16 Feb All too Human
This morning before school, I was talking with some other parents about a funeral for an 8 year old 4th grader that’s taking place tonight. He died in a fire last week. I spend a lot of time at the school, and know a lot of kids by sight but not name. I think it’s pheromones, but when kids see me in the halls they attack me. When one does it, the others jump out of line and tackle me too. Over the past 5 years, I feel like I must have interacted with him. I hear that he’s the kid you wouldn’t notice unless you were his teacher and you appreciated how good he was. He’s the kid that loved church and basketball and took the new kid under his wing to protect him from some bullies.
When you pass 40, people around you start to die at an increasingly faster clip. An old friend of mine also died this week. I’ve been sad, but frankly, I haven’t cried. I think that’s a problem. We cry for a reason. While we control our emotions for other reasons, there’s a balance that can easily get out of whack when we clamp down on our feelings too much. Men are especially bad about this. Our culture doesn’t make it easy to be emotional.
While I had thought about the family’s pain, I know I did so in a superficial way. I imagine I did what most of us do and avoided thinking about it enough to feel the sadness. One of the women I was talking to this morning mentioned that the boy’s mother used to do her hair. I felt that in my gut. All of a sudden she became more real. While I hadn’t cried yet, the day before I had heard a detail that had me tearing up: as the flames grew, the boy was being pulled outside by his older siblings when he ripped himself free to go back to look for his mother. She had made it out the back, but he didn’t know this. The kid who went back for his mother was the only person to lose his life. As I told my friends this story, I found myself choking back my grief. These details humanized them beyond my ability to control my emotions. Still I tried to. Instead, I should have been wailing. I know that I am not alone in holding way too much inside.
I came home and tried to figure out which overwhelming task to focus on. I’m working on a lot of projects, and like my children, they compete for my attention. I’m a filmmaker, a photographer, and increasingly, a writer. Because my friend passed away, I was looking at images from when we met, and thinking about the past. In addition, I have been trying to continue pulling together the pieces for our film about Dr. Sarno and mindbody medicine. Over the past few months, I have been arranging interviews, and one important subject I’ve been reaching out to is the writer Jonah Lehrer. He has written with great insight about issues that are central to our story, so it is important to us to make sure he is in the film. In fact, his insights are so central to our work that we have been corresponding with him about how we can work together in a more comprehensive way than simply having him in the film as a talking head.
We began talking with him via email a year ago. He was very busy with a book that was coming out, but as soon as I reached out to him he expressed a willingness to help. I had come upon his article “Why Science is Failing Us” in Wired, where he had written ideas that were in lock step with what we hoped to get across in our film. I wasn’t the only person excited by his article, or his work, and he was in heavy demand as a speaker and writer. We continued to work on the film and I read more of his work.
In general, Lehrer writes about how the brain and the body interact, and how consciousness functions. He is not a science researcher, though he started out as one. Instead, he is a science storyteller. He is very good at looking at data from experiments as an outsider, telling stories from the data that the scientists who collected it might not have told. He then connects one story to another, building up a frame of reference that forces the reader to confront the frames that shape the stories they tell themselves about the world. In short, like a Hollywood filmmaker, he sets up expectations based on commonly held beliefs in order to pull the rug out from under the reader, thereby exposing the frames that shape their thinking. His first book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” explained the ways in which a number of artists have done this in the past; writing about mind body interaction in ways that ran counter to the science of their time, only to have science catch up with them a century later. The main character of our documentary, Dr. John Sarno, is just such a character (as is Lehrer himself), though he isn’t a working artist. Instead he is a doctor who came to understand that the vast majority of pain ailments are related to the mind rather than structural problems, and Lehrer is an science writer who came to understand that the structures that define science are choking it. However, Lehrer, like Sarno, deconstructs the status quo without malice. Even still, structures as entrenched as science, medicine, and journalism do not take a challenge lightly.
Unfortunately for us, and Mr. Lehrer, 6 months ago it was discovered that he had “self-plagiarized” some blog posts. That is, he had reused things he had written in one post and cut and pasted them into another newer piece. When I first heard this I had trouble understanding what all the hubbub was about. As someone who blogs a lot, I will often take bits from one piece and put it in a newer one as I develop my ideas further. However, in his case, this led to greater scrutiny of his work and other writers discovered examples of plagiarism as well as some faked Bob Dylan quotes. As a blogger I understood the “self-plagiarism” and found the solid examples of borrowed paragraphs more problematic (yet I could still understand how they came about given the huge volume of writing Mr. Lehrer was doing). The faked Bob Dylan quotes were more problematic for sure, especially the fact that he had at first claimed they came from outtakes from longer interviews. In short order, he lost all of his writing jobs, including a coveted position at the New Yorker, and he disappeared from public view.
