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December 02, 2006

If Only Empathy Was Java-Enabled

That's the problem with these messianical internet types. Their intense enthusiasm for the web's democratic properties is really, by virtue of it being a computer-accessible medium that offers the greatest rewards to the earliest adopters, an intense enthusiasm for further channels through which educated white guys can get rich, grow famous, and enhance their speaking fees. They're very interested in the expansion of opportunity for guys like them. Not so much in the crushingly hopeless existences of others.

December 2, 2006 | Permalink


Ankush doesn't seem to have comments at his place, so I'll say here -- that was a damn good post.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 2, 2006 4:58:06 PM

Jerk Jarvis, the new head of a new 'journalism school' (and a more-than-slightly-out-of-whack advocate of some kind of neo-journalism based on network technology), sure has strange ideas on what is newsworthy.

Ezra's implied wish the Jarvis hadn't left his humanity, humility and empathy behind somewhere in his former life is highly unlikely to be fulfilled.

Sometimes I wish we could do a society-wide version of 'change places with the boss day', but for a year instead of a day. Do this Whole Hog: living places, salary, transportation, recreation, etc. The richest get the poorest jobs, and vice versa.

As for Jerk Jarvis, have him write for some 4 page free publication of an inner city charity doing free meals for the homeless or rehab on drug addicts. In his case, maybe two years of this journalism would be needed to get his mental set changed.

If empathy wasn't factory installed, let's nurture it with some mandatory upside-downness. For long enough for the nurture to work. Those who fail the test and give up can't get their former jobs back.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 2, 2006 5:39:48 PM

Usually people who're eager to claim that 13-year-old girls are fully responsible sexual agents want to lower the age of consent. Jarvis? And if she'd been 10 when she gave birth, or 9, or 8? At what point does he cease to hold her so blameworthy as to deserve her fate?

Jarvis needs to consider that his own moral impulses (I suspect he didn't bring the full force of his rationality to bear) might be badly defective here.

Posted by: KH | Dec 2, 2006 5:53:27 PM

...and I know I'm gonna annoy some people, so I do offer apologies in advance. I'm not trying to piss people off, I just think this is more complex than it seems at first blush.

These are the kind of things where I never seem to fit in with anyone - I appreciate Ankush's points, but I have to say I think Jarvis is on to something here - he's a good writer and editor and he really takes this story apart - not to make a judgement about the subject, but to look at the writing and the motives of writing and running such a piece.

I mean, honestly - who do you think is working in fast food joints? Like Wal-Mart, this is not work that was initially anticipated to be the sole income of a family breadwinner, and now that it is, the people who take those jobs will, of necessity, wind up being among the working poor. They have hard stories. And among the few options we are left with, as an audience, after reading her story are a) pity, which is really rather rude, or b) trying to somehow romanticize this into being heroic and exemplary, and it's not quite that, either. I'm sure it's not for Gloria Castillo.

We, as Amwericans, don't need to expand health insurance coverage because we feel guilty, or because it will give us a sense of nobility and kindness to the less fortunate with all the condecension that implies; we should make sure people have health insurance because they need it, because it's a matter of common decency and public health. It's not fun to be poor, and it's not wildly romantic to work in fast food. And you're not Faulkner for trying to make a night in a fast food joint puff up into more than it is.

That's why I can't completely dismiss Jarvis - I think I know why the Times published this story, and why it's in the National section, and it doesn't necessarily speak as well of them as we might like. It's a subtle way of reinforcing that the poor are indeed not like us, that it's okay for us to sit in comfort and not look down (never down), but look askance at their choices (pregnant at 13... not blaming anyone for anything, but really, do we plan to encourage it?). It's okay that we see ourselves as benevolent and dispassionate outside observers, and yes, superior.

Questioning the editorial choices of the Times does not necessarily make one Michelle Malkin (nor is it the worst aspect, necessarily, of what someone like Michelle Malkin does; indeed it's some of her better work - questioning other journalists). It doesn't mean we think this woman is bad or unworthy. It does, though, shake up our comfort zones, I suspect. Because, despite our best intentions, it's very easy to sit in judgement of others and what they do and how they live. It's not our best quality, as Americans, but we're wrong to pretend it's just not there.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 2, 2006 8:26:23 PM

So, from Jarvis blaming her for making poor choices, and saying that the Times shouldn't have published it, you got that the Times was blaming her for making poor choices, and so Jarvis is right to criticize them for publishing it?

Your post didn't piss me off. But I do get the sense that you might be a little confused at what (Ankush?) was saying. Your final paragraph seems very close to what his criticism of Jarvis was. Yet it was somehow aimed at the Times.

