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Aspen Ideas Festival: Tara Westover and Sarah Smarsh on revising the narrative on rural America

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Panel of speakers talking about "Revising the Narrative on Rural America."
Panel of speakers talking about "Revising the Narrative on Rural America." From left to right: Moderator James Fallows, and authors Sarah Smarsh and Tara Westover.
Dan Bayer The Aspen Institute

Writers Tara Westover and Sarah Smarsh speak about the ways we think about rural America and the destructive stereotypes we hold about people who have different experiences from our own. 

Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho with Mormon survivalist parents. She’s the author of the No. 1 New York Times bestselling book, “Educated.” Her advice is to “do everything you possibly can to not think in stereotypes.”

“People are individuals. They are not representatives of a category. If we’re serious about bridging the political divide, what has to change is that we have to actively resist our tendency to think in stereotypes,” she said.

Sarah Smarsh grew up in rural Kansas and is the author of the 2018 National Book Award finalist, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” 

Smarsh said “it is wrong to associate one’s political views with character. The first step is humbling yourself to this different experience another person has had. It’s about humility.”

Westover said “there are a lot of views that we’re rightly hostile to because they’re prejudicial. But I don’t think that we often address how many of those views correlate with class issues, actually, and the role that being impoverished, or not having access to education, actually plays in the creation of some of these views. So we end up punishing people twice.”

But Westover added “don’t let education putrefy into arrogance. Don’t attack people who didn’t have your opportunities.” 

“When you look at a human being,” Westover said, “and the only thing you care about them is one choice that they made — voting for Donald Trump, for example — and the entire shape of their life is meaningless to you except for this one moment, you’re never going to understand that one moment. You’re never going to get anywhere near understanding that one moment.”

“And, more importantly, you’re never going to have what you need to have a conversation with that person because what we know about persuasion and how it works, you have to care about someone and you have to understand what they care about. And you have to have a fundamental level of respect for them, and for what they do have to offer, if you are going to change their mind about the things you think they are incorrect about. That’s the only way you’re going to make any difference with anybody. If you can look a the shape of their lives and not just obsess over one moment that’s important to you.” 

Westover blamed the media for some of the misperceptions and stereotypes of rural America. “So few of our writers, our journalists, our filmmakers come from these places. They have no basic familiarity with those places and cultures,” Westover said.  

Smarsh said, “I think right now we are potentially more demoralized as a country than we even realize, in a sort of ‘survival mode’ that we have entered for this civic moment. It’s incredibly important for us to be inspired by one another, just in looking each other in the eye and seeing one another’s goodness. “

Smarsh concluded, “we’ve got to make room for the ties that bind, and at the same time, acknowledge the universal experiences, because that allows us to humanize what has previously been ‘the other’ —  such as a rural place, or an African-American population, and so on.” 

The moderator on June 26, 2019, was James Fallows of The Atlantic, author of “Our Towns.” He quoted David Halberstam, who said “the most dangerous thing in the world is to underestimate the intelligence and decency of other people.” Fallows said it is important to “make the United States more aware of its internal diversity — make it richer in its understanding of itself.”