Why I Hate Vidal Chastinet, Nadia Lopez, and Humans of New York

Well, let me clarify. I obviously don’t hate a hardworking, fiercely dedicated Brooklyn principal rescued from burnout and the beautiful young man she’s helping to educate, if not save altogether. (More on Mott Hall Bridges Academy here.) But here’s the thing I do hate.

We’ll give over a $1,000,000 to a struggling public school, but we won’t give a thought as to why we needed Humans of New York to bring its plight to life for us. 

We’ll send a deserving young man to the White House, but we won’t send our selves to the polls to elect the politicians there.

We’ll make the story of a single poor individual in school go viral, but we’ll make the fact that a majority of the students in public schools right now are in poverty A13 in the New York Times. 

Why do we do this? Because we want the story more than we want the facts. We want the story more than we want the hard work of understanding the story.

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Don’t get me wrong. As a storyteller and English teacher, I deeply understand the need both for kindness and for stories. I applaud Humans of New York in particular for telling stories that aim to be as pure as they can get. Brandon Stanton gives us a picture, the words of the person in the picture, and that’s it. That’s well done. And the need for kindness? Well, kindness saves marriages, builds personal resources, and may propagate our species. That we need kindness is incontestable.

But when we fail to place these kindnesses, these stories, within the political and socioeconomic context in which they exist, we fail them. We fail to understand the conditions which caused them to be necessary. We fail to examine how they can be, not replicated, but made relevant. We fail through our decreasing civic engagement, our entertainment-media machine, and, ironically, through tolerating the policies which make it all but impossible for anyone but the privileged to have the free time to even think about our governance, much less research it.

And so we fail ourselves.

We do not need kindness in a vacuum. We do not need Humans of New York, branded Target compassion, or Sterling Heights Suburban Ford to distract us from the larger issues at hand. We do not need yet another version of the pervasive American myth that rugged individualism is our saving grace, that one lone wolf act of kindness is enough.

We– Vidal Chastinet, Nadia Lopez, and all the humans– deserve better than that.

 

9 thoughts on “Why I Hate Vidal Chastinet, Nadia Lopez, and Humans of New York

  1. Why I hate the title of your commentary article~ Because you want to create a little sensationalism and a ploy to get people to read your article, you state you hate a young man, his principal, and the blog/website that started the story gone round the world. Hypocritical of you then to say the sensationalism of the HONY story is what you don’t like, that you in fact do not hate Vidal, Ms. Lopez, or HONY, but obviously said so in the title to get clicks. Why do you claim it’s offensive that HONY spotlighting a need a tough neighborhood has for education by creating a story, and yet you use sensational tactics which you immediately try to neutralize with “let me clarify. I obviously don’t hate a hardworking, fiercely dedicated Brooklyn principal rescued from burnout and the beautiful young man she’s helping to educate, if not save altogether.” I choose to disagree with your points. Yes, there needs to be less apathy, but having a moving story can stir people out of their disinterest in voting or lack of involvement. That should be what the focus is. Inspiring people, not bitching about how an inspiring movement isn’t doing enough, isn’t doing what you think should be done. What the hell have you done that’s achieved as much? But, you want clicks, so you found a different angle from which to write your article, and without much sincerity at that.

  2. Hello Barb. Thanks for your comment.

    A digital colleague shared the post with the caveat, “She doesn’t really hate them…” and I laughed, responding, “I’m experimenting with clickbait.” I’m grateful for your take on what was a massive experiment for me (if you’ll look at the rest of the blog, you’ll see that clickbait titles are not really my M.O.) It brings up a very important question: When is clickbait a violation of the implicit contract of trust between the reader, the subject, and the writer? I’ve already got wheels spinning about that for a next post.

    So yes, getting people to respond was certainly in my head when I chose the title. But more importantly, I wanted a title that struck home to the deep ambivalance I felt about the existence and viral nature of those stories of kindness. Is that motivation pure enough to invoke clickbait with a clear conscience? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m feeling that quickening of mind and heart that lets me know I’m in that uncomfortable space of real learning. I have not decided yet, and I will certainly let you know.

    As to your other points:

    that I am critical of the sensationalism of HONY while using sensationalist tactics— I can certainly see where that would be a problem, if in fact that’s what I said. But I feel pretty confident that it isn’t. In the rest of the post I am super clear about how much I respect HONY and how much we need inspiring stories.