These transgressions are clearly problematic. They raise questions about the veracity of his work in general. However, I continue to believe that his insights are incredibly important to our work, and just as important to our society. Over the last three months, I read several of his books and I became even more convinced that he has a unique ability to translate complex ideas in simple ways that makes it possible for people to see things from a new perspective. This is precisely why his writing was in such demand. What he has to say, and more importantly, how he says it, is essential not only for our film, but for our culture. When our orthodoxies ossify, our ability to move forward as a culture diminishes greatly. Thinkers that challenge systems in power always face hurdles, but when they can overcome them we all benefit. This is not to say that everyone who challenges power is right, or should get an equal level of respect. However, in the case of Mr. Lehrer’s work it makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and disregard the ideas. Earlier this year a similar situation happened with Mike Daisey and his story about the production of iphones. At first the story, in which Mr. Daisey gave first hand accounts of deplorable conditions at Chinese iphone factories, caused a PR nightmare for Apple. It was then discovered that Mr. Daisey had not been to all of the factories he said he had, and instead used artistic license to turn those stories into his own. It had been developed as a theater piece but was framed as journalism when and the story ran on “This American Life” on NPR. Mr. Daisey was forced to issue a retraction and apology, and Apple dodged a bullet. However, the facts that he talked about were still the facts. The workers were treated horribly. I abhor the fact that the workers are treated badly, yet I own an iphone. We are uniquely designed to be able to handle huge amounts of cognitive dissonance. Again, while I believe that Mr. Lehrer’s transgressions need to be taken seriously, I don’t believe they invalidate the insights he made.
I spoke on the phone with Mr. Lehrer for the first time last week. He had read our proposal for the film and seemed to understand exactly what we were trying to do. He was generous with his time and insights. We discussed setting up an interview, but he asked if we could set a date later because he had agreed to give a speech the following week that he needed to focus on. The speech would be something of an apology for his transgressions.
I don’t know Jonah Lehrer well by any means, but when you talk to someone they become more real, more human. In the course of a series of interactions, he has been nothing but helpful and gracious to me, even before the scandal. So when he gave the speech, I was hoping it would go well. It did not. For his first public appearance since he admitted to fabricating quotes, he had agreed to give the keynote speech at a Knight Foundation event. The panel was live- streamed and behind him as he spoke, tweets reacting to the speech were projected on a screen.
I was nervous for him because even before the speech began the internet was buzzing with posts challenging him to answer questions about his transgressions. A former Wired magazine colleague posted three questions that were really challenges masquerading as an invitation to dialogue. This writer asked the author and the Knight foundation to explain why his bio on the Knight foundation website did not state that his books had been withdrawn. He also wanted to know why Lehrer had not apologized to him and his colleagues for betraying them and stealing from them. As I went to get this link for my own post (which I hastily published earlier without links) I found that the author had added a correction, acknowledging that only 1 of Mr. Lehrer’s books had been withdrawn. In the fast paced, publish or lose the momentum, world of blogging, mistakes are frequent. This post was widely viewed and shared before the event by other journalists, and it seems that it was instrumental in setting up the expectation that Mr. Lehrer’s talk should be an open-throated public apology, rather than the keynote address he had been asked to give. It is especially prescient that this correction highlights very clearly that, while the internet holds onto information seemingly forever, it also is a forward moving animal. It is not a world of “publish or perish” but instead “publish or miss the moment”. This post, in particular, was very influential when it was timely. Yet few people will ever re-visit it and experience the irony that this piece about how unforgivable Mr. Lehrer’s transgressions were, had mistakes that, made in the haste to publish, had a real world consequences.
Mr. Lehrer’s speech began with a clear and direct apology for breaking the clear rules of journalism. He introduced himself as the guy who had fabricated 5 Bob Dylan quotes. He then talked about trying to figure out why it had happened and acknowledged that his arrogance had played a major role. I have been reading a lot of Lehrer’s writing about how the brain works, so his next topic didn’t surprise me but I can understand why people didn’t respond well. He spoke about putting rules in place for himself, to make sure that the transgressions don’t happen again. In essence, he was talking about making efforts at re-training the neural pathways, while tacitly acknowledging that the science makes it clear that these pathways are more difficult to change as we age. As someone who writes, and gives talks, about how the brain works, it made sense to me that he would frame the discussion like this. However, the tweet stream began a ruthless and mean-spirited attack. The twittersphere expected an apology, and when Mr. Lehrer began to turn it into the keynote address that he had been asked to give, the blowback was profound.
