Reconstructing Criticism: Goals

When formulating constructive criticism online, it’s important to pay attention to your purpose and shape your message accordingly. (Yes, it’s time to talk about “tone.”) Why? Because unlike much of the communication on the internet, which is more expressionistic in nature, constructive criticism is designed to reach and influence a specific audience. The goal is to change behavior, which precludes several other goals.

Constructive criticism is generally incompatible with venting, which is focused on the speaker, rather than the listener. It’s incompatible with shaming and flaming, which encourage defensiveness. It is also, in fact, often incompatible with a public airing of issues. Not that constructive criticism can’t be done in public, but several factors (the distraction for the recipient of figuring out why the criticism is being delivered in public, the tendency of spectators to call, “Fight! Fight!” or to jump on one “side” or another, making chasms out of tiny differences of opinion) add to the difficulty. Every additional goal adds complexity to the task, making it less likely that the primary goal of behavior change won’t be successfully met.

On the topic of goals, it’s also important to understand the goals of the person receiving criticism. The most carefully crafted, positively delivered message in the world won’t hit its mark if it’s based on an incorrect assumption of common goals. If you can explain why a change in behavior will help someone achieve their goals, you’re going to get better results than if you’re explaining why a change in their behavior will suit yours. What better way to influence someone than to help them along a path they’ve already set for themselves?

Even concentrating on common goals, criticism may miss if it’s based on goals that are too broad or unspecific. I doubt I need to point to examples of people suggesting that others who represent a common demographic, movement or general ideal should change their behavior to better support what they have in common. It’s rare that I come across an example of this working, however. The people involved may share an overarching goal, but their proximate goals are far too different for invocation of the shared goal to be effective.

If you come across someone who you feel is “hurting the movement” or something similar, it may be useful to have a discussion about immediate goals and strategy rather than to try to offer criticism. If this is the source of your disagreement, discussion at this level can keep things from getting too personal with someone who is still working on the same problem you are, just in a very different way. If you agree about strategy and proximate goals, then you have gained something on which to base your criticism to make it more productive.

And productive is still what it’s all about.

Hypocrisy Part II

Side note: anyone who wants to talk about how they don’t like Zuska, etc. can please stay the hell out of this comment thread.

There’s some confusion over the intent of my last post, enough that I think it’s worth a follow-up post to clear some things up. I’ll start with Zuska.

Stephanie, are you really inviting your readers to honestly let you know if they think you behaved in a hypocritical manner? Or are you just hoping to hear a chorus of “nuh uh, no way, you are the best!!!”

I really am asking. Outside perspective is good for, well, perspective. I’d also like to hash the issue out a bit.

To be transparent, I don’t really expect to get answers that indicate hypocrisy. I do, however, expect answers that will illustrate what people object to when they’re calling me hypocritical. In particular, I wanted to draw becca out on the topic in a forum where we could discuss it with less sniping going on. Controlling the sniping didn’t work so well, but at least I got an answer from becca.

I think there’s a bit of hypocrisy inherent in tolerating shit from out friends we wouldn’t from strangers. But without that, few of us would have friends.

I think becca’s characterization here is part of the problem. I’m pretty sure it’s a big part of the answer to my questions about why people see hypocrisy in my behavior. In the press to “win” bloggy arguments, we’ve lost track of what “hypocrisy” means.

a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion

Hypocrisy is not failing to be perfectly consistent in the application of ideals one actually has. It’s not even having different standards for different people. It’s a form of dishonesty that prompts the wrath we reserve for people who lie to us. Describing behavior that doesn’t meet that definition as “hypocrisy” started as a way of invoking that wrath to back up a failing argument. What someone online means by it now is anybody’s guess–unless you ask.

This is why I rarely use labels when I’m pointing out fallacious argumentation and the like. This argument effect is starting to render them meaningless. I’d much rather say to someone, “Your opinion of me is very interesting, but do you have anything to address my reasoning?” than accuse them of argumentum ad hominem. When people no longer understand what the problem is from the name, we need to address the behavior directly.

That said, there are a couple of things about becca’s friends versus not friends idea that I want to dig into. The first is that you don’t, and won’t, see a lot of my interaction with my friends. I’m just not that exhibitionistic (bloggerfail?). That’s doubly true on those occasions when I want to work to change their minds about something. Turning that discussion into an adversarial interaction in public with people taking sides or being happy to see a disagreement is about the least productive tack I could possibly take. There is no point.

Secondly, I think that much of what is being seen as double standards is a difference in the level at which we understand others’ behavior, kind of an extension of the actor-observer bias. We are privy to much more information about why our friends do what they do. We understand it better. We see a wide range of behavior from them. We have the context to understand why they do what they do–and to empathize.

People who aren’t our friends, however, or even those who are our friends but are new friends or are at some distance from us? Them we don’t know as well. We see a smaller range of their behavior, and we see less of the circumstances that provide context for the behavior. We just don’t have the same basis for empathy, even though we might well offer it if we did.

