Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Under "Links of Interest. . . " on this blog, you'll find a poem by W. H. Auden titled "Musee des Beaux Arts." By 4 p.m. Sunday, April 18, please post a comment as to how the poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others discussed in my chapter in our text on journalism and victims of war.


Kim Dubin said...

This poem I must say is a strong one indeed. The topic of Empathy is something that humans should have for one another but many lack.
Certain parts of this poem eraly hit home relating to empathy. When in the beginning it is mentioned about human position, and that is a human should feel for another. Also another line where it says "children not wanting it to happen." Every now and then a tragic story comes out in the paper with a photo of a child who maybe just lost someone close to them. A kid has no control on what happens in life just like nonw of us really do altogether. Personally I can relate to this statement as I'm sure many of us can. The feeling when were younger of witnessing or being apart of soemthing we wish did not happen is common. The friends and family of that child who is exeriencing something at the momeny usually feel for them and are there to support them in time of need, which is empathy.

This poem was pointing out however that a lot of people turn away when seeing a crisis. Like the poem mentions, "everyone turns away." Some people want to disconnect from something that has no relevance to them. Can that person really sit on the sidelines as somehting awful happens to anothe? Yes. Most people do. Whether it is not knowing what to do in the moment, or just don't want to do it. The last line though explaining about a boy falling from the sky as a sailor calmly sails on speaks about turning their head as well. Auden really knew what had to be tlaked about in order to get peoples attention, and hit their level of awareness as to what is ethical to do in a moment of crisis. As a human being we all have the ability to feel emotion towards others, it is in us somewhere. It is just our choice if we want to open ourself to others and help the helpless when they truly need a kind gesture.

MBachmann said...

This poem reveals the horrid truth about the human culture,lack of empathy. It describes how so many people can just go on with their daily lives without bothering to think of someone dying or helping someone in trouble. At the end of the poem it talks about the fall of Icarus and how he flew too close to the sun so his wings melted and he plummeted into the ocean as a ploughman heard the splash but went on with his life, "But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone". As talked about in the text, is it so hard to find a true definition of empathy and that may be because so many people lack it, that there is not a strong definition to describe it. Visotzky states in the chapter, "It is the whole point of moral education to be able to imagine being in another's position." If this is the whole point, then what is the reason that everyone is missing this point? This concept seems so difficult for people to comprehend. One part in the text that really made an impact on me was with the journalist and the sniper. The journalist goes to a sniper nest and is asked by the sniper "which one of these civilians do you want me to shoot?" The journalist goes to leave and the sniper calls out to him "That's a pity, you could have saved one of their lives." This is just one example of how people try and avoid distressing situations. No one would want to be in the situation to choose someone's death, but on the same hand the journalist could have saved one person by doing so, but instead he walked away which is what most people would do.

Meg said...

This poem was a real eye opener in pointing out once again the lack of empathy among humans. We are always taught to have empathy and feel for others, however rarely do we actually see it happen. We have become such an individualistic society in that if whatever it is is not affecting us or people that we know personally, than we do not need to pay attention to it. Or if we do recognize something that is wrong, we try and push it out of our minds so as if to pretend that it really isn't there. Then by later we can usually forget about it. We've all been there where we see something going on that shouldn't be. Perhaps if we see someone getting abused, or pas a homeless man along the street who is looking for food. Shouldn't something be done about these situations? In reality though most of us just pass them by and continue on with our lives. Like I said, they are not directly affecting us so it's a "why should I care" kind of mentality.

The examples in the poem had everyday occurrences where people pass a crisis but doing nothing about it. People are continuing on with their everyday lives ("someone is eating or opening a window" and "the dogs go on with their doggy life") meanwhile horrible things are happening all around them whether they choose to acknowledge them or not. I thought the end of the poem was really interesting where it talked about "the boy falling out of the sky". By choosing such a drastic (although unlikely) event for the ending, it shows that no matter what kind of extraordinarily event is taking place, people (the sailor) can still urn their heads the other way because whatever they are doing or wherever they have to be is more important. I think that was a very strong ending for the poem and definitely left me with a lasting affect at how people can have such a lack of empathy.

Andrew Limbong said...

