I’ve heard a lot of things since I became editor-in-chief of BSR a year ago: in the comments, on social media, in my own inbox. BSR is ruined and nobody wants to read it anymore. BSR’s mission for inclusive journalism is nothing but a temporary blip of political correctness.
As for me personally? I have bad judgment. I’m a liar. I’m ugly. I’m stupid. I’m immodest. I’m self-righteous. I’m a bitch. But there’s probably one negative thing I hear more than anything else: I am too sensitive.
This is actually a super-handy way of dodging new perspectives. Instead of offering a substantive opposing view, you simply wipe the offending ideas away by claiming the person who wrote them shouldn’t have had feelings. It’s like being at a restaurant where you don’t like the food, but instead of saying why it’s bad, you complain about the fact that human beings need to eat.
My life in words
BSR founding editor Dan Rottenberg has often mentioned in staff meetings that I don’t shy away from personal perspectives in my writing. But I don’t share just for the sake of it. I go through an intense period of worry and self-doubt before writing something very personal, and the thing that pushes me to publish is knowing that my perspective could help people with similar experiences.
On some days, it hurts when someone unloads that “over-sensitive” accusation. Because if you ever call abusers on their wildly disorienting, bizarrely irrelevant yet straight-to-the-heart barbs, they will spin the whole thing around and pin the pain on you for being “too sensitive,” rather than take any responsibility for their behavior. I know firsthand because I left an abusive partner after more than 12 years. And after surviving that, the first thing I know for sure, on the job or otherwise, is that no one is ever going to break me down again merely by telling me that I’m too sensitive.
You’re right, though
Being an editor isn’t just a puzzle of words and punctuation. It’s a massive repository of trust between the writer and me. My job is to bring out the writer’s story and voice with professionalism, clarity, and truth. The work goes deep, from deciding the overall editorial calendar and curating voices to teaming with writers who are developing and honing their ideas, and finally, going over the draft line by line and formatting it for publication.
Collaborating closely with fellow writers and knowing their unfiltered perspectives; realizing their minds churn in ways that are flagrantly, marvelously different than my own; sharing strong ethics and fostering mutual learning; building a bridge between writers and readers—that takes attention to detail, attunement to emotional states and intellectual bents, appreciation of differences. Go ahead and call me sensitive; I’ll be proud.
The other side of sensitivity
But the trouble with “sensitivity” is that folks often think it means you can’t also be tough. The opposite is true. If there’s anything I’ve learned as an editor, it’s that sensitivity and toughness must be combined.
I thought about this when I met an editor at a major national publication during a holiday event this year. She’s a fan of BSR, and said she appreciates how we can take a strong public stand on our values. “We have to try to keep everyone happy,” she said of her more mainstream publication, and why it couldn’t publish stuff as bold as what you regularly see at BSR.
Recognizing what needs to be said—and who should be first in line to say it—takes sensitivity. And when people who feel uncomfortable with those perspectives downplay or denigrate you or your work, when insults are public and praise is private, it takes toughness to keep going, toughness to know that the work is worth doing. A willingness to be vulnerable, a willingness to learn, a willingness to be accountable for mistakes—that’s the province of people who are both tough and sensitive, and I’m proud to call these folks (staffers, writers, readers, and supporters) partners at BSR.
And each time someone calls me or a BSR writer over-sensitive, often in response to articles or reviews dealing with racism, misogyny and gender-based harassment, or ableism, what I immediately wonder is why the person who’s complaining thinks those things aren’t upsetting.
Ten more years
As we hit the new decade—BSR celebrates its 15th anniversary this year—people (usually those with a high degree of privilege) can keep telling us that we’re too easily offended. That we’re fixated on things nobody wants to hear. That we shouldn’t be so sensitive. Bring it on in 2020, but know that BSR’s army of top-notch writers are already working on their next pieces. And an audience in the hundreds of thousands—who apparently didn’t get the memo that BSR is wrecked and unreadable—are enjoying the ride.