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.

Memo to Northwestern Students: You're Not Cool

This is the guide we wish we had before we came to our schools. It will tell you everything you need to know about social life, party scene, and even some academics (those of us who get in to these schools need to stay at them) if you are a normal girl that happens to be smart enough to get into a top university. It’s biased, it’s blunt, and many people will be offended…but those people shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is when you know beyond a doubt that whatever follows is going to be absolute drivel.

The preceding quote is from a new anonymous blog called “We are the We.” Like College ACB but without the community, “We” prides itself on being the one and only voice of campus social life. Tellingly, the blog only covers a few campuses for now, and mine is one of them. The tagline? “Top schools, normal girls.”

Let’s take a look at what We has to say about life at Northwestern:

Typically fluctuating between SigEp, Lodge, Pike and SAE, every freshman girl learns within the first couple days that your chances of joining a Top Tier sorority in the winter instantly increase by being seen and associated with by Top Tier boys, and are fucked if you mess around with some girl from a Top Tier’s ex.

~~~

The amount of hook up overlaps solely from freshman year could put state schools to shame, and by sophomore year most best friends have hooked up with generally the same exact people. Though girls complain about the lack of options, they have no problem picking the guy their roommate hooked up with the night before as their prey.

~~~

The longer you’re at Northwestern, the more you realize there are some students who truly don’t deserve to be walking within a 15 mile radius of the campus you worked your ass off the first 18 years of your life to attend. It’s no surprise that like most elite schools, it’s possible for some dumbasses to slip through the cracks, but now we actually have to, like, deal with them.

~~~

Shocking new revelation just in: girls in college love to drink. Though there are still a few high-and-mighty girls unwilling to get shitfaced with everyone else, the majority of females find a few nights a weeks to make an appearance at a frat, bar, or Greek event. You’ll learn in the first few days on campus that NU students have a relatively set schedule for going out, and you’re bound to get a “Keg tonight?” text on Mondays and Saturdays or a “Deucin’?” one on Thursdays from guys or friends.

Had enough? I sure have.

The Northwestern depicted in this blog is catty, superficial, judgmental, uninterested in any sort of learning, and, I’m proud to say, has nothing to do with the lives we actually live at this school. I’m sure there are people here that this describes to a T, but despite claiming to be “everything you need to know” about campus life, the blog falls hilariously short of describing us.

The assumptions and prejudices catalogued here are too many to list. First, the idea that people who are “unwilling to get shitfaced” are just too “high-and-mighty.” False. It might surprise some people to know that non-drinkers (or moderate drinkers, really) might actually have other things to do with their lives besides drink–imagine that! Maybe that’s beyond the scope of We writers’ collective imaginations, but I assure you that it is true.

Beyond that, one has to pick through a cesspool of “men are x, women are y” tropes in order to understand what We is trying to say about Northwestern social life. Men are douchey players. Women are nasty sluts. Etc., etc.

I’ll give the writers props for recognizing, as they do in the quote with which I opened this post, that they’re going to offend people. But then they refuse to take responsibility for being so abhorrent by claiming that people who get offended “shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.” Why the hell not? Is it the secret diary of Northwestern’s “elite?” If so, they might want to make it a bit more private.

In a section titled “Who are ‘the we’?”, the writers say, “We know what we are talking about. Trust us. We are anonymous for a reason, but this reason is not because we are not legit.”

Don’t worry everyone, they’re legit! I shouldn’t have worried. Of course, they don’t elaborate on this mysterious reason for which they’re choosing to stay anonymous, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that nobody likes nasty, shallow people who post hateful bullshit on the internet. Were these writers to use their real names, their precious social lives would probably suffer.

I also took issue with the blog’s tagline: “Top schools, normal girls.” First of all, define “normal,” and explain why “normal” is preferable to whatever its antonym is. If by “normal” they mean “statistically mainstream,” they’re simply wrong. The majority of NU students do not belong to a Greek organization, for instance, and most of those who do, belong to what stuck-up cretins like We refer to as “lower-tier” houses. Meaning, as I understand from my friends in the Greek system, houses that are more concerned with having fun and making friends than with high school-esque notions of “popularity.”

Similarly, most Northwestern students drink in moderation or not at all, and relatively few have lots of casual sex. Those who do tend to hook up with friends or acquaintances rather than strangers at bars or frat parties. Does this make them less “cool?” Apparently. But nobody who lives the life they want is going to care.

