A Dearth of Empathy

[NOTE:  There are several edits below and an interesting conversation in the comments, so if you already read this one on its original publish date you might want to check it again.]

I managed to make it one whole day before breaking my promise to not get into the big internet kerfuffle of the day.  I am proud of my restraint.  Thing is, though, there are two caveats to my original statement.  The first and most important is that this is my blog so I can put any damn thing up I want.  The second is the notion I advanced that if something is worth talking about it will be worth talking about in two weeks.  This will be worth talking about in two weeks, two years, or two decades.

Longtime friend of the blog[1] The Everlasting Dave usually writes posts about baseball or his experiences watching terrible TV or horrifying movies so you don’t have to.  It’s not very often that you can go to his blog and find a post wherein he’s upset to the point of incoherence.  I think it’s important to read what he has to say and also the catalytic events.

Please, go read it now.  The whole thing is long, it’s involved, and it’s important.  Anything I say here runs the risk of me making this thing that’s not about me something that’s all about me and I don’t want that, but I still want to talk about it because, again, it’s important.  It’s one of those things that’s literally life and death.


I don’t know how to say what I want to say.  I keep composing apologetic sentences built around words like “privilege.”  I keep starting to write something that sounds like the standard mea culpa offered by folks like me whenever they want to discuss things they don’t have to experience.  For me this is a thing that happens to other people and in the end I can retreat into my world as a middle class, cisgendered, white male.  I can’t pretend it works any other ways.  I can’t say, “Hey, I’ve struggled, too, so I totally get it and look at how amazing I am for knowing what’s what.”

In the end this is a story of straight, cisgendered guy reading about another straight, cisgendered guy who was apologizing for what he and another straight, cisgendered guy did to a transwoman.  But it’s also a story of that first guy realizing something that the other two didn’t: that they’d fucked up because they made the story about them.  If you haven’t already go read Christina Kahrl’s response, as she speaks with a great deal more credibility than I do.

Allow me to say this in the strongest possible terms: Caleb Hannan, the writer of the original article, fucked up because he brought things that weren’t germane to the story into the story.  He fucked up on a much deeper and less excusable level by deciding that he had some sort of right, responsibility, or privilege to bring up Vanderbilt’s gender identity.  Bill Simmons and his staff fucked up because apparently absolutely no one said, “Hey, um, what does Vanderbilt’s gender identity have to do with the claims she’s making about her education or work experience?  Bill Simmons and everyone else then fucked up in a mind-bogglingly insane manner by deciding to write about the whole thing and post it on a popular website.

On one level I’m impressed by Simmons’ apology.  I stopped reading his stuff a while ago because he comes off as an unrepentant frat bro and an apologist for and enabler of the worst of middlebrow white guy culture.  I gave up on Grantland shortly after it started because the site came across as nothing more than a home for pseudo-intellectual morons who thought making snarky commentary about television shows made them smart and important.  I was pleasantly surprised, then, that Simmons repeatedly took responsibility, offered what appeared to be a genuine apology, and then published his letter side-by-side with Christina’s devastating critique of the entire sad affair.

On another level I’m saddened by Simmons’ apology.  He seems more concerned with the career and well-being of his writer than the life and well-being of Essay Vanderbilt.  He seems more concerned with making sure everyone knew that he put the article in front of lawyers and editors than anything else.  It’s astounding to me that he could apologize for not handing the article to a transperson to read and then, a few lines later, claim that he did his due diligence.

Bill Simmons, Caleb Hannan, and the Grantland staff are comparable to no one so much as Tom and Daisy Buchanan, engaging in actions that cost another person her life and then withdrawing to their security, privilege, and fried chicken dinner.  By the time I decided to write this the editorial and Kahrl’s rebuttal were gone from the front page but the original article was still right there in the feed.  I had to look for the fallout but the cause was there for all to see.

