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Feb 08 2012

Criticizing is Not Complaining

Most bloggers expect and receive their fair share of stupid comments. It’s kind of an occupational hazard.

However, one recurring theme I see in comments–both on my writing and that of other opinion writers–disappoints me the most. That theme is always some variation on the following: “Sure, this is a problem. But it’s not worth writing about. I hate it when people complain about stuff that’s never going to change anyway.”

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between complaining and criticizing. Complaining is whiny and usually only points out something that’s crappy without explaining why it’s crappy, let alone proposing a way to make it better. Complaining is what people do when they post Facebook statuses about how much they hate Mondays or how annoyed they are about a new rule at school or work. Complaining is usually intended to generate sympathy, although it often fails at doing so because it is irritating.

Criticizing is very different. It involves describing an issue and explaining why it’s problematic. A good critic should also offer some suggestions for change, though that’s not absolutely necessary. (Sometimes those suggestions are best identified by reading a critic’s entire body of work; for instance, many of my posts describe problems that could be ameliorated through increased attention to mental health in our society, but I don’t always explicitly state that in each post.) The primary goal of criticism is not to elicit sympathy or attention for the writer, but to point readers’ attention to a subject that the writer thinks is important.

Readers who misinterpret the purpose of critical writing are doing a disservice to the writer and to themselves. Because these readers usually only write when it’s required for school or work or when they want to share something with their friends on Facebook, they fail to recognize the fact that, to other people, writing can have a greater purpose than that. Although most writers enjoy receiving compliments on their work, they don’t do it solely for those compliments; they do it for any number of reasons that the reader may not know. So why assume the worst?

In other words, I really hate it when people dismiss my writing as “complaining.” If that’s really what you think it is, you’re missing the point by a pretty wide margin.

Supposing a given reader has already made the decision to view all serious, critical writing as “whiny” and unworthy of his or her attention, that still leaves the question of why it’s necessary to demand that the writer stop producing it. The comments I see to this effect rarely just say that they dislike the piece in question; they usually tell the writer to “stop complaining” or that “this isn’t worth writing about.”

This really bewilders me because one would think that people would learn over time which writers they enjoy reading, and which ones irritate them. If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.

Then there are the readers who claim to agree with my point, but who think that I shouldn’t write about it because…well, just because. Usually they’ll say that there’s no point, that it’s not going to change anyway, that I’m only going to annoy people with my “complaining,” that bringing attention to the problem will cause undue criticism of certain groups or values that the reader holds dear, or–my personal favorite–that I’ll just make people realize how shitty things really are (and, of course, that’s a bad thing).

I’ll grant that there’s a fairly decent chance that nothing I personally write will ever change the world, unless I become very well-known someday. Most writers aren’t going to single-handedly change anything. But enough criticism and conversation creates an environment in which change is possible, because it places certain issues on our cultural agenda.

Furthermore, I would challenge these readers to provide me with an example of a time when people kept quiet, behaved well, and patiently waited for some societal issue to improve–and it just did.

Chances are, there isn’t an example, because you can’t solve a problem if nobody speaks up and calls it one.

From revolutions to tiny cultural shifts, all social change works this way. No dictator wakes up one morning and decides to let a democratic government take over, no CEO wakes up one morning and decides to start paying employees a living wage, and no bigot wakes up one morning and decides not to be prejudiced anymore. Unless, that is, somebody challenges them and forces them to change.

Not interested in changing the status quo? That’s fine. You don’t have to be.

But some of us are, and you should get out of our way.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Molly

    Sing it girl! You tell ‘em

  2. 2
    Leopard

    This is such a good post. “Chill out”. “Relax”, “Just accept that that’s the way things are”? No thank you!

  3. 3
    bloggerclarissa

    Another brilliant post!

    I have seen many things in your posts but I have never seen any whining or complaining. There is a certain very popular blog where people come specifically to complain and whine about how horrible the students are. The blog has many authors who are all obviously very talented academics. I always think what a shame it is that instead of this unproductive moaning about the evil nature of today’s students these brilliant, highly articulate people wrote about the reasons why teaching is becoming difficult, about why students don’t learn as well as they could, and what could be done to improve things. At some point, the whining just gets so persistent that one can’t take it any more.

    There is a huge difference between constructive critical writing and a laundry list of complaints about the universe.

    Off topic: I have just been interviewed about you, Miriam, and I told the interviewer the entire truth. :-) :-)

  4. 4
    Ben S

    ack, I’ve been saying this for many years! thanks for putting so much better than “ack!”.

  5. 5
    Team Oyeniyi

    ” If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.” Agree with this particularly.

    Good for you! Agree with your overall concept totally. I’m sure there are people who would LOVE me to shut up – I’m not doing that any time soon!

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