A Few Questions for Michèle Lamont on her new book about the power of recognition, Seeing Others

September 8, 2023

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Michèle Lamont is the author of Seeing Others: How Recognition Works—and How It Can Heal a Divided World. Lamont makes the case for reexamining what we value to prioritize recognition—the quest for respect—in an age that has been defined by growing inequality and the obsolescence of the American dream.

Michèle Lamont is the is Robert I Goldman Professor of European Studies and Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies, Harvard University

Q. What motivated you to write Seeing Others? Why is it important to examine the role of recognition and inequality?

Lamont: Well, I had the idea of writing a book during the Trump years, because many people were depressed, I was kind of depressed. And I felt that we were going backward instead of forward. And I tried to articulate for myself, what exactly was going backward. And I recognized it was recognition because he was pushing these new, you know, the travel ban against the Muslim countries, you know, he was already attacking trans rights, and I felt a lot of the things that I think are important not only to me, but also to my graduate students. I have three kids who are Gen z's; I could just see many people around me being very upset about what was happening and I felt like I'm friends with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt produced at the time, the book How Democracy Dies, which was really good in terms of explaining to the large audience how the ways in which democracy was being undone, but I felt we didn't have an equivalent book from sociologists to explain what was being lost at the time in. From the perspective of dignity, there were other important books like Arlie Hochschild, book Strangers in Their Own Land, but it was not exactly you know, lifting up the concept. So that's really what I wanted to do and give examples and really explain. So, in this sense, the book is really an explainer about the importance of dignity and how we can make it more broadly available and how groups that have been historically stigmatized can become destigmatized, and how everyone can contribute to creating a society where more people can experience recognition and dignity.

Q. What role does the American Dream play in how we value others and how we give them recognition?

Lamont: I think it has a paradoxical role in the sense that on the one hand, it asserts everyone can move up, everyone can be worthy, everyone can develop their full potential, through work by gaining value of the labor market, if you will, and it's not a feudal society where people's position is defined by their birth or by their parents, you know, occupation. On the other hand, it's also a system that is really valorizing people who have high status. People who are low status are often thought as losers, as people who are not, you know, meritocratic or not deserving of success, they are not in the top 50% of the social structure because they're lazy, because they lack moral conviction, and so I feel we have not emphasized enough how much the American Dream is also feeding a lot of the problems we encountered today. You know, like Ann Case and Angus Deaton have written about death by despair, we know that many workers today feel very much unseen and like, people talk about the great carnage is, you know, the fact that workers are kind of stuck and cannot move forward because of growing inequality, so we have to be my book really aims in the first two chapters to talk about the aspects of growing inequality that are not sufficiently explained and to in some ways, denounced the notion that we could lift everyone up by having everyone be in the top 20% of the income ladder, which is simply impossible by definition. So, I really I think that's one of the original points. It's not original, I'm not the first person to say this. But really to stress the contrast, the internal contradiction of the American Dream is really important, I think.

Q. Over the past several decades, American workers have steadily suffered economic losses, such as a decline in real wages and decreasing union membership. How have these losses impacted workers’ social status, their well-being and their attitudes towards others?

Lamont: Well, there's a lot that has been written on this, you know, mostly, from the economic perspective in terms of growing economic inequality and I felt very much that there's aspects of inequality you know, there's you can think about inequality as being about distribution of resources, but also about recognition and respect. And that second part, because I'm a cultural sociologist, I study how people make meaning of their lives and make meaning of each other. I feel like sociologists are particularly well equipped to talk about that part of inequality that is very often overlooked, even in interdisciplinary conversation. So, Raj Chetty, for instance, his work is very important, but he talks about really upward mobility from an economic perspective. So, I was really trying to shed light on the other dimension. And I think that's a dimension that many people overlook when they talk about the current fate of workers and of the labor movement, too. Labor unions not only seek to improve wages, they also seek to improve the power and the representation and the political presence of workers. So, I think that task of acknowledging the way in which workers are overlooked, and viewed as undignified, is partly important right now, because they're the very people that Trump has often targeted and tried to lift up. So, because he feels so downtrodden, you know, so we really need to pay more attention among progressive and liberal people to really focus on how can we do this and be more aware of the ways in which they are stigmatized, and talk about it much more openly?

Q. In your book, you talk a lot about narratives and storytelling. So how do narratives shape our understandings of the world around us? And what role does the media play in our beliefs about who belongs? How can narratives and storytelling impact inequality?

