This story starts in Bangladesh on a Wednesday morning. It was early—say 8:56—on April 24, 2013. There were 3,000-odd people crammed into an eight-story building called Rena Plaza. One minute later, Rena Plaza ceased to function as a building should, and where that building should have been, there was a mound of rubble and 1,129 dead bodies.
The story starts here, but I’m not going to write about Bangladeshi labor laws or the tragedy of that day. I’m not going to write about how our contemporary moment, the zenith of this thing we call capitalism, means that we had and will continue to have horrors like the one in Bangladesh. No, this story is much narrower and much less important than that one.
This is a story about other writers’ stories (I think the cool kids call that a thinkpiece). This is a story about the stories we inhabit and the ethics of how we tell them.
The same day as the Dhaka building collapse, Eric Loomis wrote a slim 700-word piece at Lawyers, Guns & Money. Among other things, he said:
I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory. If a worker dies in a factory that makes clothing for your company, the company is responsible. In my mind, this is the only way to fight the outsourcing epidemic that provides a cover for irresponsible corporate policies. The injured workers and the families of the dead deserve financial compensation. The American corporations who buy the clothes produced by this factory should be required to pay American rates of workers compensation. Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments.
I neither agree nor disagree with Loomis’s argument; I don’t know enough about labor law to have much in the way of an opinion. I will say this though: It’s an understandable response.
Mere empathy tells us that, when confronting a tragedy of this magnitude (I should note here that, at the time Loomis wrote his piece, it appears that only 87 people were known to be dead), we ought to do something. And why not this? Sure, Loomis’s plan is—in many different ways—seemingly infeasible, but he acknowledges that:
Of course, we are a long ways from any of this. But we have to begin at least talking in these terms, demanding accountability for workplace deaths, whether in the United States or in Bangladesh.
At this point, over at Slate, a writer by the name of Matthew Yglesias fires back at Loomis. Yglesias pens a response that clocks in around 375 words—or a little over half of Loomis’s hardly-Pynchonesque piece. It was titled, “Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That’s OK.” It would probably be poor form to lambast a piece based solely on its title, which may or may not have been chosen by a group of editors with a ouija board, so I won’t. (Fun fact, though: if you scroll down while reading the piece, the title that appears on the drop-down header is “Foreign Factories Should Be Dangerous”.)
Since the title is off-limits, let’s take a look at the content:
I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
Naturally, the Internet explodes. Since it’s the Internet, much of the exploding takes the form of plays on Yglesias’s title. The most scathing, I think, came in the form a point/counterpoint at Et Tu Mr. Destructo entitled “Matt Yglesias Enjoys Murder/Matt Yglesias Lacks the Capacity for Empathy and That’s OK”:
Writing off the death of 161 people with 370 words of vacuous unconcern requires the machine-like efficiency we’ve come to expect from places where pre-teens assemble Air Jordans. Yglesias’ thesis, what little exists, is that the Bangladeshis are a people squalid enough that death is an acceptable randomly applied career path, and that dead Bangladeshis are what keep flat-front chinos at $29.99 at the outlet store. Our pants are cheap because their lives are, and cheaper things are innately good. Just think how much Upton Sinclair saved on hamburger as a young man.
At some point, Yglesias writes something akin to a mea culpa:
It seems like the entire Internet has registered its objections to this piece I wrote on the Bangladesh factory disaster. And I have to say that my overwhelming personal response, as a writer and as a human being, is to be annoyed by the responses that I’m getting. But let me try to be mature about it instead and say—what happened in Bangladesh is a tragedy and a human disaster, and to the best of my knowledge it’s also quite literally a criminal disaster under the existing laws of Bangladesh. The perpetrators ought to be punished. More broadly: Bangladesh ought to enforce its laws. Even more broadly than that: Bangladesh’s citizens deserve honest and uncorrupt government rather than government that’s excessively under the sway of the interests of apparel factory owners.
Huzzah for overcoming annoyance and burgeoning maturity, I guess. But a lot of pixels were spilled over Yglesias’s diminutive post, and I’m not altogether interested in spilling more just to land some punches on a man whose thinking and writing I generally admire. So let me fast-forward.
“Welcome to the age of Actually Journalism,” writes Malcom Harris in his fantastic thinkpiece, “Why Nate Silver Can’t Explain it All.” Actually Journalism is Harris’s play on the way the new kids in journalism—Vox, FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot, and all their ilk—seek to answer every question “with responses that could invariably begin actually…” (go ahead and Google the term voxsplain for more).
A more charitable person than Harris might welcome us to the age of data journalism, explanatory journalism, or maybe personality-driven journalism—or perhaps some bizarre personality–data–explanatory journalism chimera. But regardless of the name for this particular journalistic epoch, there is certainly something more than a little obnoxious about it all; Harris writes, “When commentators, journalists or guys at parties presume to explain, they start from the presumption that they already understand both sides of the argument and have come to a definitive conclusion.”
His articles—and every one of those I’m-more-counter-intuitive-than-you-are pieces—are like that kid who sits in the back of your class and needlessly tries to correct the teacher, that man who explains sports to you real slow, that dude who holds you hostage at a party telling you the etymology of the word schadenfreude.
