Destructive Criticism, or how not to argue your position

This is a post inspired by a slew of recent articles, including discussions of the language used in Batman: Arkham City; critical reviews of a popular game; coverage of a questionable choice of song at Blizzcon; and reports of being treated differently as a journalist because of your sex. A very many of the latter, in fact. Only, it’s not so much inspired by the articles as the responses they’ve garnered.

Responses are important. Arguments demand counter-arguments, and direct comments allow for immediate challenges to be made – challenges which can be important and useful. Unfortunately, the useful, considered arguments that could help develop a dialog are regularly drowned out by the cacophony of mindless prattle that fills comment threads, prattle which serves no purpose beyond boosting the ego of the petty people behind them, and that’s a damned shame. So it’s to these commentators that this piece is addressed. Rather than taking to task individual comments from specific articles, I’m going to tackle the generic forms of, and subjects covered by, these comments.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the standard forms destructive criticism, and just why they’re a waste of everybody’s time.

Direct abuse

This is the easiest type to recognise, and the most obviously awful kind of response. These are the responses which insult the writer (or, occasionally, the publication they write for), focussing all their attention on an ad hominem attack rather than arguing with the points they make. These are the sorts of comment which not only push other prospective commentators away, but seek to silence the article writer once and for all.

And they can work. People don’t like being insulted, strangely enough. It’s demoralising, distressing, and damaging to the writer’s self-esteem. It is bullying, plain and simple. I’ve been called a variety of things for my opinions over the years, but the insults I draw are nothing compared to the litany of disgusting attacks routinely directed towards writers who are openly gay, and/or female, and/or non-white. Charming comments like “So basically you’re offended by the word faggot because you are one“, or “I’m so tempted to tell the dyke @pennyred what an utter, lentil eating, cunt she is…. Oh wait.. 🙂

Quite simply, if all you’re willing to do is attack the writer, then what that tells me – and anybody else reading your comment – is that you have nothing to say about the argument. It demonstrates that you are a mindless thug, trying to cover up their inability to argue coherently through bullying. The saddest thing (for you) is that by associating yourself with the opposite side of the argument you end up strengthening the original writer’s position, as people will (unfairly) associate any counter-arguments with your drivel. So, yes, good job there.

Direct abuse is perhaps the most painful type of commentary to receive, for the obvious reasons that nobody likes being insulted. It is also, however, the easiest to spot and disregard, for other commentators at least. Let’s have a look at some of the better disguised comments.

Not in my back yard

This is an odd one. Very, very often I see commentators decrying the inclusion of an article in a certain publication, because they don’t want to have to read it. Which, er, seems to suggest that these readers feel they have no agency whatsoever, and are in fact being forced – forced – to read every article without question. The absurdity of this argument is plain to see, as though the inclusion of an article that is not exactly what the commentator wanted to read is proof that the publication is somehow losing its way.

Were the publication to have ceased producing any other content, or have significantly changed its output in other ways then this argument would have some weight – however, in the vast majority of cases this is not so, and the commentator is simply making a fuss because, well, they’re rather impressively self-centred and can’t acknowledge the possibility of a publication producing content for people with different interests than themselves. It’s just a daft argument, and one that is mercifully easy to ignore.

Less easy to ignore is the next branch of destructive criticism, and one which is disturbingly prevalent:

Accusations of bias

Just to be clear – there are occasions where this is indeed important and relevant. Certain interests should always be declared. If a writer is waxing lyrical about the qualities of a game that they have worked on, they should be very clear about their involvement in the game’s development. Similarly, if a writer is strongly criticising a company that recently fired them, they should probably bring that up. Of course, the funny thing about these involvements is that they can actually provide extra value for the reader – that fired author will have insights into the way the company runs that somebody who’s only ever looked at it from the outside would lack – but they should be flagged up so that readers know of any potential conflicts of interest.

But there are a very many occasions where accusations of bias are thrown around either without any basis in fact. A prime example comes with the widespread accusations of reviewers being ‘biased’ for/against a console when they dare praise/criticise any flagship titles released, despite the fact that the average reviewer has no reason to hold such biases. There are two main reasons for people having unwavering support/disregard for a console: either it comes from owning only one machine and feel the need to justify that purchase, or it comes from working for the company that makes the machines in the first place. Few games journalists own only a single games machine, and any journalist who was actively paid by a company to shill for their console across multiplatform publications would be playing a dangerous game with their career.