Auden's poem looks at the two sides of the same crappy coin. Whether in the normal day-to-day grind or in the abnormal happenstance of tragedy, nobody seems to care about anyone else. While Auden's poem says it's true of most people (which it is), the loss (or maybe "denial" is a better word) of empathy is especially more problematic in journalists. Taking Welcome to Sarajevo as an example, I don't know how anyone could possibly remain unempathetic to the plight of victims of war, while simultaneously reporting about it in hopes that a reader might feel the necessary empathy.

But going back to Auden's poem, it's also important to feel empathy in the everyday. It is what separates humans from being mindless dogs scratching ourselves in some dark corner.

KHutchinson said...

This poem talks about the not so unusual tendency of people to turn their backs on pain and suffering to keep from feeling empathy for others. Although, as the chapter talks about, there is no strict definition for empathy, I've always thought it was about view others situations and taking them personally. Thinking about how you would feel in that situation, and expressing something beyond compassion for others in that situation. I almost think that in this poem the animals mentioned may be metaphors for people. How we live out obliviously doggy-dog worlds and idly stand by scratching out innocent behinds of whatever tree we are standing in front of.
It talks of how it's "human possition"to turn away from things that are deserving of whatever empathy is.
Like MBachmann talked about, there is also the obvious, and stated, refference to the Fall of Icarus. How the ploughman stood by and did nothing as a small boy fell from the sky, because it didn't matter as long as his sun was still burning in his sky. It's how most people are. They forget that there are terrible things happening all around us because it's so easy not to see them if there is no direct effect on our lives.
Out of sight. Ought of mind.

JustinMcCarthy said...

Having read the chapter and the poem, I feel like "Musee des Beaux Arts" has an important message that goes along perfectly with the chapter: Horrible things happen all of the time and people regularly show little if any empathy.
As journalists, we see the worst of it. We're supposed to be the most informed and should be aware of the absolute worst things that happen to human beings. That raises our level of responsibility, at least in my opinion.
When something catastrophic such as ethnic cleansing is taking place, it would seem as though we wouldn't be taking full responsibility by simply reporting the facts. We would actually seem like we're lacking an important part of being human if that's all we did.
I can't imagine myself trying to write a "balanced" article on the Holocaust and objectively reporting Nazi justifications as to why they did what they did. As David Rieff was quoted in the chapter, "It is hard to be dispassionate about ethnic cleansing and mass murder."
Being a journalist means removing your biases-- not your empathy-- from your writing. Biases are things you are conditioned to have and don’t belong in reporting. Empathy, however, is innate and should not be considered unjournalistic.

Maxim Alter said...

In one of our previous classes, Prof. Good said something along the lines of: without empathy, there can be no ethics. Both the chapter and the poem communicate the problem of feeling empathy for others. In the poem, the author discusses the theme of apathy with which humans view individual suffering. The poem suggests that we too easily accept suffering and go on feeling almost nothing. An example given after the poem in the explanation is eating your morning breakfast while watching coverage of a serious train wreck on CNN. Too easily as a society, we turn our backs on suffering, just like the villagers go about their day, ignoring the death of Icarus. Often we are so exposed to suffering on the news or in photographs that it doesn't phase us or make us feel the empathy that we should.

The chapter discusses the fact that most journalists suppress empathetic feelings in order to keep their personal opinions or preferences out of their reporting. However, there is something questionable and morally wrong about remaining impartial or objective in the face of suffering. I agree with Justin's comment above in that empathy should not be considered unjournalistic and should be held in a separate light from biases, which journalists are required to remove from their writing. I can see where it could be extremely difficult, though, when reporting on catastrophic events.

Maxim Alter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kim Plummer said...

In the chapter “Journalism and the Victims of War,” Sandy McFarlane is quoted saying that, “Empathy is a challenge that defeats most people.” I think that’s what the poem is trying to say and the most troublesome part of trying to convey empathy through the means of traditional journalism.

In the poem, Auden is trying to say that tragedy and suffering takes place every day, all the time, when “someone else is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along.” I think the biggest problem is the mindset most people have while they’re absorbed in these tasks. It’s all about them and what they’re doing, whether they’re going after eating a meal or how they’ll be more comfortable after opening the window. People are so self-absorbed that it’s hard for them to step outside of themselves to feel compassion for other people, and what the chapter refers to as “conventional journalism” only perpetuates this distance between potential helpers and the suffering.

