September 12, 2010

The Importance of Sensitivity and Nuance

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In her debut column as The Everyday Ethicist, Elisabeth Rosen ’12 addressed a question about sexuality from a sorority sister. The writer, identified as “Nervous Katy Perry Fan,” asked if it was ethical “to pretend to be straight” while she was questioning her own sexuality and apprehensive about coming out. Rosen never directly said that Nervous should come out but did say that actively pretending to be straight would be unethical.This advice generated a significant response on the Internet and in letters to Rosen and The Sun. Considering the sheer volume of this feedback, I will outline some of the criticisms, address them, and then inform the readership how The Sun has proceeded.The column was picked up by Jezebel, a popular women’s blog on the Gawker Media network. Writing for Jezebel, Anna North called some of Rosen’s analogies “bizarre.” North also suggested that Rosen was wrong to weigh the interests of Nervous’s potentially uncomfortable sorority sisters more heavily than Nervous’s own privacy and comfort.The Gawker blogs are known for being salacious, and North’s lead befits that description. She wrote, “What’s the ethical thing to do when you’re questioning your sexuality? According to one advice columnist, you should tell all your sorority sisters! Immediately!”A blog on Change.org also started an online petition asking The Sun to apologize for what the blogger called a “homosexuality = eating disorder” column. As of Sunday afternoon, 219 people had signed the petition, and each signed copy was e-mailed to Rosen and Editor in Chief Keenan Weatherford ’11.The petition says, “[T]he columnist compared homosexuality to an eating disorder, and suggested that when people come out of the closet, they should take other people’s feelings into consideration over their own.” The comparison is the same one that North called “bizarre.”There were other criticisms on the Internet; one blogger accused Rosen of perpetuating a “tired, malicious story about gay people being predatory.” And Rosen received several e-mails from upset or offended readers. One came from Alexander Agoado ’13, who was “appalled” at Rosen’s advice, saying it served to “insult, degrade, and shame” Nervous “for being a little bit different” than Rosen.There are a few factors at work here. First, the analogies: In my opinion, Rosen did not equate homosexuality with having an eating disorder. I think Rosen’s distinction was more subtle than it might first appear. In my opinion, her writing was not bigoted or malicious. Nor was it homophobic. I think the chorus of strong-worded accusations on that point is misguided and ultimately wrong.The analogies, however, were worded somewhat unartfully. Rosen was trying to enhance her column with punchy clauses to give it a more conversational — and less serious — tone. Coupled with the gravity of the situation she was addressing, the writing could seem inconsistent. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; she is just trying to find her voice as a columnist. Rosen had a certain writing style as a reporter (her coverage of the Kot murder trial, for example, was clear and articulate), and she is trying to develop in her new role. Tone will likely not be an issue in the long run.Second, there is the substantive content of Rosen’s advice. On Jezebel, North noted the “fluidity of human sexuality,” which is central to this point. Sexuality is indeed a complicated issue, and it’s hard to address with care and nuance in a small space. At worst, Rosen might have been naïve in oversimplifying the issue.I exchanged e-mails and spoke with Rosen on the phone to discuss these criticisms. It is clear to me that she understands the issues involved. In a still-unpublished follow-up to her debut column, she explains her take on the distinction between “not coming out” as gay and “pretending to be straight.” (Rosen told me that, in her original column, she did not suggest in an outright manner that Nervous should come out.) She also notes the sensitivity required when writing about this issue. The Sun’s editors decided not to run Rosen’s follow-up because of space issues, but she might include an abridged version of it in this week’s column.Lastly, I think a dose of big-picture perspective is appropriate. Those who sharply vilify Rosen as intolerant do themselves no favors by being so pointed. The issue is demonstrably sensitive; thoughtful, productive replies go further than nasty rhetoric. Additionally, those who disagree with Rosen’s advice are also free to not heed it.Going forward, Rosen will continue to write for The Sun. Neither Rosen nor The Sun apologized for the column in any way. Neither should they. The Sun (smartly) appended an Editor’s Note to Rosen’s column online, reminding students who question their sexuality or have related concerns that they can consult Haven. Haven is a Cornell organization that, according to its website, “seeks to enrich Cornell University by supporting its diverse array of sexual and gender identities and expressions.”“There’s no plan for any further response, and Elisabeth will continue [writing for The Sun] … obviously under more vigilant oversight from me,” said Associate Editor Tony Manfred ’11, who runs the opinion section.From The Sun’s perspective, the issue is closed. Rosen’s debut column has served to remind everyone of the importance of sensitivity and nuance. The Everyday Ethicist will write another day.

Rob Tricchinelli is a third-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at public-editor@cornellsun.com. The public editor column typically appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli