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Jan 23 / King Kaufman

15 editors and no one saw it: How the Dr. V mess is about diversity

I believe that the story of Grantland’s publication of the “Dr. V” piece, which we discussed here yesterday, is, at heart, a story about diversity. Or the lack of it.

Diversity is often portrayed as an end, a goal. It’s not. It’s a means. It’s a way for organizations and individuals to be better at doing their jobs.

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, tweeted about that in response to Grantland chief Bill Simmons’ “Letter From the Editor,” in which he mentions that as many as 15 top editors read Caleb Hannan’s story about Dr. V without thinking to consult anyone with knowledge of transgender issues.

“Diversity isn’t just feel good—or even to give more opportunity to [the] historically marginalized,” Tufekci tweeted. “Diversity brings diversity of experience and perspectives. And that makes for better products & processes. Stuff you miss, otherwise.”

If you’re a writer or editor, or you want to be one, you should never find yourself saying what Simmons writes in his letter, which serves as both an apology and an explanation for the Dr. V story: “We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough.”

We just didn’t see the other side! Could there be a sentence that better describes journalistic failure?

It’s OK to be ignorant about a given issue. Nobody knows everything. But not realizing your ignorance, not having it occur to you that there’s something you don’t know and need to learn about: There’s no excuse for that.

No matter who you are, if you work and socialize with diverse enough crowds, you will live through some “You know, that’s offensive to me” moments—not always stated in such civil terms! Once that happens a few times, you begin to have a kind of sensor. You won’t always know the right thing to do or say or how to think about members of a certain culture or community. But you’ll know when you don’t know. You’ll know when you need to get some guidance.

That’s what diversity accomplishes. It’s not just about cutting people a break, and it’s not something to dismiss as “political correctness.” That’s a phrase uttered by people who have run out of arguments anyway. As I wrote a few years ago and still believe, politically correct is what people call you if they don’t like it when you ask them to respect other people.

So how does an individual achieve diversity? Even if you work in a group, you might not have any control over who else is in that group, and many writers work in isolation anyway. It’s not always possible to work or even socialize with “diverse enough crowds.”

But we do have the internet.

If there are people who identify as a culture or community, for whatever reason, there are places where they talk to each other online. Often, they discuss how they are treated in the media, what they find offensive, how they want to be talked to and about.

One example that would have been relevant for the Dr. V story: GLAAD’s Transgender Glossary of Terms.

Go find those communities. Listen to them when they talk in public forums. Engage with them if you’re welcomed to do so. Learn a little bit about the kinds of things that concern them. We’re all members of several cultures or communities and we know plenty about them. It’s part of a writer’s job to know about more than just your own.

You don’t have to become an expert on every culture, or even any culture—until you’re writing about it. But a funny thing happens when you learn a little bit. You learn how to learn. You learn what you don’t know.

I believe that once you’ve done that a few times—once you’ve come across the idea that, say, the word “midget” is actively offensive to people who prefer to be called little people, or that deaf people who don’t use spoken language find the word “mute” insulting and inaccurate—you start to develop that sensor, and it becomes a lot less likely that you’ll have to write what Simmons did: “We just didn’t see the other side.”

* * *

A note on my two examples at the end. The word “midget” represented something like a Grantland-Dr. V moment for me, many years ago. I used it, having heard it all my life and never having imagined it might be offensive to someone. I was called on it by a reader, and it taught me that there could be such things, insults that I had no idea about but blundered into. Why would I ever want to do that?

And here’s that lesson in practice. I know that “mute” is an offensive term, but I was having trouble with that sentence. I couldn’t figure out a way to describe the people in question without being either insulting or hopelessly wordy and awkward. So I texted a friend who is not deaf but is an ASL teacher familiar with Deaf culture, who gave me the phrase “spoken language.”

She also taught me about Deaf culture, with a big D. This took about five minutes, and it was nice to text with my friend.