A DECENT MEAL
Building Empathy in a Divided America
A poignant look at empathetic encounters between staunch ideological rivals, all centered around our common need for food.
While America’s new reality appears to be a deeply divided body politic, many are wondering how we can or should move forward from here. Can political or social divisiveness be healed? Is empathy among people with very little ideological common ground possible? In A Decent Meal, Michael Carolan finds answers to these fundamental questions in a series of unexpected places: around our dinner tables, along the aisles of our supermarkets, and in the fields growing our fruits and vegetables.
A poignant look at empathetic encounters between staunch ideological rivals, all centered around our common need for food.
While America’s new reality appears to be a deeply divided body politic, many are wondering how we can or should move forward from here. Can political or social divisiveness be healed? Is empathy among people with very little ideological common ground possible? In A Decent Meal, Michael Carolan finds answers to these fundamental questions in a series of unexpected places: around our dinner tables, along the aisles of our supermarkets, and in the fields growing our fruits and vegetables. What is more common, after all, than the simple fact that we all need to eat?
This book is the result of Carolan’s career-long efforts to create simulations in which food could be used to build empathy, among even the staunchest of rivals. Though most people assume that presenting facts will sway the way the public behaves, time and again this assumption is proven wrong as we all selectively accept the facts that support our beliefs. Drawing on the data he has collected, Carolan argues that we must, instead, find places and practices where incivility—or worse, hate—is suspended and leverage those opportunities into tools for building social cohesion.
Each chapter follows the individuals who participated in a given experiment, ranging from strawberry-picking, attempting to subsist on SNAP benefits, or attending a dinner of wild game. By engaging with participants before, during, and after, Carolan is able to document their remarkable shifts in attitude and opinion. Though this book is framed around food, it is really about the spaces opened up by our need for food, in our communities, in our homes, and, ultimately, in our minds.
- Stanford University Press
- October 2021
- 240 Pages
“Carolan does an outstanding job giving voice to people in the heartland and helping us to understand their fears, anxieties, and motivations. His work helps us confront the challenges facing American society and ways to overcome these divisions.”—Darrell West, Brookings Institution
- Carolan notes that experiences, especially shared ones, can help overcome deep-seated prejudice or distance. What kind of experiences have changed your opinions in the past?
- In Chapter 1, an experiment is described where individuals were asked to fill out a questionnaire in three different ways: as themselves, as a typical liberal, or as a typical conservative. The results of this study showed that liberals “were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals.” Why do you think this is? How does that change the way you view these groups, if at all?
- Carolan admits that he intended for this book to be “unsettling.” What do you think he meant by this? How did your interpretation affect the way you read the rest of A Decent Meal? If it didn’t, why not?
- As Carolan guides us through his “SNAP Challenge” study, he suggests that “headland” barriers (obstacles instilled by one’s supposedly rational brain) can create “heartland” opportunities (chances for lived or emotional experience to affect one’s ingrained beliefs). In the case of this study, for example, many participants’ insistence that people can regularly eat steak and lobster on SNAP lead them to agree to try and live off the equivalent of SNAP benefits; it couldn’t be that hard, could it? What preconceived ideas have led you to do something that ultimately challenged those very ideas? Have you ever gotten someone else to challenge their ideas through an experience? How did these experiences affect you or others?
- What weight do you believe the word ‘challenge’ adds to experiments like Carolan’s? Does being challenged to do something, instead of just asked to do it, affect your response? Why or why not?
- Why do you think people find it difficult to express what caused their changes of heart to remain long after their opinion-altering experience has passed?
- What do you believe causes the different viewpoints between ‘movers’ – individuals who have moved into or away from a community either shortly before or during a demographic change or economic hardship – and ‘stayers’ – community-members now living through that community’s demographic change or economic hardship? Why?
- Do you believe there is a correlation between the increased monopolization of media outlets and the decentralization of audiences – “pushing people into their respective tribal corners?” What do you think large corporations gain from owning increasingly niche spaces that they may not from more widely accessible outlets?
- In Chapter 4, Carolan notes that people who participate in ‘produce-direct’ systems like CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture systems) are less likely to stop their use after a price hike, and suggests that people’s need to maintain their sense of identity may be the cause. Why do you think this sense of personal identity or status matters? Is this need for ‘maintenance’ something you have personally experienced? In your food choices? In something else?
- So many of the methods for building empathy described in A Decent Meal rely on physical proximity and shared experiences. In your opinion, how has COVID-19 affected the ways you share experiences when you can no longer be physically close to others?