And if by “normal” We means “desirable,” well, all I can say is that they need a serious attitude adjustment.

The last thing that pisses me off about this blog is the name. “The We.” This conjures up an image of a ruling class of socially skilled and designer jeans-clad heiresses who preside over the campus like royalty. “We” implies that these writers speak for all of us. Well, they don’t. Count me the fuck out of this “we,” because it has nothing to do with me or anybody I know at Northwestern.

It never fails to amuse me that some Northwestern students are so desperate to project their Mean Girls-ish vision of social life onto our school. People. You’re not cool. Stop trying to be cool. The harder you try, the more idiotic you look, and the more you forget what you actually came here for.

Nobody at this school is “normal” in any sense of the word. We are abnormal by definition. We’re some of the brightest students in the nation. Letting loose and forgetting that every once in a while is great, but creating a whole blog to showcase your superficiality to the entire world is just not.

Types of Moronic Blog Comments I Get

[Snark Warning, obviously]

When I receive comments like this either on this blog, on my Tumblr, on Facebook, or in person, I kind of want to shoot myself in the face.

“Yeah well, I’m [insert group name here] and this doesn’t apply to me.”

I will personally give you $20 if you can find a post on this blog claiming that all x are y. When you’re writing about culture and social science, as I do, a certain amount of generalization is necessary to be able to make a point. I’ve decided not to insult my readers’ intelligence by littering my blog posts with inane truisms like “but of course there is an exception to every rule” and “this may not apply to every individual but” and so on. Apparently, though, people don’t understand this, so I probably need to add a “generalization warning” to the two warnings that I already have.

“That’s just your opinion.”

Gee, brilliant observation, Einstein. This is my blog! Of course it’s just my opinion! I will gladly pay up another $20 if you find a post in which I claim to be the supreme authority on some subject or other.

“Don’t be so judgmental.”

Or what? I’ll be a Bad Person? I never claimed to be a perfect saintly individual who doesn’t judge people. Most people judge people. Granted, most people do not have a blog, so perhaps that’s what sets me apart. In which case, go ahead and state the problem as it really is–I’m a woman, I’m sharing my opinions, and my opinions aren’t always Nice and Kind and Loving. Oh noes!

“Check your privilege.” (and variations thereof)

I’ve already written about this so much that I hardly have anything to add and will simply direct you to this, this, and this.

“I like you better when you aren’t so angry.”

Yeah, and I like the world better when it doesn’t have any problems for me to get angry about. I also like YOU better when you don’t demand constant cheeriness from me. What can I say, we all have our likes and dislikes!

“lol”

I’m sorry, you must’ve gotten lost on the way to your junior high and accidentally ended up on my blog. You should probably get going now.

“Great post! I found it very interesting! For information about a new, low-cost solution to increase the size of your peni$ please visit www.cheapbigpeni$.com”

Enough said.

Why I Criticize Liberals and Not Conservatives

For someone who identifies as liberal and progressive, I certainly spend an odd amount of time criticizing fellow liberals and progressives. Unlike other bloggers of my general type, I don’t do all those muckraking-type posts detailing the latest scandalous Fox News segment or hypocritical Republican politician’s speech. Instead, I prefer to rip on people that I mostly agree with. Why is this?

Several reasons. First of all, getting my panties in a wad over some stupid conservative comment takes very little intelligence, and I prefer to utilize my intelligence as much as I can. The typical liberal kvetch-post usually goes something like this: “Well surprise surprise! [Insert Republican candidate here] gave a speech in [insert small conservative town here] yesterday and claimed that ‘good Christians’ should not allow gay couples to go to prom! It never ceases to amaze me how vile these Republicans are!” Or: “Last night [insert Fox News talk show host here] claimed on his show that people on welfare are ‘dirty rats pilfering our hard-earned money.’ Perhaps he should try living on welfare for a while!”

Okay, I exaggerate, but hopefully you see my point. It’s just that it takes no mental energy whatsoever to criticize people and ideas that are so ludicrous. For instance, today in Salon: talk show host Sean Hannity thinks Sesame Street is an attack on “family values” (whatever the hell that means these days), and Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) apparently thinks that the US should support Israel so that the Jews can rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and Christ can return. Um, okay.

