Are Jonah Lehrer’s sins a function of his gender or a function of a gender bias in journalism? This is, I believe, a fair of approximation of both Roxane Gay’s article in Salon today and Michelle Dean’s article in Salon from June 21. I don’t think the answer is yes. Here is Gay:
Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.
Jonah Lehrer is part of a system that allows magazines, year after to year to publish men, and white men in particular, significantly more than women or people of color. He is part of a system where the 2012 National Magazine Awards have no women nominees in several key categories. He is part of a system where white editors belabor the delusion that there simply are few women or writers of color who are good enough for their magazines because said editors are too narrow in what they want, what they read, what they think, or just too lazy to work beyond their Rolodex of writers who look and think just like them. He is part of a system that requires an organization like VIDA to do an annual count that reveals a disheartening, ongoing and pervasive practice of a certain kind of writer predominantly gaining entrance to the upper echelons of publishing. He is part of a system that exhausts itself denying these problems exist or that these problems matter.
Is there a connection between Lehrer and VIDA? Well, yes. The attitude many editors take to byline counts was captured by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait (then at the New Republic) when he told the Jewish Daily Forward that he felt the problem was that young women lacked “confidence in one’s opinions and a willingness to engage in intellectual combat.” A somewhat less self-flattering explanation was offered at an event designed for young women journalists in New York last month, where this sort of thing was referred to by its proper name: “entitlement.” The import is clear: It isn’t the editors who need to change, it’s the women. They need to pitch more, be more confident. No distinction is ever made between confidence and arrogance; in this context they have identical definitions.
Reaction one: Being well educated, confident, able to write good sentences and parse complicated science, and making other people “feel smarter for finally being able to undersand the complexities of the human mind,” all strike me as desirable qualities for a science journalist. Being attractive should be beside the point. On the other hand, how does Gay know it isn’t beside the point?
Reaction two: The byline imbalance in major magazines in favor of white men strikes me as a well documented but poorly explained phenomenon. Is it a problem? It seems reasonable to assume that it could be, although I wonder if the phenomenon would be better described as a symptom of a problem—the problem being gender bias, the symptom being gender imbalance. Does Jonah Lehrer’s case help explain why this phenomenon exists? And does it further unmask a system that elevates certain kinds of white men, presumably (although Gay doesn’t explicitly say) at the expense of women and minorities?
It could! But these kind of claims really demand theoretical or anecdotal support. At her sharpest, Gay has accused the broader magazine world of a serious bias. Having worked at the outer edges of the magazine world for several years, and having not previously considered myself biased against women or minority writers, the claim wounds me, personally. Not a great deal, because I haven’t ever been a powerful person in the world of magazines, but a bit, because that sort of bias would be morally objectionable and because, like any writer, I’m anxious to claim most of my success for myself. Nobody wants to succeed in a rigged game.
A third reaction: I’m astounded by Lehrer’s collapse, but I can’t say I’m astounded by his rise. For one thing, he’s got that facility for writing good sentences. He has been described to me, by an editor, as a writer who at times did not need to be edited. (Although I suspect it is incidental to this discussion, that editor is a woman.) If this kind of ability doesn’t get a writer to the New Yorker, what will? Or—and this is a serious question—have Lehrer’s editors been so hoodwinked by Lehrer’s overconfidence and reputation for genius that they failed to notice that he couldn’t write? Does that make any sense?
A fourth reaction: If you’re concerned with righting the gender imbalance in journalism (and, again, probably everybody should be at least uneasy at the imbalance) what are the risks involved in speaking about the imbalance as a “system” that favors men over women and minorities? To me, the world system implies intentionality. Is “culture” a more effective word? “Norms?”
Put differently, if one of my primary subjects as a writer was the byline imbalance, and I was writing about the imbalance from a normative perspective, as are both Dean and Gay, I imagine I would aim for persuasion. Gay’s article had almost the opposite effect on me: it insinuates a problem, insinuates a cause, and fails to provide even vague evidence in support of either. That leaves me wondering whether the evidence exists.