How to React to a Hillbilly
Last week we tried to imagine how Professor Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” would react if he saw a couple of hillbillies coming into his store. This week we’ll re-look at that situation, pretending that Kahneman isn’t a Nobel Prize winning professor at all, but a lowly department store clerk.
Last week, Professor Kahneman observed two hillbillies entering his department store and he used his System 2 brain, the one that works slowly at best and not at all until you use the whip hand on it, but which, at the end of a long day, comes up with accurate answers to complicated decisions. The answer Prof. Kahneman’s System 2 brain came up with was that, while it was possible that the hillbillies coming into the store would get angry and destroy the place, it was more likely that they wouldn’t.
How nice for Professor Kahneman, who is a famous guy and can take all day to come to the right conclusion. But suppose he was merely Danny Kahneman, ordinary department store clerk?
Danny would have looked up, said to himself (his System 1 brain fired up, all systems go), “Uh, oh, hillbillies coming, better make myself scarce.” And that would have been that.
The System 1 brain acts fast, instinctively, heuristically (i.e., based on its past experience). But we can easily parse out the logic behind System 1’s decision.
System 1 reasoned, in a nanosecond, like this: I can see that those two are hillbillies because they dress funny and talk funny. I know that lots of hillbillies have hair triggers and that if I look at them crosswise they might destroy my department store. I will get fired and will have to sell my house and move to a cheaper neighborhood where there are lots of hillbillies. Ergo, I’m outta here and Fred can show them Better Housewares.
It’s very easy for Prof. Kahneman to tell Danny Kahneman that he needs to slow down and fire up his System 2 brain, because that brain will come to a more fair result. But, not being a Nobel Prize winner, Danny doesn’t have all day. If, every time a customer walked in, Danny waited for his System 2 brain to shake itself out of its slumber and start cogitating, Danny would get fired before lunchtime.
99% of Americans are a lot more like Danny than they are like Daniel. And as a result, Americans long ago decided that hillbillies were Bad News. This was terribly unfair, because in fact only some hillbillies are Bad News. But who has the time and leisure—and alternative job opportunities—to take a chance?
I know a woman who was once chatting beside her car with a girlfriend at night. She looked up and saw two long-haired, loser-looking hillbilly fellows coming down the street toward her. Her System 1 brain was screaming, “Get in the effing car and lock the doors!”
But this woman, being a very decent sort, fired up her System 2 brain, which concluded, some long moments later, that jumping in her car and locking the door would be deeply unfair to hillbillies. So she and her girlfriend stayed where they were and got robbed at gunpoint. I got the call to come and hold her hand.
Now, of course, the reality is that most hillbillies aren’t meth addicts who wander around committing armed robbery. But some of them are—a much higher percentage than, say, you will find among middle class Ohioans. Eight times out of ten System 2 brain will allow you to do the right thing and feel good about yourself. Two times out of ten System 2 brain will get you robbed at gunpoint.
My grandparents left Barbourville, Kentucky nearly a century ago, and their families had lived there for a century before that. Same with J. D. Vance’s Papaw and Mamaw. You might think that two hundred years would be plenty of time for people’s System 2 brains to come to the conclusion that not all hillbillies are Bad News.
But you would be wrong. To this very day, two centuries later, hillbillies are still ridiculed, scorned, avoided, discriminated against. Except for white males—and who cares about them?—hillbillies are the only American minority you can ridicule and not get accused of being bigoted. You are being bigoted, of course, you just won’t get accused of it.
So if you’re a hillbilly and people are determined to keep you in your place, what can you do about it? J. D. Vance strongly implies, and I agree with him, that the only way forward is to stop being a hillbilly.
That was easy in my family because my grandparents did all the hard work. They were certainly hillbillies, but they did their level best not to speak, dress or behave like it. That effort was so successful that, unlike in Vance’s case, no one would have thought that their children were hillbillies, much less (I hope) their grandchildren.
But what if, like J. D. Vance, your grandparents were hillbillies and your parents were hillbillies and you’re a hillbilly? What then? We’ll take a look next week.
Next up: Hillbilly Elegy, Part X