In an age of sometimes vicious online trolling, many of us are also becoming addicted to digital displays of Schadenfreude — exhibiting online feelings of joy or pleasure when witnessing someone else experiencing misfortune, public shaming or some other kind of failure. Society would be worse off if our capacity for empathy were to be permanently reduced just because we wilfully allow social media platforms to bring out the moral worst in ourselves.

Author and journalist Rebecca Davis recently argued in a newsletter sent to Maverick Insiders that an excellent example of such lack of empathy for someone else’s misfortune is how large segments of the public responded to a renewed discussion about the case of a young reporter, Roxanne Joseph, who had lied about having cancer, as reported by the Mail & Guardian.
(“Beyond betrayal: Is redemption possible for a journalist who faked cancer?” M&G Online, September 25).

Davis argued: “What troubles me the most is the brutal lack of empathy I see in the responses to this saga.
I have been wrestling with the question of why it would be legitimate to banish empathy for the journalist at the centre of this story in favour of exclusive empathy for those duped by her lies. Yet that is effectively what is being demanded.”

I disagree, and think it is worth further exploring the key issues that the case of Joseph surfaces.

The core sets of reasons embedded in the public criticism are mentioned by Davis but underappreciated in how she then puzzles through these: one part of the public criticism focuses on the profound and multiple betrayals of trust that arose from these vicious lies by Joseph; the other focuses on society’s long-standing inconsistency in how it responds to individuals who falter in some way.

Davis nominally gets these two points but then does them an injustice with her underdescription of their gravity. Let me explain.

Firstly, if someone is capable of and is now shown to have been lying for at least nine months about having cancer, then they are also surely capable of lying about having a mental illness. This possibility sits awkwardly next to a commendable desire from many of us to respond only with empathy to someone who explains their unethical behaviour by declaring that they have a severe mental illness.

In the case at hand, it is not clear what evidence Davis and others dismayed by public criticism rely on. Or are they arriving at a clinical diagnosis on the basis of a Wikipedia entry into “factitious disorder imposed on self”? Here, ironically, Davis is rehearsing precisely part of our societal hypocrisy — our willingness to privilege some bodies as deserving of exculpation for wrongdoing with the help of modern medicine, even in the absence of known facts.

It is interesting that we accept that Joseph ruined her own reputation almost irredeemably in the sense that she cannot now be taken to be epistemically reliable (which is why she should not, argue some, be a journalist because journalism aims at truth and truthfulness) and yet, without irony, some of us want to confer on her renewed reliability and trustworthiness with no story being told about what occasioned this rehabilitation.

This is where Davis fails to appreciate the nuance in some of the public criticism. Not everyone is being callous about the very real possibility of mental illness being present in this case, but the norms of reliability and trustworthiness require evidence of old, bad habits having been abandoned and good epistemic norms having being formed, before you can again be trusted. Where is the evidence that this happened in the present case? Otherwise, credibility is being restored simply by fiat. Why? Because she looks deserving of such a move?

Let us be clear about what is going on here. Someone fakes cancer for nine months and gets justifiably roasted for such immoral behaviour but when the same person then tell us, in effect, “Trust me, I lied for months on end because I had a mental illness” we want to believe her explanation as complete? That is way too fast.

And, more importantly, we need an argument for why a commitment to empathy (which I support as morally decent) requires us to abandon rationally assessing what has changed in the actual behaviour of a liar. Empathy for a serious mental illness does not entail trusting someone without compelling reason.

We also have to self-examine who gets to have their explanations for ethical lapses accepted with alacrity. Many of us would never even be heard — let alone believed — if we dared to attempt to explain actions that were unforgiving. Davis doesn’t pause over this social injustice. She notes it, and then chooses to focus instead on the thin logical point that we can show empathy to more than one person or group simultaneously. I think we should take societal inconsistency a bit more seriously.

Would a black or brown person, if we are honest, survive this kind of scandal? Do we search for and ascribe this level of complexity to all bodies, or to some bodies only? Of course, we are inconsistent — along racial and class lines in particular —and these social facts warrant much of the public disquiet surrounding this case.

The brilliant Netflix series, When They See Us, about five black teenagers wrongly accused of assaulting and raping a white jogger, teaches many lessons about the nature and inner workings of racism in society. One of them is that black children are not granted the kind of reflexive innocence and believability that white kids are assumed to possess. Black kids are assumed to be walking young criminals who can be assumed to be guilty of minor and major misdemeanours until proven innocent.

In countless ways, as Rhodes academic Sally Matthews wrote years ago (“Inherited or earned advantage?, M&G, September 9 2011), being white confers a tissue of social and professional privileges. In that context, it borders on the glib not to seriously pause over the moral outrage from many of us that the world readily treats white bodies with a degree of complexity the rest of us are often not afforded in our lifetime.

I am reminded, too, of variations on this Joseph case. A black mom kills her children and we are not interested in complexity. She cannot be understood. She is only to be condemned. Complexity and explanation are not for those who live under conditions of poverty; not for those who are moving through the world embodied in black skin.

A white mom kills her children and the evening news gathers a panel of experts to explain the mental health pressures of looking after children with a rare, life-limiting disorder. Never mind that she was wealthy and has access to all sorts of care and treatment. She is to be understood not as mere criminal but as fully human, as capable of error of judgment, as having diminished responsibility for killing her children. A white mom cannot be endowed with a one-dimensional narrative. She is too complex to be reduced to a mere criminal. Such simplicity is reserved for the poor mom, the black mom.

So, yes, sympathy-privilege is a reality and if you have the right aesthetic or social positioning you can have multiple chances to re-enter the moral community with a clean slate.

Lastly, we should be wary of stigmatising mental illness. I get that someone can have an event or even an episode that ruins their life while they suffer from a severe mental illness. But if you lie in a sustained series of ways over a long period of time, then you would have had at least some moments of lucidity to recognise your wrongdoing. Why wait so long before coming clean?

There is kindness, and then there is whitewashing — pun intended. There are tens of thousands of people with serious mental illnesses who do not abandon their moral compass. And, at the very least, when you are busted, you should reckon with your morally odious behaviour.

There is a whole public industry of self-diagnosing unethical behaviour as emanating from illness to avoid moral skewering. Powerful men caught with their pants down do it all the time, as we know. “I have a sex addiction”, that kind of thing. Meanwhile, millions of people with mental illness diagnoses live ethically sound lives while a public narrative unfolds — if you or your connections have power — denigrating and stigmatising mental illness as a readily available explanation for illegality or immorality, to be taken off the shelf when in trouble.

We should give people second chances. And we should all learn to be kinder than we are in a time of online trolling that threatens to change our humanity for the worse, forever. To that extent, I agree with Davis and others. But we should also, at the same time, reflect on why we respond so inconsistently to individuals who fall short of community standards and what these inconsistent responses in us reveal about our individual selves and the forms of privilege we are blind to.