Posted by: Sam L. | Dec 2, 2006 8:57:04 PM

I don't think the Times is blaming Gloris Castillo for anything; I just don't think Jarvis is either. I don't think the story of what's happening to the working poor is about blaming anyone. What I question, and what I think Jeff Jarvis raises fairly effectively, is questioning just how the Times is looking at this story and why they're running it, and what it says to the audience that reads it. That's not Ankush's point so far as I can tell, and while I think he makes a fair point that some of what Jarvis says can be construed as harsh or judgemental on Gloria Castillo, what I say is that I don't think that's intentional, and I don't think that's Jarvis' point, ultimately.

I do think the Times article is perfect for comfortable liberals on the Upper West Side and in Westchester; a long, writerly exercise of making "the plight of the poor' somehow dramatic and removed, perfect for people who feel guilty for having more than they need and anxious to write a check to someone who will go try and Make Things Better. All I'm saying is, pity and condecension are perhaps not the best tools for developing public policy. They may work in the short term, but ultimately they just help set in motion another set of issues.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 2, 2006 9:06:01 PM

One more point. You say pity or romanticizing her position are the only options at the end of the story. You missed the obvious one (being that it is in Ezra's post), empathy. That is what Jarvis totally lacks. The point of the article is to, as you said, "shake up our comfort zones" and ideally leave us feeling for the subject, and recognizing the downside of the system we live in. Jarvis thinks that because she made bad choices she is totally irrelevant to anything everything is fine get her out of the damn newspaper write a real story. Or something.

Posted by: Sam L. | Dec 2, 2006 9:08:17 PM

The stupid thing about this is the woman in the story is nothing like Jarvis portrays her. Here's a girl working a not so desirable job that she hates & living a not so attractive life. Yet she doesen't utter one single sentence about the world or whoever being responsible for her problems.

She regrets having 2 kids at such a young age & wishes she'd planned life out more instead of just letting it happen to her one lousy job at a time. She's married, working 2 jobs & studying in community college to get a better job down the road, all the while taking care of 2 kids. By all accounts, she's taking personal responsibility & control of her destiny. Yeah, she's a bit regretful & maybe feels sorry for herself sometimes. BIG FUCKING DEAL!, I have regrets & feel sorry for myself sometimes and I have a much easier life than she has. And all Jarvis can do is bitch about the fact that someone, somewhere, might make him read this piece and feel a little better about his secure & priveleged station in life & a maybe a little fucking empathy for those less fortunate. What a fucking inconvenience for an elite white male.

Posted by: DRR | Dec 2, 2006 9:14:23 PM

'Sometimes I wish we could do a society-wide version of 'change places with the boss day', but for a year instead of a day. Do this Whole Hog: living places, salary, transportation, recreation, etc. The richest get the poorest jobs, and vice versa.'

Paul Getty used to say that if that happened, leaving aside the lottery winners, wait a decade and the same people would be back on top. Be very interesting to find out whether he was right actually.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Dec 3, 2006 7:16:02 AM

The Getty quote dovetails nicely with Jarvis's comments. There is an assumption that "we" are on top because of our natural superiority of will, intellect, choices, etc. In truth, a lot of people would be lost without things we take for granted, like decent transportation (a huge one) and education. I'm glad to see the NYT even write this, because poor and working class people are not even covered in most newspapers, and people have no idea of how they live. Jarvis jumps to the assumption that the story and others like it were written to make him and others like him feel bad. No, sometimes it's just good to know what's going on. Why should that bother anybody?

Posted by: ciocia | Dec 3, 2006 8:08:28 AM

I used to be a frequent reader of Buzzmachine. I like Jarvis' ideas about the future of news publishing. But this story shocked me. It shows how much he has moved away from the problems of ordinary people and what a cold-hearted, arrogant establishment idiot he has become. Thx for you and the 'Penguins' pointing this out.

Of course, I left some comments at Buzzmachine, venting my frustration. Hmm, why didn't you, too, Ezra?

Posted by: Gray | Dec 3, 2006 10:43:10 AM

Dostoevsky saw Jarvis coming:

"You see, I so love humanity that -- would you believe it? -- I often dream of forsaking all that I have ... and becoming a sister of mercy. I close my eyes and think and dream, and at that moment I feel full of strength to overcome all obstacles. No wounds, no festering sores could at that moment frighten me. I would bind them up and wash them with my own hands. I would nurse the afflicted. I would be ready to kiss such wounds.... But could I endure such a life for long? ... I shut my eyes and ask myself, 'Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but worried you with his whims, without valuing or remarking your charitable services, began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering) -- what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?' And do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once -- that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving anyone.'"
"It's just the same story as a doctor once told me," observed the elder. "He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. 'I love humanity,' he said, 'but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,' he said, 'I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he's too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.'