The problem is that these accusations are thrown around without any attempts to back them up beyond the fact that the writer has written something that the commentator disagrees with. It’s an argument without basis or merit, yet one with a very serious accusation hidden inside it – no writer wants to be accused of writing with a hidden motive, behaviour which would mark them liars, and unsuited to their chosen profession: a profession where reputation is incredibly important. So it’s not a fun thing to be accused of for the great crime of giving your honest appraisal of a subject.

Still, at least they aren’t being judged solely on their sex, eh!

Nobody is allowed to write about sexism against women

This is very specific, but is so predictable I felt I had to mention it. One of the two following arguments will follow almost any piece targeting sexism against women:

  • 1. If the writer is male, then the argument goes that they are obviously just trying to impress women through a shining white knight act, and actually have no investment or belief in what they’re saying.
  • 2. If the writer is female, then instead the argument will be that they are lacking the necessary perspective to see that what they’re arguing about is frivolous and unimportant and that they’ve actually got it better than ever, silly man-hater that they are.

In short, through these arguments we learn that neither men nor women are qualified to talk about sexism against women. I’m fairly sure I don’t need to explain the problems with that. These arguments are both prevalent and hurtful, and yet again do nothing more than attempt to derail any discussion through discrediting the author outright. They also manage to be hugely sexist in and of themselves – the former suggesting that men lack any capability for empathy, being instead entirely directed by selfish impulses; the latter falling back on the archaic view that women are somehow ‘less rational’ than men, and incapable of proper reasoning. It’s genuinely, deeply disturbing to realise just how many people still hold such limited and hugely condescending views.

And then there’s this interesting take on discussing real-world issues:

My problem’s bigger than your problem

An ever-popular argument comes in the form of “why are you worrying about this when you should be worrying about that”, and variations thereof. A popular version of this when gender issues are being discussed takes the view that as long as there is genital mutilation going on in parts of Africa there’s no point in arguing about anything else, ever. Which begs the question as to why the commentator themselves has not spent all of their time devoted to the noble goal of highlighting such atrocities, trying to bring about their end.

The problem is that the commentator invariably holds the confusing belief that it’s fine for a person not to speak out against anything at all, or for a person to speak out against the very worst of atrocities, but that it is not okay to speak out against anything else. I’m not really sure how to tackle such logic, any more than I’d know how to discuss the nature of gravity with a member of the Flat Earth Society.

There’s another variation of this argument, which complains that too much focus is being spent on one issue, and not enough on another. I have some sympathy for this viewpoint, but the argument is misplaced. A particularly common example of this can be seen in the comments threads of virtually any article dealing with sexism against women, with the aggrieved party complaining that not enough attention is being given to sexism against men.

The thing is, I too believe that less time and energy is spent on the issues of sexism against men than there ought to be. I just happen to recognise that this is also not a valid argument against discussions of sexism against women. Just because you face problems – perhaps even worse problems than those being discussed in the initial article – does not invalidate the original argument, any more than the previous example of ‘worse things happen in Africa’. What it does do is encourage the development of new arguments. Why not write an opinion piece yourself; or, failing that, mention the problems you see to a writer you trust, see if you can convince them to bring the issues to a wider audience, instead of trying to derail an existing argument to no gain.

It’s always a great shame to see these arguments, which could be used to spur important discussions on, instead being used in an attempt to shut other discussions down. A counterproductive waste.

Those are about all the generic forms of destructive criticism that I can think of, for now. The sad fact is that the types of comment listed above are extremely common, doing their best to undermine writers, clog up comments threads, and generally distract from any relevant arguments. This article is here in the hope that it will help people to recognise these arguments for what they are, and be better prepared to deal with them. And who knows – maybe some people will read this and compose more useful arguments because of it. I can always hope.

If you’ve spotted any other arguments worth mentioning and dealing with on here, feel free to get in contact with me. And when you do see examples of the arguments I’ve tackled stinking up otherwise interesting articles and comment threads, feel free to point the culprits at this post (or indeed, me at them).

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