The Rise of the Viral “Feel-Good, Feel-Bad” Story

The Rise of the Viral “Feel-Good, Feel-Bad” Story August 23, 2018

I recently came upon a Think Progress article titled “The ‘feel-good’ horror of late-stage capitalism” by Jessica Goldstein. In her article, Goldstein puts her finger on something that had bothered me for some time, but which I couldn’t quite articulate.

You know those posts and articles that go viral on facebook that are sold as heartwarming stories but leave you—or me, in any case—feeling like something is off? Goldstein says she’s figured out what’s off, and I think she’s right. She calls them “feel-good feel-bad” stories.

As Goldstein explains:

Have you heard the one about this guy in California? He’s unemployed right now, and he’s currently homeless. But instead of asking people for money, he’s out there on the street handing out copies of his resume. The takeaway from this story, according to Channel 7 News: #NeverGiveUp.

How about this one, from Good Morning America: “The new trend is to give a pregnant coworker some of your own vacation time to add days to her maternity leave.”

We don’t have federally-mandated maternity leave in the United States, making us one of the only nations on the face of the Earth to deny our citizens this basic and vital thing.

But that is not the focus here.

The point is not the broken system that created the need for this collective, self-sacrificing workaround. The point is that a woman’s colleagues are so, so generous.

Goldstein offers other examples of this phenomenon as well (and I’m certain that any reader can think of many more):

The sunshiney announcement about the GoFundMe for the guy with leukemia who can’t pay for his own medical costs. (He is employed by an organization whose owner has a net worth of $5.2 billion.) The dad who works three jobs to support his family saving up to buy his 14-year-old daughter a dress for an eighth grade dance. The college student who ran 20 miles to work after his car broke down and whose boss rewarded him for this effort by giving him his own car.

Finally, for her analysis:

Do you get a sinking feeling when you read these stories? This feeling like, while of course you are impressed by the tenacity and generosity on display, you still want to vomit?

Behold, the rise of the feel-good feel-bad story.

In the feel-good feel-bad story, irrefutable proof of an institutional failure is sold as a celebration of individual triumph. And it’s the desperate, cloying attempts to trumpet the latter as a means of obscuring the former that gives these pieces their distinct, acrid aftertaste. These headlines, and the stories beneath them, attempt to distract you by shouting, “Look over here at this shiny act of kindness, bravery, and fortitude!” so that you do not turn to your left to notice and question the structures that made such kindness, bravery, and fortitude necessary in the first place.

There’s a lot more in her piece, which you can read right here. I am extremely grateful to Goldstein for her analysis, which gave me a framework and language for understanding my discomfort.

Goldstein has tapped into something important. The problem with these stories is that the challenges they show individuals solving—on an individual level, or by coming together as individuals—are systemic problems that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Furthermore, the solutions these stories tout as heartwarming leave those underlying systemic problems in place.

I remember wondering, after reading that the homeless guy who was passing out resumes got hundreds of job offers, about all the other homeless guys out there. This guy got those job offers because his story went viral, not because he passed out resumes. This isn’t something that could simply be replicated. Passing out resumes is not a workable solution for homelessness.

And yet, people were lauding it as though it were. The whole story felt sour to me, and Goldstein offered me a framework—and a label—for understanding why. It’s the feel-good feel-bad story, a story that papers over huge systemic problems in our society with solutions built on individual sacrifices that should not have to be made.

The woman whose coworkers donated their vacation days shouldn’t have had to save up all of her vacation days for after her baby was born in the first place. She should have had paid maternity leave. Her coworkers shouldn’t have had to donate their vacation days—vacation days they can now no longer take—and this solution isn’t something that will work out there across the board.

This isn’t heartwarming. It’s bullshit.

Then, only days after reading Goldstein’s article, someone posted his headline in my local mom’s group:

Superintendent Worked 90 Hour Weeks All Summer Repainting School To Save $150,000

The individual posting the story offered only one line of commentary: “We need people like this in our district!” My eyes went back to this line of commentary again and again, disbelieving. How could the individual who posted the story not see that it was deeply, profoundly sad?

The travesty is that the district was so strapped for money that its superintendent felt he needed to spend his summer repainting the school—time he should have spent making sure everything was lined up for the next school year (an administrator’s job responsibilities do not evaporate when school is out), and time he should have spent recharging his batteries for the new school year.

As the story explains:

After hearing how much it would cost to have professionals come in, [Dr. David] Harnish was concerned that the payment would get taken out of the cut needed to pay teachers and fund student supplies.

“That $150,000 would have taken away from kids, or the potential for us to take care of our staff,” he said in an interview.

So instead of jeopardizing the students and teachers at his school, he decided to roll up his sleeves and get to work himself.

School districts should receive enough funding to pay teachers, purchase school supplies, and fund basic maintenance and upkeep. Adequately funding one of these things should not mean slashing the others. This is not a heartwarming story. It’s a story of systemic failure.

And everyone was praising it, including the moms in my local moms group. Was I the only one who could see the fault lines here? Clearly not—Goldstein had. But surely others saw them, too?

I was relieved, a few days later, to stumble upon this article: “Please stop with the ‘heartwarming’ teacher stories: this is no way to treat professionals.” The author, Mitchell Robinson, began with a takedown of the story of the principal who spent 90 hours a week painting his school this summer.

But here’s the real truth: that painter-superintendent spent 90 hours a week over the summer *not* doing his real job of running the district, and then hired students for a fraction of what professional painters would have been paid—thus denying those workers an opportunity to make the money they need to support their families.

No other profession is expected to do this kind of thing. If you asked the CEO or VP of any small- to medium-sized corporation to spend 90 hours per week repainting the company’s offices, that person would laugh in your face–and explain to you that it’s not their job to paint walls; it’s their job to manage the operations of the business. And they’d be right.

Mitchell hits the nail on the head.

When an educational professional spends the summer painting a school rather than doing the job they are trained for—and hired for—they are wasting school resources. No one else is doing the job that superintendent was actually supposed to be doing—running the district—and work that was supposed to get done presumably goes undone.

The district didn’t hire the superintendent to paint schools. They hired him to run the school district. If he’s spending all summer painting the school, he’s not doing the job he was hired to do.

It is probably obvious to most people on first glance that if a CEO spent 90 hours per week for three months repainting his offices rather than running his company, important work would go undone and his shareholders would have good reason to be upset. Is it that hard to see that the same applies to a superintendent who spends 90 hours per week over the summer painting a school?

Somehow we’ve come to see school districts as so inherently undeserving of adequate funding that we have come to a point where we prefer lauding educational professionals who spend their time doing work they were not hired to do—work they probably are not qualified to do—to actually fixing the broken circumstances that pushed them into this situation in the first place.

And we all lose out.

The students at that superintendent’s school lose out when the school year starts, because the superintendent spent the time he should have spent charting the course of the district and the school year painting the school. The students whose parents are professional painters who might have otherwise been hired to paint the school lose out.

The coworkers of that pregnant woman lose out, because they no longer have the vacation days they need to rest and recharge. Other pregnant workers lose out when we come to see coworkers donating vacation days as a viable course of action and fail to vent our energies on pushing our lawmakers to create paid maternity leave (something every other developed country already has).

Feel-good feel-bad stories, to borrow Goldstein’s label, aren’t simply something we read or share or tell ourselves to make us feel better. These stories contribute to a malaise that paints systemic problems as things for individuals to fix, through pluck or drive or hard work, rather than as things society has an obligation to fix.

In other words, these stories aren’t just annoying or sappy. They’re actively harmful.

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