Posted by: Martin | Dec 3, 2006 10:48:21 AM

Jarvis makes the same mistake that a lot of jack-asses like him make. He assumes that the working poor blame everyone else for their problems. I am one of them, I live in a neighborhood full of them. I occasionaly run into people who whine about the breaks they didn't get yet so richly deserve. Most of us, feel the same way Jarvis does about those who complain - get over it, rise above it. I am where I am because of choices I made, oppertunities I have thus far missed or ignored.

Do I think we as a society could do better, make it easier, absolutely. But I don't lay around whining - I try to change my life, make it better, at the same time I fight to make my society a better place.

But listening to jack asses like Jarvis is just irritating. He comes off as though he believes all of us are whining, blaming everyone except ourselves. Sorry, but very few of us do that. And seeing pieces like this in the Times is nice. That is the sort of piece we ned more of - to foster and foment change.

I don't give a damn if it validates the superiority of rich white people, if it also fosters change, I support it.

Posted by: DuWayne | Dec 3, 2006 11:21:05 AM

Where's that Dostoevsky quote from, Martin?

Posted by: sglover | Dec 3, 2006 6:18:55 PM

"Where's that Dostoevsky quote from, Martin?"

I'm not Martin, but I know how to google. It's from 'The Brothers Karamazov':

Posted by: Gray | Dec 3, 2006 6:21:14 PM

DuWayne - I think that's the question - does an article like this really foster change or does it validate the status quo... and I think the people who find it a powerful and moving article are people who already felt that way to begin with, which is why I'm not sure it does much to move people, ultimately. I am terribly empathetic and sympathetic when it comes to the issues Gloria Castillo faces; none of that, I think, is going to pay her bills, get her Mom health insurance, or help her get her kids to a better place. I'll say it again - our public policy decisions should be based on rational evidence, not whether we find a story moving or not - because there are a lot of moving stories out there, but not all of them need a government solution.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 3, 2006 8:21:18 PM

Paul Getty used to say that if that happened, leaving aside the lottery winners, wait a decade and the same people would be back on top.

I was going to make a crack about how Getty was born rich and expanded the family business, but apparently he said this in his autobiography:

I enjoyed the advantage of being born into an already-wealthy family, and when I began my business career I was subsidized by my father. While I did make money-and quite a bit of it-on my own, I doubt if there would be a 'Getty Empire' today if I had not taken over my father's thriving oil business after his death. (Getty, 1976, pg.336).

So perhaps Getty was more humane and self-aware than Worstall gives him credit for.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Dec 3, 2006 8:42:49 PM

weboy -

While I agree that public policy decisions should be made rationaly, not just emotionaly, there is nothing wrong with bringing emotions into it. It is when the only argument to be made is based on emotions, or for that matter religious dogma, that I have issues. There are practical, reasonable arguments to be made for UHC, aside from the emotional components. But that doesn't mean that I am unwilling to play on the emotions of others, to influence their decision making.

And I do think that articles like this one have an impact. It hits at those who are on the fence, even some who are apposed. A couple of years ago, my old local paper in Lansing, MI, ran a story about foster care and adoption. It was a picture of a system that was beyond chaotic. It played very strongly on peoples emotions and contributed to not only forcing the legislature to take some action, but also motivated people to consider adoption, not infant adoption, but adopting kids who are much older.

The same is true of gay marriage. The most effective way that I have found to change peoples attitudes, is to tell them about couples and families that have suffered, or are suffering because they do not have the legal protections afforded everyone else who wants to marry. There is no question that this can be argued with pure rational thinking. But it is more effectively argued by appealing to people's emotions.

Posted by: DuWayne | Dec 3, 2006 9:09:54 PM

And quite honestly, I really don't care what it validates for some people, what kind of warm fuzzies they get when they vote for progressive values after reading articles like this. I don't care what it makes people like that think about people like me. I don't even care if they get sexualy stimulated by the notion of their own superiority over people like me - if that article turns them to support UHC awsome. If preying on their emotions convinces them to support civil-unions or gay marriage - excellent. If tear-jerking stories about the plight of orphans will make a difference, I don't care what mysoginistic bullshit that article feeds some people - write more of them.