Empathy is such a battle because it involves an effort and willingness to step outside of yourself, your world and your “problems.” Sympathy is easy. I can feel bad for you, I can add a dollar to my purchase towards relief efforts for victims of disasters, but still, all that is still a little selfish, you do it to make yourself feel better, so you’re not the person who couldn’t lend a dollar to the needy. But, empathy…empathy can’t be bought, like you quote in the chapter, “it’s the cognitive act of adopting another’s perspective.”

The poem describes how everyone turns away “quite leisurely from disaster.” When describing Icarus’ plight, even those most able to help, the boat on the sea, had “somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” after Icarus fell from the sky and into the very ocean they were sailing in. I think this describes perfectly the dilemma of journalists covering disaster. Traditional journalism says that they are not they’re to help, but to report, like Michael Nicholson originally believed.

In a slightly different interpretation of the very same lines, the poem describes, whether or not intended, how television audiences and readers react to how traditional news is reported. The audience is the “expensive delicate ship” on the sea who watches something amazing, “a boy falling out of the sky,” or whatever tragedy is being covered, but nevertheless the audience always has somewhere else to go at the end of the broadcast and they sail on, seemingly unaffected by the vicious disaster others suffer through.

Alana Davis said...

I think this poem very nicely depicts the rising lack of empathy is our society. Using the allegory of Icarus falling from the sky, Auden illustrates how life just goes on for many people even though they acknowledge the bad situation.

The beginning of the poem, for me, tells about the ancient understanding of empathy developed by the old philosophers. We all know we should be empathetic, but we rarely actually achieve it. I don't think Auden simply mean't just children "skating on a pond" when he wrote that line, but in a sense we all behave as children in this case. We don't like to be bothered with others problems to the point of actually emphasizing with them. Just as in the chapter on victims of war, we like to watch from a distance and gush what a terrible situation it must be, but oh look, "an untidy spot," as Auden sardonically suggests.

Auden then goes on to illustrate how the dogs go on with their lives, the horse scratches its behind leisurely, and the plowman turns away from Icarus, despite his terrible fate. In the chapter on empathy and victims of war, we all are aware we have to glance at what is happening, but once that glance is over, so is our immediate interest in the situation. We become irreversibly conditioned to these hardships and the images that go along with them.

I love how Auden worked in the eerie juxtaposition of the ploughman hearing the cry and splash of the water and immediately after the words "The sun shone." For us, the ones not having to deal with war, disease, or famine, we can both see the suffering, yet always have that security in knowing "oh well, not happening to me." The pain of those suffering war is being exploited by us simply for entertainment.

The ending works nicely in that this is not an issue that can be resolved any time soon. "The expensive delicate ship that might have seen something amazing, a boy falling from the sky; had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." The delicate ship could mean the observers who do not wish to interfere, just watch. And sadly, a majority of the time, that is all we do when it comes to the horrifying stories and images that go along with war. Both Auden's poem along with the chapter on victims of war really makes me wish we understood empathy as an actual emotion.

LImpagliazzo said...

This poem talks about 2 different sides of living. Living without a care and living through tragedy. It speaks about living without feeling any empathy and not even noticing all the tragedy in the world (I wish it could be that easy).

The chapter in the book, "Welcome to Sarajevo", i don't understand how journalist just don't feel anything when they cover war or tragedy. We spoke about this earlier in the semester with the earthquake in Haiti. Whether it is a journalists job to help or just ignore and do their job and report. In the sight of war, you are really unable to help, but i couldn't imagine not feeling empathy for the victim's or for the people fighting. It is important to feel empathic toward others.

Samantha said...

This poem brings up an issue that is very prevalent in our culture, a lack of empathy. People are aware of crises happening everyday but are too caught up in themselves to think to do anything about it. Like the poem says, the people on the ship saw the man drowning in the water, but they had somewhere to be so they could not stop to help him. This poem makes me think of the bystander effect, the phenomena that occurs when someone sees someone else in trouble but will not do anything to help because they expect someone else to do it. This is problematic when everyone is assuming that someone else will take care of the problem, because then no one takes action. In fact, according to the bystander effect, if you are stranded on the side of the road you are more likely to get help when there are less people on the road than if it is a busy highway. I think as journalists we have to be the ones who pull over and help someone on the side of the highway.