    The point isn’t that HONY is somehow wrong for publicizing a story that got a million clicks and raised tons of money for a school. I think that’s awesome. I also think it is not enough– not for HONY specifically, but for the entire interlocked social situation of our education, governance and media. I worry about how our current social and new media allows me to disengage from the hard work of systemic change while patting myself on the back at the same time. I’ve done it many, many times.

    that stories can shake people out of their ‘lack of involvement’— yes, yes, and yes. Absolutely agreed. I wish I had more evidence that this was globally true. The jury is out right now as to whether social media engagement decreases or increases civic engagement; at the moment, it seems all it does is increase the information divide.

    So as it stands, I perceive a world right now in which I am far more willing to click on a post than go to a BOE meeting.

    That needs to change.

    Again, thanks for your comment.

  3. I would hope that bringing this story to light makes us more aware that it *is* one story that represents a multitude.

    It also gives me hope that when people, everyday people have their attention directed to a place where they can help, where they can make a difference, their response is immediate, and enormous.

    We are starting to see how bringing these stories to light elicits a response from regular people. We are starting to see how just regular little individuals can attract attention to causes that mean something. The more we learn how to channel this energy toward positive things, the less we will have to worry about what ‘the gov’ decides to fund. Powerful stuff.

  4. In Detroit, there was recently a heart-touching story about a man who walks 21 miles a day to work at a $10.50/hr job. Quickly, there was a crowd-funded movement to buy the man a car. Then an auto dealer gave him a car–and he got to keep the $300K that was raised. Everyone feels good. Except…

    there’s still no mass transit running from Detroit to the suburbs where the auto industry moved, decades ago, as they extracted resources from a once-proud working class city. And no affordable housing in the chi-chi suburb where the man works. And the gas and maintenance on the automobile will eat up the man’s $300K windfall.

    That what you were going for? I thought this was a great piece, BTW, clickbait headline and all.

  5. gas and maintenance will eat up the $300,000 windfall?
    Really? On what planet?
    300K buys 15 new automobiles where I’m from…
    The story in Detroit shows that many people have big hearts… And little time… They might not know all the stories that are happening, because they mostly work hard, raise families, and are trying to get by… But many people are willing to help someone in a tough situation… You can try to flip the story however you like, but it’s a feel good story for most folks. Man in need… People pour in help… Man gets help. It’s not fair that there are 1000s of others in tough spots that didn’t get the publicity. But let’s just say this was a GOOD story. It’s ok for good things to happen and for that to be celebrated without the typical “yes, but did you see this” where awful things are happening.

  6. Thanks for your comment. CStag.

    I don’t think we’re in disagreement here, although we might have a debate on how much money it takes to keep an automobile up. 🙂

    http://consumerreports.org/cro/2012/12/what-that-car-really-costs-to-own/index.htm

    More importantly, If you’ll check out the link closer to the end of the post, you’ll see that I’m deeply aware that goodhearted working folks in particular don’t have a lot of time to spare for civics. (Of course, we have no data on whether those donations actually came from goodhearted working folks with not a lot of time to spare, but let’s say they do.) In addition to celebrating HONY, which I do, I count that lack of time among the central problems I ought to be thinking about.

  7. I tend to agree with Barb that the clickbait experiment is unpalatable. I wouldn’t have clicked if I hadn’t seen it shared with the preface “The story underneath the story.”

    While I agree with you that stories of kindness often don’t lead us far enough, I don’t think they distract us either. We all have our own talents, and some people’s role is to bring individuals’ stories to others at a personal level, where kindness comes naturally. If this is not enough, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, that it’s a distraction. No, it just means there needs to be someone else, with a different talent, adding to the picture at a delving-deeper level. That could be you, with this article, except for the fact that it’s an opinion rather than a story itself, and the tone of it comes across as judgmental rather than inspiring or empowering.

    Knowing that stories DO work, that art is a powerful medium, that personal levels affect us more strongly than the depiction of the broader social context, that it’s not enough to inform, one has to inspire, it would be worth exploring how someone like you or I CAN create powerful stories that take the audience all the way to where action will have a broader social impact.

    (Perhaps it’s an idea for a theme for me to put on the art-and-ethics.com website…)

  8. I do apologize, Marian– I thought I had approved this via email several days ago but it appears not to have gone through.

    I came across this just this morning, which makes a point related to the ones you and I raise:

    http://aeon.co/magazine/culture/has-247-news-left-us-hungry-for-true-stories/

    It’s hard to see where HONY fits into the 24/7 news ethos. Is it “the quick fix” the author criticizes? Or is it “the real story” we crave? Seems to me my post makes the former argument, whereas disagreeing comments make the latter.

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