- Has reading A Decent Meal made you feel more or less hopeful that Americans of different points of view might find a way to open their minds up to those who are on other “sides” of the divisive issues of our times?
Journeys to the Heartland
THIS BOOK’S ORIGIN STORY involves strawberries—what I’ve come to call the strawberry study.1 A dozen individuals were recruited from middle-class and higher economic backgrounds from northern Colorado. The stated purpose of this exploratory study was to better understand what information participants absorbed about strawberry production—from facts to feelings—and whether this knowledge had any effect on their attitudes about industrial strawberries and the invisible labor that supplies eaters with this delicate fruit. I was especially interested in whether these outcomes varied depending on the knowledge-delivery method. Participants were first told about the processes and people involved through handouts and a documentary about immigrant strawberry laborers. Later, they experienced it by picking. They were also asked to use their phones to take photos while in the field.
The images were the biggest surprise, lending unexpected empirical weight to the qualitative interview data. They changed substantially over the course of the day. Morning frames were remarkable in their repetitive sameness—landscape shots broken up with the occasional arm’s-length selfie. Yet by afternoon, with the sun hot overhead, the images told a different story. Selfies were closer, suggesting that the focal point was not the face but the exhaustion. Sweaty faces and wet, matted heads of hair. Upturned baseball caps showing sweat-drenched bills. A pair of soil-stained bare knees. A half-dozen pictures of trays held by fingers caked with dirt. By day’s end, everyone—everyone—had taken photos that not only documented their physical exertion but accentuated it.
A week later, after bodies had had time to heal and minds the opportunity to reflect, I met with each participant. What I heard verified what the photos had shown me. One individual, Nick, had commented at the beginning of the study that “illegal aliens are stealing our jobs.” “A bleeding-heart liberal” is not a term that has ever been applied to Nick; certainly, he would not see himself as one—Thank Christ! I’m sure he would add. He affiliates with a political tribe that watches Fox News religiously, prime-time Fox specifically. Yet, by the study’s end, Nick’s tone toward immigrants had changed.
Asked to reflect on his time in the field picking, he said, “Yeah, that probably isn’t a job many Americans would want.” He then took a long breath and exhaled. The air rushed between his teeth and made a whistling sound, buying him time to think, either about the actual answer or about the one he wanted to give. “Maybe we do need immigrants for some things; maybe I can be too harsh.” Granted, Nick’s growth as an empathetic individual toward this group is far from complete; after all, immigrants are here for much more than just manual labor. But if this pivot represents the beginning of something more, then I welcome it.
What is remarkable about Nick’s response is not so much the content of his words but what they represent, and what that might imply about society on a much larger scale. Nick lacked empathy for agricultural workers (especially foreign-born ones), and this experience created a space within him for it. Empathy, I’ve found, starts not by changing minds but by changing our opinions of others. As for how those opinions get changed, you might be surprised by what I found.
Palms turned up and raised off the table, Nick’s apologetic repose was not unique to the group; many described similar attitudinal shifts after exposure to that fieldwork. And they did this without ever meeting a single immigrant laborer. I am not saying the experiment changed their political loyalties, that it somehow changed their cognitive filters. By study’s end they remained motivated partisans, just a little less so when it came to issues of immigration and immigrant labor.
I was reluctant to draw too many conclusions from this study. It was exploratory, after all. Without getting very specific, something had happened to those participants. Wanting to learn more, I set out from there.
We All Have a Duane Story
His skills as an arborist were put to work on a blustery winter day in 2017. Surrounded by peach trees and a couple dozen men from Mexico, Duane pruned as I chatted with one of the farm’s owners.2 It was mid-February. We were at a fruit orchard in western Colorado. Duane was providing research assistance—his Spanish was better than mine. We were investigating how federal immigration policies had impacted the state’s fruit farms, a project that included interviewing some of those workers for whom the United States is a foreign land.
Though it was early afternoon, the winter sun hung low in the horizon. The skeletal trees looked as though they were decorated with flickering lights, such was the effect when the pruners’ lopping shears caught the midday rays and glinted brightly. Duane looked remarkably at ease, not just with the shears but with those he was working alongside. He had teamed up with another gentleman. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the exhaust of their breath in the cold air mixed between their almost-touching baseball-cap bills. Even at 100 yards, I could make out bits of Spanish: . . . aquí . . . ; . . . más bajo . . . ; . . . está bien . . . The cold air and gentle breeze proved an especially good conduit for their laughter. It registered as if they were standing directly in front of me.
