How Good News Gets Lost To the 'Orphan-Crushing Machine'

A screenshot of a tweet by @pookleblinky saying: Every heartwarming human interest story in america is like "he raised $20,000 to keep 200 orphans from being crushed in the orphan-crushing machine" and then never asks why an orphan-crushing machine exists or why you'd need to pay to prevent it from being used.

The term “orphan-crushing machine” became popularized in 2020, when a tweet went viral.

“Every heartwarming human interest story in America is like ‘he raised $20,000 to keep 200 orphans from being crushed in the orphan-crushing machine’ and then never asks why an orphan-crushing machine exists or why you'd need to pay to prevent it from being used,” X (formerly Twitter) user @pookleblinky wrote.

Essentially, the “orphan-crushing machine” is a metaphor for any “heartwarming” stories you may encounter in the news that focus on how an individual or group of individuals help alleviate the immediate impacts of social injustices, while ignoring or glossing over the root causes of them.

We’ll give you a couple of examples. 

In 2018, a news story went viral, with people describing it as “heartwarming.” It celebrated teachers pooling together their sick days to give to a colleague with cancer. 

But many readers went on to critique the systems making it difficult for this teacher to have what he needed, suggesting instead that he should be able to access resources and paid time off from his employer or local government.

Perhaps you’ll recall any number of headlines about children donating their allowance to help unhoused community members.

These stories celebrate kids doing good while completely glossing over the fact that in a wealthy country like the United States, it shouldn’t be necessary for children to donate their money to ensure that community members have access to safe, affordable housing.

More recently, a story of a college football player giving his scholarship to a teammate garnered headlines. The teammate, who was donating plasma to earn money for school, tried to get a scholarship of his own, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association said it had reached its maximum annual disbursement of these funds. So, his friend surrendered his scholarship dollars instead.

While this is a kind and generous act between teammates, critics argued that people should not have to sell plasma to attend college or compete in collegiate athletics.

If you’d still like a few more ideas to get the full picture, there’s an entire Subreddit devoted to pointing out the orphan-crushing machine in action with over 150,000 members.

In fact, many have adopted a shorthand version of the phrase “orphan-crushing machine” to critique these kinds of narratives. An increasingly common phrase shared in relation to these “feel-good” stories is “peak OCM.” 

It is used as a way to communicate frustration that small wins are celebrated, rather than systems-wide progress.

The orphan-crushing machine metaphor can be helpful in communicating the issue we see in so much reporting (even in some of our own good news articles): There is only so much celebrating that can be done when systemic injustices continue to actively harm the people and communities at the heart of these stories.

For instance, when a celebrity raises millions of dollars for, say, a humanitarian crisis, that is a great act of compassion that will certainly help people in need. But it doesn’t eliminate the war or climate disaster or public health emergency that created a humanitarian crisis in the first place.

That being said, the metaphor leaves little room for nuance. 

Of course, most people want to ensure world peace, eradicate homelessness, provide equitable health care for all, or ensure people in all careers have access to paid sick leave to get the medical attention they need. 

But while people actively fight for a more just and equitable future, we all still have to exist on the continuum of where we actually are and where we want to be. 

And creating a better future cannot be done without acts of community, which often look a lot like these headlines: People doing what they can with what they have. People sharing their dollars and sick days to make someone else’s life easier.

It’s a catch-22: We can’t have systemic change without small, individual acts of generosity, and small, individual acts of generosity alone will not create systemic change.

The reality we have to reconcile, then, is that two things can be true at once. It’s time to destroy the orphan-crushing machine, but if a few kids can be saved in the process, that also reduces the harm caused by the orphan-crushing machine.

On a logistical level, this looks like embracing nuance in reporting. Reporters who share these feel-good stories have a responsibility to explain why a story is considered heartwarming — and to share relevant information to fully illustrate the barriers at hand. 

They have a responsibility to report on both short-term and long-term solutions. They have a responsibility to ask why solutions are needed in the first place.

And this doesn’t always happen. It makes sense why many people may have a disdain for good news, which can be delivered in ways that ignore nuance or barely explain the ‘why.’ 

But that doesn’t mean that all stories of hope and inspiration are feeding the orphan-crushing machine. 

Ultimately, it is possible to celebrate and rage at the same time. It is possible to find joy or relief in incremental progress while simultaneously fighting against injustice. 

In a world that so often compels us to pick only one — hope or despair — allowing both of these things to be true is a radical act of acceptance that grounds us in reality and sustains lasting change.

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Article Details

March 26, 2024 1:23 PM
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