Now, what Salon (and the liberal blogosphere in general) does with their time and webspace is their own business, but one has to wonder why so many intelligent writers would would want to waste their energy railing against the likes of Hannity and Bachmann and the rest of that entire cadre of shockingly brainless people. Because, really, what is there to actually say about the two links I just mentioned, aside from the fact that they are really stupid?

Meanwhile, most of the intelligent conservative perspectives that I’ve encountered unfortunately involve economics. For instance, Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, refuses to implement a living wage for workers in dining halls, housekeeping, and etc. because he thinks this idea is economically unsound–and he’s a well-known, respected economist. No matter how much I’d love to see a living wage on campus, I can respect his opinion.

However, one little problem–I know absolutely nothing about economics, and I am prevented from learning more by the fact that I find it insufferably boring. So not only am I completely unqualified to even try to argue with the likes of Dr. Shapiro, I also have little desire to do so. (Likewise, it seems, with most liberals. The Living Wage Campaign at Northwestern, for instance, has insisted on using passion and emotion to fuel its arguments, even though President Shapiro, when asked what would convince him to implement a living wage, answered, “Good arguments.” Meaning, of course, arguments that are evidence-based and rational.)

As for why criticizing liberals is a good idea, that should be self-evident. I care deeply about seeing the causes I care about succeed. Sometimes, however, I feel that people are going about them in the wrong ways. For instance:

Incidentally, there are just so many types of privilege now. White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege, cis privilege, abled privilege, thin privilege, even vanilla privilege! A veritable buffet of privileges. For the record, I do believe privilege exists, in a way. But I don’t think it’s worth talking about, because bitching and moaning about it and yelling at people you disagree with about how they can’t “see past their privilege” contributes nothing useful to the larger discourse on social justice. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t. All it does is alienate people that you might have otherwise persuaded.

I’m getting really off-topic now, but another quick comment about privilege–although this is a matter of semantics, I think it’s much more useful to view non-privileged people as disadvantaged rather than viewing privileged people as “privileged.” After all, we don’t want everyone to lose privileges like not being accused of stealing, being paid fair wages, and being able to easily find the right hair care products. Rather, we want everyone to have these privileges. So rather than implying that it’s somehow “bad” that I, as a white woman rather than a black one, can walk into a store and not be followed by a salesperson, we should be implying that it’s completely wrong that a black woman would be followed while a white one would not. Different emphasis entirely. I know any progressive would agree with me on this, and yet they persist on using language that problematizes the privileges that some of us have rather than the disadvantages that others face. The privileges I have as a middle-class, cisgender white person are privileges everyone should have. The privileges that heterosexual men have are privileges that I should have. And so on.

Back to the point. This is why, in most of the posts where I’m explicitly criticizing something, I generally propose some alternatives–organizing a protest rather than personally boycotting a store, finding a healthy balance between work and love rather than sacrificing one for the other, and so on. I hope that by doing this I have shown that I do actually care about finding solutions rather than simply criticizing things. I get a lot of satisfaction from identifying ways that things are being done wrong and suggesting ways to do them better.

But bloggers who endlessly chronicle the bon mots of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are doing absolutely nothing productive. I’ve always believed that a “good blog” is one that contributes something meaningful to the world rather than simply chronicling things that piss off its author.

Random Intro-type Thing

My old blog, Illogical Paradox, is experiencing some bandwidth issues at the moment (don’t ask me how this happened–NOBODY goes on it, I swear), and since I’m incapable of dealing with that, I just started a new one on wordpress.com. Yay.

I thought about buying my own domain and not messing around with that stuff anymore, but then I thought, wait a minute. Nobody actually reads what I write, anyway. Why pay for the privilege of writing it?

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, it doesn’t really matter if it makes a sound or not, and if you were the one who shelled out the money to get it to make a sound, well, you’re a moron. Or you really suck at personal finance. Or both.

Then again, I happily shell out about $25 each year for my Flickr Pro account, even though nobody looks at that either. Out of all my photos, the ones that get the most views are the ones with me in them, and usually some creeper has commented “sexy!!!11!” without bothering to comment on the artistic quality of the photo.

*sigh*

I thought that paying for a Flickr Pro account rather than uploading my pictures onto MySpace was meant to prevent exactly that sort of thing.

As usual, I was incorrect.