I remember two pieces in particular that had this breathless tone—like a high schooler who just discovered Ayn Rand and then proceeds to make life a series of lectures for his unfortunate conversation companions—“The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all,” and “The self-evident and life-changing truth about working for free.” Both these pieces appeared over at a Quartz, the Atlantic Media Company’s business magazine and a hub for data-driven news (full disclosure, also my employer).
The author, Brooke Allen, is living in some strange world in which it’s okay to say things like this to your potential employer:
Say something like, “If later you decide to improve your offer, then I will not work with you because you lied on the first go-around, and I do not work with liars. Likewise you should hold me to the same standard of honesty.” Of course, you can find less harsh words than these.
Or who declares that:
Well, the life-changing (and yet self-evident) thing I learned is that when I am unemployed the opportunity cost of my time is $0. So I should work for free while getting people to bid up for my time.
I humbly recommend neither of things. (Note, Allen gets a well-deserved smack-down in the form of Lauren Bacon’s piece, “The secret to a higher salary might be to ask for nothing, but it only seems to work for men,” who Brutus-in-an-honorable-mans her way through much of her response. And I’ll briefly say that deciding you’re going to live your life based on opportunity cost might be really effective for a lot of things, but it certainly isn’t a winning strategy for being happiness, especially if you value non-monetizable things like, I don’t know, the joy of babies.)
I gladly take a bat to Allen’s pieces not just because they’re full of sloppy thinking, but also because they’re so damned patronizing. His articles—and every one of those I’m-more-counter-intuitive-than-you-are pieces—are like that kid who sits in the back of your class and needlessly tries to correct the teacher, that man who explains sports to you real slow, that dude who holds you hostage at a party telling you the etymology of the word schadenfreude.
And lest you think I’m just beating up on Brooke Allen, well, let me bring it full circle. Recently, The Upshot decided that they were going to decide if going to college was “worth it” based on ROI, which is dumb for a lot of reasons but is the kind of thing you do when you have this awesome, shiny data journalism hammer and then everything looks like a nail. The Upshot decides (and let me just say *phew*) that it’s worth it.
I’ll now point you back to our friend Matthew Yglesias and his (co-his) publication, Vox. Yglesias decides that, actually, he has a better answer to this one. Maybe college isn’t worth it after all. He writes:
To understand whether college is “worth it” — or, more precisely, which colleges are worth it to which students — we would need some much more fine-grained data. How do college graduates fare in the labor market compared to people who were otherwise similar at age 18 in terms of SAT scores, non-cognitive skills, parental socioeconomic status, etc?
To be fair, this is kind of a good point and something that The Upshot was missing. But here’s the catch: it’s only a good point if you buy Yglesias’s and The Upshot’s premise that determining the worth of something is done exclusively in monetary terms. That is, how much money they’re going to make is not necessarily the reason kids go to college.
For example, let’s say you wanted to be a data journalist who gets horny when called “wonky.” Well, in that case, you would probably have to go to college. Of course, there are journalists and writers whom I admire a great deal who didn’t graduate from college—Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example—but The Atlantic reports that 92 percent of journalists have a college degree (that’s some serious #datajournalism). In the case of the plucky data journalist, the aim of your college education wouldn’t be to make shitloads of money, it would be to get an entry-level job or an unpaid internship in a field you’re passionate about.
there’s some part of knowledge that is experiential, irreducible, unable to be broken down into sets of data points, incapable of being explored with a single analytic argument.
People, in short, might go to college to get better-feeling but not necessarily fantastically lucrative jobs—think about social workers or artists and musicians. Plus, you might think that there’s a correlation between education and other social goods, and that wouldn’t fit into looking at everything through the lens of what you can count. It’s like saying you’ve experienced the grandeur of the Colluseaum, when all you’ve done is explore it one night with a flashlight.
Have you heard of Mary the super-scientist? Here’s Wikipedia, and here’s the brunt of it, as put by Frank Jackson:
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
Actually, the answer, to spoil it for you, is that you’re supposed to think that she did learn something—that there’s some part of knowledge that is experiential, irreducible, unable to be broken down into sets of data points, incapable of being explored with a single analytic argument.
None of which is to say that there’s something wrong with explanatory journalism or data journalism or whatever it is that we’re calling the kind of writing that Vox and company are popularizing. Indeed, I’ve dabbled in data-driven storytelling myself, and it when it’s done right, it’s powerful stuff. The danger is in assuming that data doesn’t blinker you to other truths. The danger of “actaully journalism” is in the hubris that leads you to believe that data is the whole truth.
This is the end of the story: What was lacking from Yglesias’s patronizing post on the value of a college degree, what was missing from his too-pithy take on Bangladeshi labor practices, was empathy—was lived experience. For these new explanatory journalism sites to be anything beyond “Infotainment Journalism” (as Peter Frase calls it at Jacobin), it will need to have a heart.
I’ll let Harris play me out:
“We’re not sociopaths,” Silver has said, but that’s not something that someone who isn’t often accused of being a sociopath usually has to say. When confronted with the lack of racial and gender diversity on their staffs, Klein and Silver have hemmed and hawed about qualifications and blown it off, but if Actually Journalism can’t find a way to examine its own underlying conditions, it will be actually worthless.