer of the paradox the answers present themselves with relative ease. The state’s conservative leaders are in the pockets of big business, who in turn enjoy close relationships with religious influencers and conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and folks at Fox News. These pundits and televangelists convince the common folks that the world is ephemeral and that if they adhere to their faith system forcefully they will be rewarded in the hereafter. So, pollution is not that bad because it will soon bring the world to an end. For the poor the kingdom of heaven, for the rich the republic of unlimited wealth.

While quoting the book I made a point of highlighting one particular example of pollution. The water bodies in the area are so contaminated that when they eat fish the locals ensure not to eat the red parts because they are too toxic, poisonous. Then summarising the above discussion I submitted that if climate denial in the west is ever to be vanquished the nexus between big business, conservative politicians, media pundits and the religious elite will have to be broken.

Our American friends were too kind to furnish further evidence almost immediately. The very next day Representative Clay Higgins, the Republican congressman from the 3rd district of Louisiana, had a major altercation with climate activist and advocate Raya Salter about the role petrochemicals play in the economy and in polluting Louisiana. Progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further raised the profile of the debate by criticising Rep Higgins’ behaviour. The video clip of the altercation and the critique soon went viral. On the same day, we also learned that a court in the state had vacated air permits to Formosa Plastics to set up petrochemical operations there, against which activists had been agitating for some time. This coincidental resonance at least proved one thing. Professor Hochschild’s analysis is absolutely on the money.

But the professor who had uprooted her life decades ago and along with her husband moved across states to facilitate her study of the John Birch Society did not stop there. She identified an empathy wall between the red and blue states reinforced by both sides. The partisan media on each side of the divide has, of course, given up on the other which obviously suits its business model. The more you demonise the other the more loyal your fan base. The professor tells us that when she informed her liberal neighbours of her plans to work in Louisiana they behaved as if she was a closeted Republican who had finally found the courage to move to her comfort zone or natural habitat. She also thought that she would face open hostility in Louisiana. But even though it was as disconnected from blue America she found warmth and hospitality.

Funny, this empathy wall. Those who build it have little respect for it personally. Take the example of far-right TV pundit and Fox News host Tucker Carlson and far-left MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. While they take distinct pleasure in dividing America we recently were told that they are very good friends and enjoyed each other’s company and Steve Bannon’s praise.

We witness something similar at play in Pakistan. Particularly in the past decade. Politicians often come on television asking their workers and supporters to put their lives and bodies in harm’s way for their own political gratification. When they participate in talk shows they ferociously attack their opponents and try to discredit them. As soon as the show is over they shake hands, exchange pleasantries like good comrades, and depart. The job of causing public inconvenience is left to their disenfranchised minions.

With every passing day, we have seen the growth of two disconnected bubbles. One created by ARY and Bol, the other by Geo and the rest. Those who live in one bubble see the dwellers of the other as total aliens. This can have the most devastating consequences because Pakistan today is faced with three nearly insurmountable paradoxes. The situation in Afghanistan and on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; the economy; and now the growing devastation of this year’s floods. All three challenges seem existential and threaten to undo the progress made in the past decades.

Professor Hochschild talks about the need to build an empathy bridge. I have spent the past many years bemoaning the post-truth fracture of society. In July this year when I got an opportunity, along with other anchors, to interface with the president I pointed out that previous calls for a grand national dialogue and the need for consensus on a charter of the economy had failed because of the logistical ambiguities and it was only the president’s office which could provide a platform for such an ambitious project. He agreed and in recent interviews, he has made a similar offer to all stakeholders. Let us hope that a fruitful dialogue does take place soon. Media cooperation is also needed. If the greatest deluge of our life cannot end our complacency perhaps there is no hope for us.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2022.


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