Of course, even though it isn’t a double standard, this effect is still something to be wary of. It can make you very, very wrong.

And, finally, because this is important to me, back to Zuska.

I thought we were friends.

Me too. I still think we’re friends.

We’re friends at a distance and both of us busy with other things, which makes it a hell of a lot harder when we have disagreements. It makes it hard to even know when we’re disagreeing. Making it harder yet is the fact that people keep telling us we have lots of disagreements. We’re primed to see them even in places where they don’t exist. And we just don’t talk enough to sort out what’s real and what’s not.

Take the idea that I called anyone, much less you, a bully in the comments on Jason’s post. It didn’t happen. I did get angry enough at the presence of “so-and-so deserved it” comments that I wasn’t clear that “junior high” wasn’t meant as a descriptor of all the comments I objected to, and for that, I’m sorry. I still disagree that you would apply the same simple argument about power to other circumstances, but I wish I had been more careful of your feelings.

Something similar happened with your post, wherein people thought you were attacking me as a bully. I didn’t know what to think, so I set it aside until it got sorted out on its own or I had time to sit down long enough to ask. I’m glad you clarified.

For the record, I don’t think we have that many disagreements. Those that we do have mostly have to do with our perceptions of other people, where I think more priming bears a lot of the blame. We simply don’t get the same things from the same words.

Aside from that, I don’t see much in the way of disagreement usually. I’m appallingly focused on tactics a lot of the time and your focus is different, and that’s cool. I get slightly annoyed when people mistake venting for tactical work, but that isn’t you. I also love it when you do get tactical.

So yes, friends. And I’m glad you asked and hope you will again if you ever doubt it.

I, Hypocrite?

Still in the middle of a couple of insanely busy weeks, but I’m enjoying them immensely, due in no small part to my honeymooning Canuckistanian friends. I’m terribly sad CONvergence is done, as intense as it was, and I’m missing too many people terribly already. Hooray for TAM coming up.

Something interesting happened while I was busy, though. I discovered someone was talking about me. Several someones in fact. The bits I found interesting:


Right, completely unrelated dumbass….did you miss the participation in each tale by Greg Laden and Stephanie Zvan? The point, for the slow types, is their hilariously self-serving hypocrisy. Such arbitrary standards of conduct make it clear they don’t believe a damn bit of their structural and linguistic critique. It is being deployed disingenuously and need never be taken seriously as an argument.


What it is ABOUT is that THESE SAME PEOPLE (Greg and Stephanie Z. particularly, but there are others too) who are now reveling and celebrating their meanness in this episode were, just barely a week before this hit the tubes, finger-wagging and attacking Zuska and Isis for being ZOMG SO MEEN to GMP, and calling them “internet bullies” and suggesting that feminist bloggers should be nice or STFU.

THAT’s what it’s about. What sockmaster did was douchy and reprehensible, and no one is objecting him taken down or being taken to task. However, when some of THESE SAME PEOPLE judge and attack Zuska and Isis for being less than sweet to someone whose thoughtless casual racism had actual effects IN REAL LIFE, it is what’s called “hypocrisy”.

Interesting, of course, because, um…WTF? So I asked for specifics of said hypocrisy. The responses? DeviantOne decided that these two statements were incompatible:

Yes, social interaction is really a sporting competition, that kid who dared to go up to the jock table at lunch had it coming, people should really have something better to do than think about people’s feelings, nobody down the totem pole a bit ever has any power over those further down, and the popular kids have a responsibility to show everyone else how they don’t measure up to local, temporary standards. Did I miss anything?

No, I really don’t miss junior high school.

Oedipus, thanks for the zip file. I really wanted those comments from the puppets to hang around. There’s a certain argument to be made that we are the people we act like when we think no one’s looking, and I think people ought to know who they’re offering support to when they tell YNH to keep blogging.

And skeptifem pointed at a thread where she claimed I both objected to being called Greg’s sidekick (as a belittling gendered insult) and defended Greg calling someone a bitch. Of course, what I actually did was agree with someone who objected to a third party (not Greg) calling someone a bitch.

She also, as far as I can tell, seems to think that if I suggest that some defenses of uses of power happen at a junior high reasoning level (power has an on/off switch, someone asking a favor of a person with more power deserves whatever they get) and I suggest that efforts to reduce your effective power when disagreeing with someone isn’t typical high school bullying behavior, I’m a hypocrite because both conversations involve school references.

Since that point, the hypocrisy discussion has basically dried up in favor of talking about how bad my writing is (and, of course, the obligatory “this woman I’m disagreeing with must actually be controlled by a guy” moment). So, what do you think? About me, that is–I’m not looking for another round of “So and so’s a creep.” Whether you think it applies in this situation or not, Zuska has a point about gendered standards for behavior.

Today’s question: Am I being hypocritical in the stances I’ve actually taken in this (as opposed to those taken by someone in the same thread I’ve been in? And if I am, where specifically does this hypocrisy lie?