Lamont: Yeah, well, I think we cannot claim dignity for ourselves, but dignity can be given necessarily by ourselves to ourselves recognition also is something that can be given by others. So, the idea of sharing definitions and views on who is meritorious, for instance, is something that operates in conversation, if you will, and we live in a mass media society where, you know, we are exposed to a constant stream of stories. And I think the transformation of the public sphere, including through the social media, as really transformed and even increased the salience of narratives as a vehicle for transmitting messages about who matters. So, you think of you know, entertainment television in the 70s and then in the 90s, many people didn't talk about the relative absence of, you know, people of color in the major roles. Whereas now you've had #OscarsSoWhite, you know, there's such a strong emphasis on who's not seen only not only who's seen, but also who's not seen, which means that there's now a major public conversation about what it does to people to not see themselves as represented. And that was simply one can think this is just wokeness, you know, but on the other hand, that's a conversation that was simply not happening very, very recently, just as sexual harassment was not being described from the perspective of what it does to people's sense of dignity. People emphasize the violence much more than the erasure of the self, if you will, that comes with being submitted to acts of domination to a sexuality, you know, so I think there's really a growing awareness of how representation is central to the exercise of power and to to inequality. So, needs to be talked about.

Q. How has the fight for recognition changed from earlier social movements to present day social mobilizations?

Lamont: Okay, well, one of the things we've done in preparation for the book is with two graduate students, we have two very detailed papers about how people in the entertainment industry are thinking about their role in increasing recognition. So, specifically, we identify seven strategies that they use to change and provide recognition to the work that they do. So, you know, for instance, there's one strategy we call the Trojan horse, like stand up comics, we interviewed, you know, 75 people in entertainment, and many stand up comics, and they talk about the Trojan horse strategy, which is that you don't stand there and lecture people about wokeness, you know, but you do your show, and at the same time, you throw in little messages that really little by little can make people aware of the lived reality of people of color or of LGBTQ you know, so humanize the use words such as I tried to humanize these groups. I tried to provide a three dimensional representation image of what their life is like, so they really are very, very thoughtful about this and they have a very articulated, you know, language to describe that part of their work. And it's true of white and non-white comedians, for instance that we've interviewed, so it's quite pervasive. Of the comedians we interviewed only a few who happen to be older white men are very much opposed to that and they think that their work is not political, but you know, they basically represent only the reality of white, older men, and they don't realize that yeah, there's power involved if you basically use humor that is, you know, that is putting down women, that is misogynistic, you know, you really have the kind of blind to the power relations that are behind the kind of humor that they use.

Q. Gen Z faces unique challenges having come of age under the shadow of climate change, political polarization, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic difficulties, and a slew of other hardships. How have these challenges affected Gen Z's thinking about value and dignity? How does their definition of worth differ from previous generations? And how are they similar?

Lamont: Well, they've come just after the millennials who have experienced, you know, 2008 recession, this generation that has had a lot of problem buying houses and embracing, you know, the, the white picket fence, the American dream, and I think Gen Z from, you know, became coming of age during COVID, were even more aware that, you know, the path of following upward mobility was a script that would work for them. And there's been a lot of pushback against the parental encouragement or just go to college, many of them question whether it's worth going to college, given the cost of higher education, and not only that bill, but all the others, you know, healthcare, housing, so it's just becoming very difficult. And I think many of them are trying to come up with other scenarios, they make up their own story. And for them, it might be, for instance, to have a side hustle, you know, to be, you know, a hairdresser at the same time as you an artist and to try to create in their milieu, a life which allows them to feel like they can live while being true to themselves, but also that being true to themselves doesn't necessarily mean wanting to, you know, pursue the path of consumption. It might be wanting to be creative, or spiritualist or into you know, physical, and self-actualization. So, the mind, the work life balance is absolutely crucial to them, which I'm a boomer, you know, for people of my generation, we would just work ourselves to death and be not even aware that we were doing it. So, I think they are extremely critical of that and extremely critical of consumerism, thinking that the hedonistic treadmill of consumerism would make us happy and they're coming up with their own stories. So, I think they in this book, they play a central role, together with the cultural producers that we have interviewed to, as you know, offering in the process of defining an alternative that is maybe more oriented towards an anticipated inclusion, and having a different quality of life that resonates more with what they're seeking.

Q. Are there any ways that Gen Z’s thinking is they're similar to previous generations to maybe Gen X and Boomers?

Lamont: Well, I think they kind of overlooked the extent to which the Boomers were also trying to create a new world. So, of my generation, there was a lot of pushback. Well, there was, of course, the entire war, the Vietnam War. I mean, I'm younger than that. It was not my generation, but the sexual revolution. There was just a lot of, you know, the Second Wave Feminism, there was a lot of criticism of power. We were not as focused on climate change as Gen Zs are. But we were very focused, you know, there was a strong anti-war movement even toward El Salvador. And there was also a lot of concern about the nuclear disarmament, which is not as salient now, although it might become salient again with the Ukraine War. So, the issues were different, and we were not fighting about pronouns or about bathrooms, by we're fighting a lot of about a lot of other things that were equally important in terms of, you know, access to jobs for women, for instance. That are now totally taken for granted, so I think there's a lot of room for more alliances between Gen Zs and boomers that have been that are frankly overlooked now by Gen Zs, maybe by Millennials.