Posted by: DuWayne | Dec 3, 2006 9:17:58 PM

DuWayne - I think the foster care/orphganage stories are similar, but sifferent. They often are tales of multiple horror stories, which I think tends to make a general point that individual stories do not. And they tend to focus - where they often work to make a difference - on the legal and process issues of foster care systems; and again, I think that underlines the nature of making policy decisions based more on rational evidence than simply pulling emotional strings.

As a gay man, I can tell you, yes, it's a lucky thing that we are often young and pretty and photograph well; but emotional appeals about AIDS haven't stopped homophobia and irrational thinking around the disease, and loving gay couples don't ease people's concerns about traditional marriage. There's a long-standing debate about whether "we're just like you" stories help or not; I think the results are mixed to negative, because some gay folks do not fit conventional molds, nor do they want to. What we need is a broader notion of tolerance and acceptance that doesn't just play to an emotional chord.

As for your other point - the "I don't care how they get there as long as they do" - I'll say it yet again - I think it does matter how you get there, and I think there's a price to pay for getting people to make a purely emotionally charged decision - and foster care is a good example, because there aren't a lot of good policy answers, yet we are bonbarded with awful, emotionally charged stories, and I think this leads to a sense of hopelessness and despair that helps paralyze some real attempts to make a difference. We shouldn't fund disease research on who can trot out the prettiest, saddest sob story possible (and such decisions often involve just such calculation); and the flip side of getting emotional outpourings about the suffering of the poor is Reagan's now-infamous "welfare queen" remarks - it's all fine until those emotional images get turned against you.

Finally, time will tell, but I'm willing to bet, dollars to donuts, that Gloris Castillo's story won't have any real policy impact in the long term; it may get the writer a Pulitzer (though I doubt it), which is probably what the article is more about than really making a difference.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 3, 2006 10:33:12 PM

weboy, I can kind of see your point--emotions alone won't make good policy outcomes, so relying too heavily on emotional appeals to get people to change polices--for example, our lack of UHC--is dangerous. I'm not sure I agree with it, but I see it. OTOH, that's clearly not Jarvis's point--"Why is this story in the national section of the national paper?--he fails to see a need for policy change at all. So whatever benign interpretation you have of his works doesn't hold up.

I think that's something important to understand, the reason we don't have universal health care in this country is not just because some people fail to understand the technocratic logic behind it. You ask for rationality, but it would be completely irrational for the vast majority of people to familiarize themselves with the details of the macroeconomics of health care. Division of labor is what's rational, and so we delegate our governance to a representative government. We express our priorities to our elected officials, the elected officials weigh all the data and determine the best policy to achieve our outcomes. The newspaper's job is to tell us whether those outcomes are actually being achieved, and even to show us new perspectives so that we might choose more enlightened outcomes.

There is no morality, no right and wrong, without emotion. There is no purely logical, naturalistic way to choose the most moral policy. Sometimes emotions are all that saves us. Consider the Milgram Experiment.

This article may have no policy impact in the longterm, but unless you yourself are prepared to write the article that would have such an impact, that's kind of a ludicrous criticism to make.

Posted by: Consumatopia | Dec 3, 2006 11:54:02 PM

weboy -

Your misunderstanding me. I am not suggesting that the decisions should be made based on emotions. But it is a lot easier to express the importance of dealing with things when you can tug at peoples emotions.

I will take the gay marriage issue, as it is an easier example to work with. I get into this one with people from church regularly. After I allow them to express their opposition, I start with a couple of really brutal stories. The first about a couple split when one was dying in the hospital and her partner was kept out. The second involves a 12 year old girl put into foster care after her biological dad died. Her mother died when she was 3. Her dad's partner had been her second parent since her mom died - had been in her life since she was 18 months. After that I ask the simple question; How will their having the same legal security that your family has, hurt you? How can you justify, not allowing them that security, without quoting scripture or telling me what they do is icky? The response is always along the lines of, "I never thought of that."

Will that change all of them? No. But it does some, and that's among fairly conservative Christians. It is not the emotional aspects that convince them either. That just gets their attention, what convinces the honest among them, is the fact that these are real people who are being restricted from the security that they deserve.

As for worrying how we get there, I'm sorry, I just want to get there. We can work it out as we move forward. I am not suggesting hasty, short-sighted legislation, I am advocating getting serious about persuing solutions. I am advocating people call their representatives and make it clear they want to see something done about it. That people make others around them aware of how big of a problem this is for so many people. Emotions are a great carrier for getting it out there. Can you base policy on those emotions, no. But they can build momentum.

Posted by: DuWayne | Dec 4, 2006 1:47:12 AM

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