Thursday, September 19, 2013

Etheridge Says Angelina Isn’t ‘Brave’: The Etiquette of Passing Judgment

Melissa Etheridge stands by her belief that fellow celebrity mastectomy memoirist Angelina Jolie is not "brave" but "fearful." Better breast cancer prevention techniques, the folk singer argued, involve "nutrition and stress levels" and "acidity." The imbroglio has become a study in the rules of engagement for public call-outs. They explain why Melissa felt comfortable cricizing Angelina — and where the folk singer went wrong.

Rule No. 1: First-Person Experience Is a Trump Card

We are more willing to accept criticism when it comes from someone with authority on the issue. When the issue is a personal story, a critic may establish authority with her own personal narrative. Etheridge's discussion of Angelina began when the Washington Blade invoked the folk singer's public battle with breast cancer in an interview:

Ours is a culture that worships the personal. That's why Angie's mastectomy op-ed got so much attention in the first place, and also why the only high-profile person who felt comfortable criticizing her was another woman with a personal story.

Rule No. 2: Having a Higher Purpose Helps

Criticism risks coming across as catty ("passing judgment") if it does not serve a higher purpose. Etheridge's higher purpose is the same as Angelina's: preventing cancer in women. She just disagrees with Angelina's methods:

Unfortunately, that statement runs afoul of the next rule.

Rule No. 3: With Righteousness Comes Responsibility

To criticize is to open oneself up for criticism. If you are found to be hypocritical, ignorant, or otherwise compromised, your criticism will be invalidated. During the initial excitement over Angelina's "bravery," many criticized that characterization. Some pointed out how normal breast cancer is. "What of the women like me who do not have insurance or enough money to take the brave actions Angelina took?" a columnist on Michael Moore's website wrote. "Are we less brave?" They made arguments about public health, social expectations, the plight of the average woman.

Etheridge, however, chose the path of least relevance: confusing, dubious advice about "acidity" and "stress levels." The American Institute for Cancer Research characterizes the belief that acidic foods cause cancer as a "myth." The National Cancer Institute says stress alone does not cause cancer. By disseminating dubious information, Etheridge undermines her higher purpose. Medical experts are lining up to debunk her: "We wouldn't criticize someone for wearing a seatbelt to reduce the risk of dying in an accident, so I'm not sure why we would criticize someone for having a mastectomy when we know it cuts their risk of getting cancer," the director of Mt. Sinai's Breast Health Resource Center notes.

Rule No. 4: Social Proximity Is a Double-Edged Sword

Brad Pitt, who called Angelina "absolutely heroic," avoided discussing Etheridge's comment, but noted, "Melissa's an old friend of mind. I'm sure we'll talk on the phone. I don't know what it is." But does the social proximity mean Etheridge's comment is a disagreement between friends or a stab in the back? Us Weekly notes that, in 2000, Etheridge performed at Pitt's wedding to Jennifer Aniston.

Rule No. 5: When All Else Fails, Revert to the Personal

Luckily, a media ecosystem that revolves around interpersonal conflict will also provide many opportunities for a public figure to clarify her statements. Etheridge issued a follow-up statement last night: "I don't have any opinion of what she 'should have' done. All are free to choose. I only objected to the term 'brave' describing it." And so the judgment comes full circle, returning to the personal.

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