Showing empathy does not necessarily mean a loss of objectivity, even if the reporter is trying to help a certain group, the facts can still get reported, but the group can also benefit from the coverage. When thinking about the big picture it may seem unethical to help in a crisis situation because you will be changing the outcome of the story and as journalists we are supposed to stay neutral and objective. However, I don't see how anyone could stand idly by while people are suffering in front of them and they have the ability to help. Being a reporter does not excuse anyone from our responsibility to help those in trouble, whether it is by bringing light to an issue or physically helping someone in trouble. As journalists and human beings we should show empathy and use our ability to reach the public to help others, not just to report happenings.

Chelsea LaDue said...

This poem is about Icarus dying and people just walking by and turning away. They go on with their days unaffected. They act like it is not a big deal, even when something is as amazing as a "boy falling out of the sky" they just sail on. The poem is about the lack of empathy people have for one another.

In every day life, if something doesn't happen to you, you don't usually have feelings about it. I personally think it is very rare to feel true empathy for someone. You can feel bad for someone, but to really feel someone else's pain is rare. Take Haiti for instance; people felt bad for them, which is why so many people donated money to help them restore their country, but not even a month later it was out of the news. Nobody cared enough anymore to make it a big story. They didn't ever feel empathetic, they felt obligated to donate because they would look unempathetic if they didn't.

When it comes to journalists, I agree with Justin when he said empathy and biases should not be held in the same category. Someone can write an unbiased story while still feeling empathic for the subject. I think empathy drives some stories, and can make a story great as opposed to just good.

Lindsey said...

The Poem called “Musee des Beaux Arts” written by W.H. Auden was a story about Icarus, who was burning because he flew too close to the sun and died, while people basically ignored it. The villagers were oblivious to the fact someone was in desperate need of help. They didn’t have any empathy to stop and help, and just went along with their day like nothing had happened.

I agree with Chelsea on the issue that it’s rare for people to actually have true empathy for others. As mentioned in class, everyone felt bad for the people in Haiti, but many people just sat back and did nothing. You don’t actually feel empathy unless the same situation happened to you. People would rather hear about the Tiger Woods scandal, then what’s happening in Haiti. It seems like one a news story can only be so popular for a limited time. It’s sad that this is true.

The chapter says that the majority of journalists don’t show empathy when covering stories because they can’t give their personal preferences or opinions. It’s crazy how they can’t have empathy though. If someone was covering a war story and saw innocent people dying, how could you not feel empathy? It’s hard for journalists to keep to themselves when covering a news story.

DevonP said...

This poem addresses issues that are very relevant today in our voyeuristic society. The poem details a humans awareness of a tragedy occurring with another human, yet they go on with their life, indifferent to the tragedy. A more relevant example of this, is in the new movie "Kickass." A teen, dressed as a super hero, is fighting three muggers who are beating someone up outside of a restaurant. The super hero runs inside and pleads for someone to call 9-1-1. Instead, all of the people inside walk up to the window and record the super hero fighting the muggers because it is "awesome." 9-1-1 was never called. In the last chapter of our textbook, Michael Nicholson goes against the journalism norm by aiding the victims in Sarajevo however he can. I can only imagine the horrors that happen in war ridden countries, and can imagine it has to be very tough to not feel any compassion for the people being killed. The chapter says that many journalists break the pre-tenses of neutrality because of this factor. The problem then is when the public sees and reads these stories back home. Will they feel empathy for the victims, or will this news just over stimulate their brains, and it will not produce any empathy from the viewers, because they have seen it so many times before. W.H. Audens poem addresses first hand witnessing of another persons tragedy, however in our information filled world today, we witness tragedies from our newspapers and t.v. screens. Yet for the most part we react the same.

Sarah Boalt said...

The poem talks about the need for empathy in our lives. There could be a day where everything is normal and fine, but there could also be a day where there is tremendous tragedy. The chapter talks about the need for empathy in reporting. Many journalists seem to barely empathize at all with some situations because they don't want to become too opinionated or even just see what's going on as a great story. However, it is very important for a journalist to be able to empathize with a situation so they can really understand what is going on and report it properly. A reporter should always take into account how who they are doing the story on feels and not just writing a cold, heartless story for the sake of news. The line "children not wanting it to happen" says this perfectly because people don't want what ever happened, so the reporter needs to take that into account, especially with children. It says a lot about the kind of discretion the journalist should have in dealing with tragedy. Empathy can be an extremely powerful tool for a journalist.