It’s inexcusable.  This should bring major repercussions down on the heads of Bill Simmons and Grantland but it won’t.  Instead the internet outrage machine will find a new target, the pseudo-intellectual frat-bro mentality will take control, and everyone will move on.  If the actual thing is remembered by Grantland’s target audience it will most likely be as a “controversy” or, worse, those uppity jerks in the trans community getting pissed because a bunch of well-meaning people didn’t use the right pronouns.

Essay Anne Vanderbilt will still be dead.  I don’t know who she is, I wouldn’t have known who she is if she hadn’t killed herself while a collection of clueless dullards used her life as story fodder.  But Essay Anne Vanderbilt is dead and the world will move on.


The crazy thing is that apparently there was a fascinating story there.  Essay Anne Vanderbilt ran up a tab of lies that would have left movie scriptwriters saying, “No, man, that’s too crazy.”  She convinced people she was a physicist and aeronautical engineer and would-be golf innovator.  Why did she find it necessary to make those claims?  We may never know and we can’t ever know because it never occurred to a would-be journalist that maybe her gender identity wasn’t germane and maybe it was possible to tell the world she was lying about her education without bringing up the shape of her genitalia.

Let’s try an experiment.  Pretend that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was born cis or, alternatively, that Hannan never found out and it never came up.  Let’s say she still lied her ass off about reinventing golf as we know it.  Would her gender identity ever even come up in an expose about her con game?[EDITED, note below]

No?  Okay, then.


This is kinda heavy.  I think we need a quick musical interlude.

Context.  Because Matt Nathanson is a fantastic human being.  It’s also unnecessary.  I saw him at the Riv a couple months back and he told the story about the song, which he wrote about a waitress he thought was really cool.  He could have made a pretty standard music video around the actual story but chose to do something completely different.  Then again, he also did this one.  I’m not gonna lie, it’s kinda adorable.[EDITED]


I have some tiny modicum of understanding what it’s like to be transgender.  I spent a good chunk of my life as the fat kid who desperately wanted to be thin and hating everything about the face I saw in the mirror every morning.  My understanding diverges quickly from there.  I lost a bunch of weight and now the face in the mirror looks something like the face I always wanted to see.  If I tell people who didn’t know me before and show them pictures I’m told, “Good for you.”  I don’t have to hide who I was.

That tiny amount of understanding, though, is the beginning of empathy.  I know what it’s like to feel like I’m not good enough, like I’m not right, like I’m being judged by everyone around me and found inferior in some way.

Everyone, in some way, has that space inside of them.  For some it’s a tiny, hidden place.  For others it’s an immediate, gaping wound.  Empathy begins the moment you learn to say, “I don’t know what you’re going through but I know how you feel.”

Sometimes the journey is much, much longer than others.  Sometimes the lessons you will learn will turn out to be terrifying.

Consider the alternatives, though.  Empathy is the more difficult path to start, but it’s the easier path to travel.


[1]Also longtime blogroll snub.  This says nothing about any animosity I possess for the blog in question but, instead, how absolutely, god-awfully terrible I am at maintaining a blogroll.  Sorry.  That oversight has been fixed.

[EDIT] I apparently stepped in it a bit in the edited paragraph.  Please see MadGastronomer’s comment below.  Edit on the edit: I noticed that I stepped in it in basically the same way again a paragraph later.  Edit on the edit on the edit: and I still didn’t get it quite right.

Also, I missed a trick on this one.  I had a middle edit based on a somewhat, and by “somewhat,” I mean, “deeply” flawed understanding of how Caleb Hannan found out.  Simmons’ apology didn’t reference it at all and Kahrl’s rebuttal was clearly predicated on the notion that the reader had read the original article and seen where Hannan went completely wrong.  I read the fallout but not the original, which is pretty friggin’ stupid of me, considering my whole thing about checking your sources.  Either way, this is Caleb’s big reveal:

He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.

“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”

It took a moment for him to respond.

“I cannot confirm or deny anything on that,” he said, sounding once again like a risk manager. “But let me ask you a question. How far have you looked into her background?”