The next day, Duane was behind the wheel, driving an underpowered four-cylinder Ford Ranger over the 7,834-foot Raton Pass on the Colorado–New Mexico border. I was seated at the other end of the tattered bench seat. We were leaving the state to continue the research that had taken us to that western Colorado fruit farm. It was then that he shared with me some of his biography, which put into context the interaction that I just described.
Before attending college, Duane had been a hired hand on a farm. Best friends with the son of a large-scale fruit-and-vegetable grower in Washington State, Duane had been put on the payroll by the farmer as a favor to his son—those skills as an arborist the result of on-the-job training. Duane eventually proved his worth as a “gear head”; he was a prodigy when it came to small-engine repair.
Physically, Duane was a pretty nondescript guy. Being of what I consider average height and weight—about five feet, nine inches and 180 pounds—his brown hair had that just-got-out-of-bed look without appearing disheveled. This averageness stood in sharp contrast to his voice. He sounded like the baritone in a barbershop quartet.
Reflecting on his recent experience pruning, he remarked, “Seeing those immigrants, that brought back memories.”
He admitted to being “a little racist” as a teen. I’m not sure that particular noun can be modified, but those were the words he used. Those sentiments extended to non-English-speaking immigrants. “I can’t tell you how many times I got in trouble for arguing with my high school Spanish teacher,” he confessed, adding, “I didn’t need to learn another language, I thought. Immigrants should have been the ones learning a new language: English.”
Events from that day working alongside Mateo—the other half of the aforementioned pruning team—stirred something within my thirty-year-old, white, middle-class companion: self-reflection. “I’m not that person anymore,” he intoned.
“My parents would tell me repeatedly that I was wrong, and show me, show me data in some cases, which would refute my ignorance, like how I thought immigrants don’t pay taxes or that they committed crimes at higher rates than other groups.”
“What changed?” I asked.
Duane scratched the top of his head with the hand that had been resting on the manual stick shift before answering.
“Farmwork is all about getting into a rhythm. Focusing on the task at hand lends itself to forgetting who you’re working alongside. You begin treating them, and they you, like a human being.”
He glanced in my direction. “I guess my attitudes about immigrants changed after I got to experience them as fellow humans, during those moments when the baggage of our social and political allegiances is not so immediate.”
Duane’s parents repeatedly told him that his biases were unfounded and presented him with facts to support their position. Yet it took being put into a situation where he got to know this group as fellow humans. This stands in contrast to what usually happens when confronting someone different—an almost-reflexive need to assign people into political (Republican/Democrat, national/immigrant, etc.) and value-laden (e.g., friend/enemy) categories. The farmwork was disarming in that sense, a point he described in terms of it affording a rhythm. The migrants he got to know while tinkering with engines did not have brown skin but bodies that bled red and that hugged and held family members, just as Duane did, bodies that faced threats instead of representing them.
You probably know someone like this, someone who viewed a group through a narrow lens until, thanks to a series of transformational experiences, a lot more became visible. This book describes individuals like this, people who underwent a transformation. But rather than the result of happenstance, the experiences described were intentional, like in the strawberry study. You will be introduced to people who started at one place, entered into a meaningful experience, and came out with a more encompassing and empathetic view of others. The conclusion I keep coming back to is that facts alone cannot heal today’s caustic political environment. We therefore need to rethink what I call the headland model of social change.
A body of land battered by waves of factual information is not impervious to change. But most of these alterations are matters measured in degrees—inches lost to erosion and the like. Changes of kind, of substance, are rare. Headlands do not change by nature of their experiences as headlands.
A Decent Meal gives voice to what we learn that cannot be easily reduced to words or statistics: the experience itself—the heartland. The project described is about amending the soil of our existence, creating encounters and experiences that afford new ways of living, feeling, and knowing. My use of the term heartland is not meant as a geographic reference. (In addition to the title of a popular Canadian drama series, available on Netflix, the heartland is commonly associated in the US with the Midwest.) Instead, the metaphor helps me describe a fissure in how Western thought has traditionally broken down experience. One way focuses on the head, cognition, and reason. The other, what I am calling the heartland, is a catchall for everything else, where you find such phenomena as emotion, embodiment, and affect—not that heart and head are actually separate, but we’ll get to that later.
This book is testament to why the heartland matters and, more than that, how it just might be key to saving modern democracies.