Conflating criticism, creators, and content: Shouting at and shouting about are not the same thing
Critical thinking is necessary. It is an essential part of the evolution of who we are as a species. Thinking about and deconstructing the things we love, hate, or see every day. The way we are messaged to and the way we receive those messages is absolutely important.
Media content in all forms is subject to criticism. Advertising, journalism, entertainment and even criticism of criticism itself, all play a role in the process of cultural growth. Political criticism is in full swing in the US right now.Yet we rarely think about how our criticism is presented. There is an awful lot of shouting on the internet, and it seems as though some people have confused shouting about something with shouting at someone. There is a difference. It is a vitally important difference. Sometimes we shout about things, because they’re either so egregious that we exclaim without thinking, or we shout because we need to bring things to people’s attention.
Criticism requires both clarity of thought in articulating our own response to something, and the ability to look at something as separate from our response. The act of being an observed changes the thing being observed, to fall back on scientific principles. To step back and look at something away from our visceral responses is part of being able to articulate those responses, yet that is something that seems to be harder and harder for us to obtain. In the struggle for and against things, be it misogyny, economics, a desire for more and better content or policies, we are wrapped up in the idea of those things as part of ourselves. Our worldview, our self-concept, the value we place on the things we have internalized as part of our hierarchy of needs, makes perspective and distance something we sacrifice in order to be heard.
Yet that sacrifice is often a reason we may not be heard.
We can shout to each other, shout to the heavens, rage until we’re red in the face and we may do it with the best intent in the world but if the things we’re trying to say are only heard as a cacophony of bitter rhetoric: what’s the point?
Intent and context can be used as a tool for people to handwave legitimate criticism, but criticism on the internet often uses the handwaving of intent and context to excuse its own failures and flaws. As critics, cherry-picking of quotes used out of the full context of a larger statement may verge on click-baiting, even when it’s not deliberate. The chain reaction of internet rage often means that those quotes or clips that are put forth as rage-inducing, are never fully viewed in the context where their meaning is very different. “Do the research,” is not a platitude, it’s a necessity. Launching a campaign of vitriol towards an individual, be they a creator, politician, or any other person, is ethically questionable at best. The spurious use of quotes out of context is particularly questionable.
Yes, the intent of the creator means little in how it is received. We can never know if Jane Austen intended Pride and Prejudice to be a scathing satire or simpering romance, we can never know whether Orson Scott Card’s personal values and their dissonance with what he writes are deliberate or if he truly believes both things are true. Whether it’s fiction or history, we cannot know what the real truth is about anyone’s actions or the thinking behind what they write. Even private letters are insufficient when judging history. Our own interpretation must suffice, and that is often a changing thing as we grow and expand our own worldview. So what do we do? Do we avoid confrontation when we are disturbed by the content of the message? Do we simply keep ranting about the message?
I don’t think there are easy answers. I think it is always far more effective to question and persuade than shout, and I don’t think anyone of us is divorced enough from our own privileges and perspectives to see all of our own flaws. I think it is dangerous to frame things in such a way that we don’t acknowledge that the point of view of another person may be equally valid.
Example: There are some people who watched The Avengers and viewed Black Widow and Maria Hill as objects of misogyny on the part of writer/director Joss Whedon. I genuinely could not disagree with those people more if my life depended on it, but rather than dismiss them out of hand because I disagree with them, I will lay out all of the reasons why I disagree. I would also ask why, if we’re talking about very specific things and see them in vastly different ways, do they see them that way. I would hope they would listen as I explain my own perspective on it, as well. My hope would be that even in disagreement, two people are capable of choosing to try to understand each other more than they would choose to defend their own point of view by bullying and attacking the person they disagree with.
And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? Far too often, we invest so much in our point of view that we cannot take it when people disagree with us.
That’s not criticism, that’s generating propaganda. We’re all guilty of it on some level, but if we can’t even see it in ourselves, then we have lost the integrity we are basing our alleged criticism on.
I prefer to ask questions, because the answers to the questions we ask are far better than the answers to the ones we don’t ask because it might mean we’re wrong. Risk being wrong, risk hearing information you have to synthesize even if it makes you uncomfortable, risk realizing that your point of view is not the ONLY point of view. As the internet has made it possible for all of us to flex both our influence and garner support for a point of view at warp speed, we have a responsibility to maintain a level of integrity that we’re demanding of others. The flip-side of this, is: sometimes even when we do everything right, when we don’t become machines of pure rant, and when we do ask questions, we’re still not going to get answers. These are the risks of engaging rather than lodging ourselves inside an ivory tower astride a high horse. Sometimes, just for not agreeing with a vociferous contingent of people on a subject, we will be vilified and threatened, insulted and demeaned by people whose egos are so fragile that the very existence of someone who doesn’t think they’re right is a world-shattering event.
It’s time we all put on our big-people hats and admit that none of us are always right, none of us are always wrong, and no one person’s point of view defines that of a group of people, let alone determines that an interpretation of events is the ONE TRUE version. And we all need to ask ourselves why we’re shouting instead of talking.