What.  The.  Actual.  Fuck?

Protip to any would-be investigative reporters out there: information that isn’t germane isn’t germane.  Let’s say you’re doing a piece on why the city’s planned sewer reconstruction project isn’t going anywhere and the mayor’s accountant keeps telling you to “look into the discretionary fund.”  That’s probably an indication that he’s trying to point you in the direction of corruption and redirection of the sewer funds.  Look into it, expose it.  If he keeps mentioning the mayor’s name and then hinting at a prescription for a powerful anti-depressant that’s none of your fucking business and probably means the accountant has an ax to grind and is using you to smear the mayor.

Apparently the entire editorial department of Grantland thought they had Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one with Caleb Hannan.  Instead they had James fucking O’Keefe.  That’s fucking inexcusable.  Every single person who gave this piece the go-ahead should be punished.

It’s understandable why Simmons would whistle past that part of the original article in his apology.  He and everyone on his staff actually read that and actually said, “Yeah, we’re on board with this,” even though it’s blatantly obvious that what Leland Frische, Caleb Hannan’s Deep Throat, did was not okay and putting it into a story about a piece of golfing equipment was not okay.  I just wish Kahrl had hit that point a little harder in her rebuttal.  She focused more on how Hannan’s response was terrible and everything that happened after the moment was damn insensitive That isn’t wrong, but I walked away with the sense that I had all of the pertinent information and felt like I didn’t really have to go read original.

That, again, is very much a mistake I shouldn’t make.  But after reading the responses I really, really didn’t want to read the original.  It felt voyeuristic somehow.

Still and all, damn.

9 thoughts on “A Dearth of Empathy

  1. “Pretend that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was born a woman”
    She was, just as much as I was as a cis woman. Please don’t use this language. It assumes that her assigned gender is her real gender. “Woman born” is deeply transphobic language, and is used in a number of contexts that are actively violent against and damaging to trans women that as a straight man you’re probably not aware of, including by radical feminists who have managed to get discriminatory laws passed that have made trans women’s lives much harder. Please, please. You were doing so very well.

    • Shit. Sorry. I fixed it, or at least attempted to. Twice.

      You’re right about my lack of awareness. For me it was just a rhetorical flourish to get a point across and I didn’t even think about the implications. I shall attempt to be more aware in the future.

      • Thank you for listening and being willing to edit.

        Word of advice: “Surgery” is also not good, because it focuses the entire point of transition on surgery and genitals, which is very objectifying to trans people’s bodies (go look up some of the commentary on Katie Couric’s recent interview with Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera). “Had been born cis” or “Had not had a trans history,” although the first is probably the better.

        If you’d like to talk about any of it privately, feel free to email me at the usual handle at gmail. I’m happy to do lots of education and discussion on this one.

      • Well, crap. I shouldn’t have edited twice. My first edit was closer to your examples but seemed far more insensitive somehow.

        And I did kinda blow that one, since the reason this was on my mind was partially because of the Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera thing.

    • Thank you for fixing it, and being willing to go through it multiple times. And thanks for writing about it, and about the essential lack of empathy for another human being that caused it.

      • Thank you for being willing to engage in the conversation. I know this is one of those topics where people can get really shouty and defensive and it’s generally the straight white guys who think everyone should just be glad that they’re there, being all straight and white and “helping.” From my end I’m always a little confused by the people who decide, “I’m going to write/talk about this thing that’s outside of my experience,” then step in it, and then respond to getting called on it by getting all shouty and defensive. It makes it look like all they want is a cookie.

      • You’re welcome.

        You know I’ve cared about trans issues for a long time, but it’s been a lot more immediate and personal for me these last few years, since my wife and I got together. This story, like all the stories that showcase transmisogyny so clearly, just make me want to scoop Kate up and take her someplace safe. Unfortunately, there isn’t really anyplace safe. But every person who speaks up and stands up makes it a little safer.

  2. Pingback: A Surfeit of Judgment | Accidental Historian

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