Why It’s OK to Tweet About Cancer
He was referring to a pair of opinion pieces — Bill’s, in The New York Times, and Emma’s, in the Guardian — that assess the ethical dimensions of cancer. Both Kellers tell the story of a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has stage 4 breast cancer and has been tweeting and blogging her experience. (Bill learned about her from Emma; they’re married.) Both Kellers are concerned about Adams — but also, and sometimes seemingly more so, about her tweets. Bill frets about Adams’s “decision to live her cancer onstage,” Emma about her own “voyeurism” toward Adams’s cancer tweets. Call it cansplaining.
And both Kellers, ultimately, are vigilant about the moral dimensions of fighting the disease and then tweeting the fight — especially when that fight is painful and, they say, unwinnable. As the Guardian‘s piece puts it, teasingly: “The ethical questions abound. Make your own judgement.”
What exactly are those abundant ethical questions, though? And what, precisely, begs to be judged? Here, let Emma Keller elaborate: “Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience?” she asks. “Is there such a thing as TMI?”
This is a needless ontology; of course there is such a thing, and not just because an Urban Dictionary entry from 2002 says so. But the I, if we’re going to be all ’02 about it, can be TM only contingently: The excess will depend on circumstance, on audience, on the information being shared. Emma Keller, being an intelligent person, undoubtedly knows this. Emma Keller, being a frequent user of Twitter, also undoubtedly realizes that there is a nicely efficient way to quash her own anxieties about Adams’s tweets: Stop receiving them. Unfollow Adams. Mute her. Excise and/or exorcise her story. Problem, such as it is, solved.
But that would be too easy. Or, rather, that would prevent the writer from gathering the fodder required to write a properly substantiated think piece. To ignore Adams would be to foreclose the possibility of extruding her experience into pliable column material — and to reject the casual entitlement that converts lived suffering into moral questioning.
Take this line from Bill: “Her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it.”
Look how deftly this moves from Adams herself to the universal “us,” the preferred pronoun of think-piece idiom. Look how swiftly the logic sweeps from “her decision” to “our debates.” Look how hungrily it appropriates a single woman’s tweets into a matter of universal (and educational! and ethical!) concern — how voraciously Adams’s experience gets transformed into a broader, more succulent truth. “What is the appeal of watching someone trying to stay alive?” Emma Keller asks, on behalf of herself. And then, seamlessly, breathlessly, on behalf of us all: “Is this the new way of death?”
Spoiler: It is not. It is one person, dealing with things in the best way she knows how. Adams herself makes no claim to universality, or to ethical authority, or to any kind of symbolism about The Way We Live Now. It is the journalists — hungry for new insights, thirsty for new trends — who are saddling her with the freight of moral implication and then judging her for the audacity they infer. It is a remarkable trick. It is also a cruel one.
I am about anything but “heroic measures.” I am currently doing standard run of the mill therapy for metastatic breast cancer, @nytkeller
— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 13, 2014
It’s a little crass how the Kellers are live-blogging their humanity deficiency. Someone should write an op-ed about that. Maybe 2.
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) January 13, 2014
So according to @nytkeller and wife there is A) a right way to blog B) a right way to tweet and C) a right way to have cancer.
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) January 13, 2014
God forbid a person with metastatic cancer cope with it by telling people what it feels like and how the science works.
— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) January 13, 2014
Terrified I might get cancer, because what if Bill and Emma Keller yell at me.
— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) January 13, 2014
It is also — to take the Kellers’ own decisions and think about them, debate them, learn from them — a revealing one. This is the thing so many eager think-piecers get so spectacularly wrong: Twitter is not a monolith. New cultural norms will not be decided, breathlessly, under its auspices. And there will be, consequently, no single “new way” of doing things — dying or anything else — on its platform. Not yet, anyway. Microblog is micro; that limitation is its appeal. It is what gives people the sense of freedom they have to use Twitter to experiment and fool around and, yes, innovate. Weird stuff springs up. Thousands of flowers bloom. Gardens, however, are exceedingly difficult to discern.
That’s not to say that you can’t find, among all the flourishing idiosyncrasy, broad trends emerging on the site. Twitter’s API is doing this literally every second; fair-minded journalists are doing it with slightly less frequency. It is to say, though, that a single user does not a new norm make. To take an isolated use case and give it Trend status/We status/New Way Of status — and to do so, bafflingly, just because you find yourself troubled by your own twitchy sense of voyeurism — is a special kind of malfeasance. To cite the journalist Xeni Jardin’s live-tweeting of her own cancer experience as evidence of a trend, as Emma Keller did, is yet another kind. (Yes, Jardin has cancer; no, it is not terminal.)
Keller’s individual-to-aggregate transition here may fit the satirical standard (“one, two, trend“); it does not, however, fit any other kind. Instead, it takes the singular words of a singular human and uses them as a means to an end — that end being two think pieces, several page views, and one extremely questionable line of questioning.
Image: Twitter, @AdamsLisa
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This article originally published at The Atlantic