“Try your best to treat everyone with kindness,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote last week to Samer Kalaf of Deadspin, my old colleague and occasional editorial inspiration. It was part of a package of what Stephens claimed was professional and personal advice, after Kalaf had written, on two different occasions, brief rude emails to Stephens expressing his disgust with him and his work.
To put across his message about kindness and professionalism, Stephens disparaged Kalaf’s education and career and threatened him with retaliation:
[L]ife is long and full of unexpected turns. Imagine, for instance, that one day you are up for a big journalism award. Imagine, next, that someone you’ve insulted sits on the prize committee. Or suppose you apply for a dream job at a major publication, and your CV gets passed around. It’s fine to make unnecessary friends, but extremely unwise to make unnecessary enemies.
Kalaf published the whole exchange on Splinter, with my encouragement. His original emails were rude and hostile, but Stephens’ reply was newsworthy for how smarmy and juvenile it was; at one point, the Times columnist directly compared professional credentials to penis size. The whole thing was an educational spectacle, not least in how many people who shared Stephens’ worldview were eager to co-sign with him and to praise his wisdom and maturity.
Stephens wrote that he was delivering his advice from the position of “a middle-aged man with a successful career and a contented family life” who is also “a national judge of the Livingston Award and have chaired two Pulitzer juries.” (He promised, in a postscript, not to personally retaliate against Kalaf if he ever were judging him, but made no promise not to follow through on the threats to otherwise use his connections to blackball him.)
Was it even good career advice, though? The history of journalism is full of people slinging pungent abuse at one another, and coming out OK anyway. Hunter Thompson left a trail of defamatory letters everywhere he went. Tom Wolfe made his name disparaging the godlike New Yorker editor William Shawn. Nora Ephron, on her way to being universally beloved, was a savage media critic. The cruel young bomb-throwers of Spy magazine went on to become powerful institutions themselves, and quite directly.
As Stephens demonstrated, it’s almost impossible to talk about one’s own credentials without sounding like a horrid jackass. Still: I’m a middle-aged man who earns less money than Stephens to do more work than he does, and at less classy publications on average, but I’ve made a decent living so far. When I want to write something, someone will usually pay me to do it. I’ve even been an awards judge.
And off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen people or institutions I’ve criticized—often harshly in public or even more harshly in private—who’ve later gone on to hire me or give me writing assignments or offer professional help. I’ve worked closely with, and become best friends with, people who’ve previously trashed me or a publication I’ve worked for.
This is what professionalism is: doing the job, for the job’s sake, without getting bound up in pettiness or grudges. I say this, of course, as a white man, whose rudeness other white men may chalk up to bluntness or high spirits more easily than other people’s. But that just underscores what Stephens was doing when he lectured a nonwhite writer on the importance of knowing his place.
Stephens was a bit confused about why Kalaf was moved to write to him at all; another of his admonitions was, “don’t presume that people whose views you don’t like are ‘dumb.'” What Stephens didn’t understand—and visibly doesn’t understand every time he publishes a column or fires off a tweet—is that he truly is dumb: he’s a bad writer and a weak or lazy thinker. His views are also wrong, but that’s just a side effect. He doesn’t have the skills to be right about anything in a way that counts.
Showing deference to dumb, well-credentialed people is one fairly reliable career path, if you want a certain kind of career. But if you keep it up long enough, you can lose the ability to do anything else.