Julia said...

The poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden relates to the chapter because they both depict people who see something horrific happening and do nothing to help. As journalists, are they supposed to do something? Or does that blur the lines of objectivity? It may, but still I do not think that it a good enough reason not to help. I could never be a war correspondent in the first place, so I must give these people who plant themselves into hell on earth credit. But if their presence there and the events they document have no effect on the people back safe at home, then what is the point? People weren't always so apathetic. The footage from Vietnam opened peoples eyes to the horrors of war and helped end it; when people saw what was really going on, they didn't want any part in it and protest upon protest ensued. Since then, the American people have become desensitized to images of disasters. Images of other people's pain and suffering are the norm, that is why these images no longer stir people to action. The people have lost their empathy. In the journalists role, is being empathetic to someone else's pain really a weakness? This question is crazy to me. How, as a human being, could this be a bad thing? Journalism is fine and dandy, but if you have a chance to save another human life and don't because you want to remain objective, well then you may be a good journalist, but are you a good human? The ploughman and the sailors on the ship do not help Icarus. Their self-absorption and apathy prevent them from doing the right thing.

Anonymous said...

This poem was really powerful and very effectively shows how people see tragedy everyday and often turn their backs on it and feel no empathy for the victims.It is a sad human truth that we often turn our backs on pain and suffering to avoid getting involved in those situations. This poem also relates to peoples tendency to feel empathy for people who are victims of tragedy, but do not do much to help them in their situations. In the poem it says "Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,but for him it was not an important failure" which shows that even though people are witnessing disaster everyday, they feel little to no empathy for the victims and can easily continue on with their daily lives.
This poem and the chapter go together perfectly because they are both talking about how people can witness tragedy almost daily and feel little to no empathy. It is hard to imagine that the journalists can hide their feelings of empathy when they are reporting on war and disaster. The journalists claim they do not want their opinion reflected in their articles so they try to block out their feelings of empathy, but if they do not feel anything for the people they are reporting about it almost feels like they are exploiting the people involved in these tragedies. It almost seems like journalists are there reporting on these stories for people in other areas in the world to read about over their morning coffee or watch on the news to feel bad for a little while, and then move on with the rest of their day.

Victoria said...

Upon first reading W.H. Auden's poem it exposes the truth that empathy is no longer in our human nature. Empathy goes farther than sympathy in that one actually feels how another feels, instead of just pitying them. The poem depicts how people can easily turn away from others misfortune and ignore it.
The line "the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone." This line speaks the loudest, and shows how people are rarely empathetic, especially when them themselves are not involved in the situation, and have no hardships in their lives.
Looking closer at the poem it makes me think about how people tend to fake empathy for disasters, but don't even give the same courtesy for something more trivial. Faking empathy, to me is when someone pities someone for their misfortune, until they find some new disaster to pity those involved.
The chapter in the textbook discusses how journalists are advised to hide their empathy for the people involved in the tragedies they are reporting. I believe that when journalists mask their empathy and true feelings for the unfortunate, their audience might take the wrong message and do the same. This is causing a death of empathy in our culture.

pspengeman said...

This chapter in the book clarifies a justified outlook on that ongoing mishaps the media has been committing for decades. But as the poem and chapter suggest, becoming hopeless is the worse thing one can do, and hopefully one day the bystanders will notice the "Icarus" in society that is plummeting to his death.

I think the line "...even dreadful martyrdom must run its course." It explains that the unjust methods of media today, in a roundabout way, are necessary; we cannot expect a empathy-less society to realize the important news stories or world issues. But constant attempts and consistency on relaying meaningful information is the best good journalists can do.

The last line of the poem, however, best sums up the main point of the chapter, and the world's biggest issue with empathy. It states, "the expensive delicate ship that must have seen /Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, /had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on by." Before we can become concerned with society's inability to be attentive to meaningful issues, we must realize why people aren't sympathizing accordingly. Like the boat that sailed on by, many of our lives are busy and disconnected to monumental wrongdoings in other places in the world, and we unfortunately don't have the emotional capacity to give attention to every single cause.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates

The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.

Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.