Earlier this week, Charlie Villanueva, a professional basketball player with the Detroit Pistons wrote on Twitter that Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics called him “a cancer patient.” People got upset enough, suggesting Garnett be fined, that Garnett is an irredeemable bully, and that we just shouldn’t be talking about cancer. All well and good, but on the other hand, as Tom Scocca points out, there’s the entire history of sports, much of which is worse—check out the way Michael Jordan talked to a teammate.
Garnett, for his part has basically elected not to apologize by way of offering a terse statement in which he claims he actually said, “You are cancerous to your team and our league,” which is different (?) and that “there was a major miscommunication.”
It’s not hard to see why a trash talker would call Charlie Villanueva—who is hairless because of his alopecia—a cancer. Nor is it hard to believe that Villanueva’s condition, which has been the source of bullying his whole life, would make him extra sensitive to this sort of thing. That Villanueva loves Twitter—he became the first NBA player to tweet during a game last year—made whole thing something of a perfect storm.
The incident raised the question: would Kevin Garnett say that if he had cancer? If it had killed someone close to him? Wouldn’t he realize that it’s insensitive and that the topic should only be dealt with seriously? That being mean is only okay sometimes?
Garnett anticipating those questions covered his bases in the statement: “I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment.” Regardless of whether or not you believe that’s evidence in his favor, it speaks to the sentiment that there is one way to speak of cancer—solemnly, and without any sense of irony—and that anyone who had ever known anyone with cancer would understand and agree.
Which brings us to Christopher Hitchens’ plea in Vanity Fair, as someone with esophageal cancer for an etiquette handbook written “in an attempt to cover the inevitable awkwardness in diplomatic relations between Tumortown and its neighbors.”
Hitchens has other rules: if you’re going to ask “how are you?” don’t have any expectations for an answer, be candid in addressing the topic, and nobody wants to hear you prattle on about either a horrible cancer-related death or an inspirational story along the lines of “‘My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal melanoma of the G-spot and they just about gave up on her. But she hung in there and took huge doses of chemotherapy and radiation at the same time, and the last postcard we had was from her at the top of Mount Everest.’”
Hitchens is, in his distinctive way, making the point that people with cancer are still people too, and taking offense on their behalf so you can feel some measure of self-satisfaction takes away some of the cancer patients’ dignity.