September 4th, 2016
Empathy overreaches when we can’t know and we can’t judge wrap themselves around each other so tightly that they become indistinguishable
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s an example of guilt I have felt over earning a living: Back in May, I asked one of Gawker’s writers, Jordan Sargent, to write up a blog post as word spread that the music writer Sasha Frere-Jones had resigned from his job as a pop critic at the Los Angeles Times. I felt some self-reproach doing so, even though it was Frere-Jones who did the Bad Thing, and not me.
The Bad Thing was that he offered to cover some band at Coachella if the artist gave him a ride there, in a breach of basic journalistic ethics. He also tried to expense a $5,000 tab at a strip club, which isn’t so much an ethical lapse as an optical one. Neither of these things had any life-or-death stakes, but the whole episode was what we call in the old internet business, “a bad look.” That Frere-Jones took a pleasant gig for granted at a time when many writers can’t make a living brought about the customary hand-wringing as editors g-chatted and slacked each other in a frenzy: Can you imagine a woman of color ever doing this and expecting to get away with it? What could be more male than this? And did you hear he said he was writing a profile of a rapper when he went to the strip club? What is he implying about rappers? About black people? Does anyone know what strip club it was? Could he really not get a ride to Coachella? What a fucking mess.
My kindest, most generous and gentle friend, an editor whose empathic abilities dwarf mine and probably yours, expressed regret to me that all this was all happening so publicly. In Frere-Jones’ actions, my friend saw a man not waving but drowning. She couldn’t answer for what was going through his mind when he ran up that tab or tried to get that ride, and so couldn’t bring herself to wag her finger at him for it. But the problem with her generosity of spirit is that it is the sweeter, prettier cousin of a blind eye. Empathy overreaches when we can’t know and we can’t judge wrap themselves around each other so tightly that they become indistinguishable. My friend’s impulse was the opposite of schadenfreude, so potent that it gagged her. I get it, and have trouble disagreeing with her fully because I sometimes have that impulse, too.
…I doubt I am the only editor working in America who has paused over her keyboard to ask, Was what he did really so bad? What if he has kids who will read this? Though I suppose no professional would ever admit to hesitation this pathological and weird. Perhaps all this makes me dispositionally unsuited to journalism, which doesn’t so much valorize exposition of wrongdoing as consider it the job’s central mission. Or maybe I am a woman journalist who grew up in a world that has coached me to feel bad for the men whose misdeeds I point out.