Q. In the book, you talk about ordinary universalism. So, I'd like to ask what is that? And why is it important to promote it in our current society?

Well, that's a concept that came to me when I was doing interviews with North African immigrants in France and I was interviewing them for a book, The Dignity of Working Men, which was copublished by Russell Sage. And I was asking them, in what ways are French people and are people like you, you know, basically, I didn't say that, but I meant unskilled Moroccans who come to Paris to jobs that, you know, French people don't want to have. And they would say, well, we're all like it, we all have to get up in the morning to buy our bread, we're all insignificant in the eyes of God, we're all like stars in the cosmos, you know, really small. So, there is a kind of folk language about what brings all of us together as human beings, some of that language is grounded in religion, you know, like, we're all children of God. But a lot of it is based on a notion that we have similar physiological needs and characteristic one would say, We all spend nine months in our mother's womb, we all have 10 fingers, you know. But beyond that, I think it's a kind of rhetoric that undergirds a lot of the anti-racist argument and to say, we're all human, we all need dignity, we all share things that are very basic as human beings, and to lift up this discourse as part of the anti-racist or anti-sexist or, you know, language is part of the objective of the book to make that language more visible. And it's very salient in many parts of American society among people who, you know, like religious people who are working toward a more humane society.

Q. Moving to policies, how can policy sustain dignity or create stigmatization?

Lamont: Well, I think in general policymakers and lawmakers are really not that aware that a lot of the policies they create can feed stigmatization. So, a great example from Kathy Edin's work on the food stamp and you know, alternative policies that really were less stigmatizing—well, I draw on her work to say, let's make sure that policymakers are constantly aware of the ways in which the policy they put in place can have an impact on how people feel that they belong to mainstream society or not. And let's try to, you know, downplay, or really change the policies that are feeding, feelings of exclusion. So, this is pervasive like, you know, the article, I just published an article on how the three recent decisions at the end of June from the Supreme Court about affirmative action, and the reimbursement of student loans, and also the right of LGBTQ people to have access to services; that these three decisions really made those underprivileged group, feel very unseen, excluded. And that in making those decisions, clearly, the Supreme Court Justices who voted for these decisions clearly did not factor in the implicit message that these decisions are sending about their suffering and the ways in which the suffering could be compensated or remedied. So, I think recognition should really be part of much broader discussions about every decision that is made about the distribution of resources about policies about laws, and it's simply not part of the landscape right now. No one will say we should not pass this law because it will make people feel like they're being excluded. Or if it's said it's not done very clearly in reference to recognition and as a dimension of inequality.

Q. What can individuals, families, and institutions do to promote social inclusion and build more inclusive societies? And what can changing our thinking about work do and what are the limitations of changing our thinking?

Lamont: Well, social psychologists are working on this you know, sociologists who have shown an increasingly, you know, the extent to which American society is segregated based on class and race has grown exponentially over the last two decades, and the very few upper middle class people now have, you know, daily contact with working class people. So I think one of the things we could do is be much more purposeful in when we make decisions about where we're going to live, who our kids are going to interact with on a daily basis. The decision to put your kids in private schools where they will only interact with others or like them, I think, should be considered from the perspective of fighting against this, you know, apartheid society that we're increasingly living in. I mean, one could argue that it's Pollyannish, to expect that people will do this. On the other hand, I think if the question is not raised systematically, and if we don't encourage people to consider the consequences, and what kind of society, we're all feeding together, if we're just trying to hoard privileges and get everything the best to our children, as opposed to having in mind more collective consideration where we make decision. It's just feeding a society that is increasingly more hopeless, and where people just feel they have to be even more individualistic in the pursuit of their success and in protecting their kids against you know, all the dangers that lurk, as opposed to cultivating a more generous view of what our society could be about.

Q. Is there anything you wanted to add? That you know, you want to discuss that I didn't touch on?

Lamont: Yeah, maybe one thing, the book does not include interviews with people on the right of the political spectrum, in part, because there's a lot of books that are being written on this. And of course, you cannot do everything in the context of one book. But I certainly acknowledge that there's reaction and counter reaction to all social movements, not to underplay it in any way. And I argue in the book that the MAGA movement is also making claims for recognition of working class people. And that's done through nationalism and populism. So it's, you know, it's double-sided, if you will, and, you know, probably, in the next book get out, right, I'd love to spend much more time looking at, for instance, non-college educated, working class men who are feeling very dispossessed revisiting some of the themes I analyze in my 2000 book, The Dignity of Working Men, to try to take stock of what the situation has now and in what kind of bridges could be built. And I think that's partly important for the Democratic Party.


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