Out of the literally hundreds of tweets that streamed in, I only saw one that did not excoriate him. It came from someone who said that he had been nice to her at a conference years earlier. There was clearly confusion about the structure of the event. I can understand why journalists who tuned in to a live stream that they had heard would be an apology event were frustrated that Mr. Lehrer did more than simply apologize. When people started to realize that he was probably getting paid for the speech, the anger amplified. From a PR perspective, it probably wasn’t a good idea to accept payment, but I don’t believe that the fact that he was paid gave people the right to dehumanize him in the manner that they did. The tenor of the tweets reminded me of the penultimate of scene of “Lord of the Flies.” In a Saturday Night Live-like twist, these tweets being projected on a screen behind him mocked him as he spoke. It was a public shaming par excellence, and the tweeters were all journalists, responding to each other in a deafening echo chamber of anger.
I understand why we have structures and rules, but the idea that Lehrer’s transgression would warrant “the death penalty”, as gawker opined, was shocking to me. Mr. Lehrer rose to great heights as a writer with a rare level of speed. His books sold briskly, and his blog on Wired was widely read. As his books began to sell, he was frequently published in the New Yorker. Soon they hired him as a full-time staffer. Months later the scandal broke and he lost everything. Before this all happened it has been reported that Mr. Lehrer made upwards of 30 thousand dollars a speech. Writers who barely earned that in a year were quick to pounce when revelations about his misdeeds were first announced. When people on twitter started to demand to know how much he had been paid the Knight foundation responded that he was being paid 20 thousand dollars, but also made clear that this was far from an exorbitant fee for a keynote address at the conference. The fires of outrage turned into an inferno. By the next day the Knight Foundation reversed course and said it was a mistake to pay Mr. Lehrer for his speech. It was painful for me to observe. It was clear that he had not played this situation well, but again, I did not feel that the anger and vitriol I observed was justified.
I was in the midst of writing something about a friend of mine who had died when I heard that the speech was being live streamed. I put it aside and began to watch. This friend I was writing about had some issues with mental health. He could be incredibly gregarious, but he could also baffle people with unrealistic expectations. He was reliable at being unreliable. Yet as I had been in the midst of writing; meeting him changed my life for the better. His energy was infectious and inspired me to make my first feature film. He was in the film, and at times he made it nearly impossible to make. However, he also gave it some of its most powerful moments. Like everyone who knew him I could get mad at him, and overwhelmed by his mania. This duality was a common refrain as people eulogized him online. They loved him, but he was problematic. He was extremely human, and he made us all conflicted.
I put aside that piece about my friend’s death in order to contextualize my thoughts about the reaction to Lehrer’s speech. I thought about it more this morning when I heard the simple detail that the mother of the child who had died was my friend’s hairdresser. Suddenly she was that much more real, present, and human to me. When I thought about her in these terms, my heart broke just a little bit. I could not hold back my tears. Nor should I have. Why then, do so many of us spend so much effort trying to keep a hold of our emotions. I realized then that what had taken place was a wholesale dehumanizing of Mr. Lehrer. I realized that the people who were working to outsnark each other on twitter could not be thinking of Mr. Lehrer as a human being with thoughts, feelings, and children. I thought about the rules of journalism: the who, what, why, when, where that turns everybody into an other. Journalists are trained to put their feelings in check and get “just the facts”. But the fact is, the facts are meaningless without the feeling. The story does not exist without the interpretation of the facts. If we pretend we are only following rules and focusing on just the important facts then we are doing a great disservice to real truth, the “ecstatic truth” that the filmmaker Werner Herzog speaks of.
I get it. I understand why so many journalists are mad. They don’t get paid enough. They follow the rules. Here’s a guy who didn’t get to his position of wealth and fame by working his way up the ladder, and on top of that, he broke the rules. He cheated. He stole work from others, and he was dishonest. Had I not read his work myself, and been deeply touched by it, I might feel the same way. However, I stumbled upon his article and it spoke to me. I then read his books and I felt like he was one of the few writers I have read whose thoughts not only dovetail with my own, but expand my understanding; fill out what I thought without understanding I had thought it. When viewing this situation, I just don’t agree that fabricating a few quotes to make a point rises to the level of “death penalty” for journalists.
So, journalists, please forgive me for forgiving Mr. Lehrer, and in fact wanting to work with him. Before I was a filmmaker/photographer/writer, I was a photographer/musician. As I go through my old work, and I am reminded of what it was like to play with another band that didn’t sound like our band, but inspired us nonetheless. Those people became my colleagues immediately. We traded records and ideas, and pushed each other to get better. We ripped each other off, and built on those ideas. When I read Jonah Lehrer’s work I feel that passion for ideas. It’s ironic that for someone whose stock in trade is smashing the frames that define our thinking, the greatest problem he has faced is one of framing. Mr. Lehrer is an artist working as a writer. If his work was framed as art rather than journalism then I would not be writing this piece.
We live in frames in every way. When we look around those frames, our world gets more complicated, but it also gets much richer.