Melissa Etheridge stands by her belief that fellow celebrity mastectomy memoirist Angelina Jolie is not “brave” but “fearful.” Better breast cancer prevention techniques, the folk singer argued, involve “nutrition and stress levels” and “acidity.” The imbroglio has become a study in the rules of engagement for public call-outs. They explain why Melissa felt comfortable cricizing Angelina — and where the folk singer went wrong.
Rule No. 1: First-Person Experience Is a Trump Card
We are more willing to accept criticism when it comes from someone with authority on the issue. When the issue is a personal story, a critic may establish authority with her own personal narrative. Etheridge’s discussion of Angelina began when the Washington Blade invoked the folk singer’s public battle with breast cancer in an interview:
BLADE: As a breast cancer survivor yourself, what did you think of Angelina Jolie’s announcement?
ETHERIDGE: I wouldn’t call it the brave choice. I actually think it’s the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer.
Ours is a culture that worships the personal. That’s why Angie’s mastectomy op-ed got so much attention in the first place, and also why the only high-profile person who felt comfortable criticizing her was another woman with a personal story.
Rule No. 2: Having a Higher Purpose Helps
Criticism risks coming across as catty (“passing judgment”) if it does not serve a higher purpose. Etheridge’s higher purpose is the same as Angelina’s: preventing cancer in women. She just disagrees with Angelina’s methods:
My belief is that cancer comes from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body. It’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not. Plenty of people have the gene mutation and everything but it never comes to cancer so I would say to anybody faced with that, that choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do and to really consider the advancements we’ve made in things like nutrition and stress levels. I’ve been cancer free for nine years now and looking back, I completely understand why I got cancer. There was so much acidity in everything. I really encourage people to go a lot longer and further before coming to that conclusion.
Unfortunately, that statement runs afoul of the next rule.
Rule No. 3: With Righteousness Comes Responsibility
To criticize is to open oneself up for criticism. If you are found to be hypocritical, ignorant, or otherwise compromised, your criticism will be invalidated. During the initial excitement over Angelina’s “bravery,” many criticized that characterization. Some pointed out how normal breast cancer is. “What of the women like me who do not have insurance or enough money to take the brave actions Angelina took?” a columnist on Michael Moore’s website wrote. “Are we less brave?” They made arguments about public health, social expectations, the plight of the average woman.
Etheridge, however, chose the path of least relevance: confusing, dubious advice about “acidity” and “stress levels.” The American Institute for Cancer Research characterizes the belief that acidic foods cause cancer as a “myth.” The National Cancer Institute says stress alone does not cause cancer. By disseminating dubious information, Etheridge undermines her higher purpose. Medical experts are lining up to debunk her: “We wouldn’t criticize someone for wearing a seatbelt to reduce the risk of dying in an accident, so I’m not sure why we would criticize someone for having a mastectomy when we know it cuts their risk of getting cancer,” the director of Mt. Sinai’s Breast Health Resource Center notes.
Rule No. 4: Social Proximity Is a Double-Edged Sword
Brad Pitt, who called Angelina “absolutely heroic,” avoided discussing Etheridge’s comment, but noted, “Melissa’s an old friend of mind. I’m sure we’ll talk on the phone. I don’t know what it is.” But does the social proximity mean Etheridge’s comment is a disagreement between friends or a stab in the back? Us Weekly notes that, in 2000, Etheridge performed at Pitt’s wedding to Jennifer Aniston.
Rule No. 5: When All Else Fails, Revert to the Personal
Luckily, a media ecosystem that revolves around interpersonal conflict will also provide many opportunities for a public figure to clarify her statements. Etheridge issued a follow-up statement last night: “I don’t have any opinion of what she ‘should have’ done. All are free to choose. I only objected to the term ‘brave’ describing it.” And so the judgment comes full circle, returning to the personal.