The target of criticism

Looking at my past two months of blogging, I seem to be talking a lot about critical thinking–i.e. how to argue. Why break the pattern now? My bloggy friend Coyote also likes talking about how to argue, and today I would like to borrow one of their ideas.

So, here’s the problem. Suppose I have a friend who just did a thing that annoyed me–they linked to a news story where a celebrity they dislike was swindled out of their money. To me, this is victim blaming–con artists often rely on victims being too embarrassed to admit they were swindled. So I vent by writing something on Twitter or Facebook about how much I hate victim blaming. But I don’t want to specifically call out my friend so I keep it general. My friend sees and cheerfully agrees with my post, but fails to realize that I was talking about them; they thought it was about sexual assault or something.

As Coyote put it:

If you want to tell people “this belief is wrong” or “this practice won’t do what you think it will” then the first step is making sure you can precisely and accurately describe the belief/practice in the first place, where “accurately” here is assessed by your audience (not you), because if nobody can see themselves in the flawed behavior as you’ve described it, then your criticism might as well be addressed to nobody.

If you want to criticize someone’s behavior, then it’s really important that they are able to realize, “My behavior is the target of criticism”. There are two main failure modes. One is if they nod along, and fail to realize they were being criticized, as in my example. The other type of failure, is when readers can’t tell whether you’re talking about them. If you’re talking about them, then you’re mischaracterizing them, attacking straw men. If you’re talking about someone else, then you failed to be specific enough for readers to understand that.

Coyote uses the term “interpellation” to describe the process by which someone realizes they are being talked about. Although, that seems to be a bastardization of a Marxist concept, so I’m not sure I like the word. Anyway.

Last month, I talked about one-sided dichotomies, which is when we say there are two sides to an argument, except it’s only one side saying there are two sides. There is nothing inherently wrong with a one-sided dichotomy, but it is worth understanding, especially for the purpose of arguing effectively.

One example of a one-sided dichotomy is essentialism vs non-essentialism. The essentialist viewpoint holds that there is an underlying truth to questions like “Am I a woman?” or “Am I asexual?” and it’s all about trying to understand that underlying truth so that people can label themselves correctly. My non-essentialist viewpoint is that while there are underlying truths, it’s entirely up to us which of the underlying truths “woman” or “asexual” refers to.

I feel pretty strongly about non-essentialism, and I might want to argue against essentialism. But here’s the difficulty: essentialists rarely call themselves essentialists. It’s a one-sided dichotomy. So in order to argue effectively, I need to describe essentialist beliefs in such a way that essentialists (who do not call themselves essentialists) realize that I’m talking about them. And that’s hard.

Some people think that the core skill of arguing is logic, or logical fallacies, or something like that. No. The core skill is mental modeling. What does it feel like to be an essentialist? How would an essentialist react to what I’m saying?


Here’s a final proposition that I leave for the comment section to consider: “Interpellation”, or whatever we call it, was the primary obstacle faced by atheists arguing against religion.


  1. says

    But I don’t want to specifically call out my friend so I keep it general.

    I perceive it as annoying when other people speak in riddles and afterwards feel surprised that they weren’t understood. Neurotypical people can be a pain to communicate with.

  2. says

    @Andreas Avester #1,
    Wanting to keep it general makes a lot of sense in a lot of contexts, so I wouldn’t say that’s the problem. When you write on the internet, you often aren’t targeting just one person. So in my hypothetical, perhaps I was primarily thinking of my friend, but I have this vision that many other people would also be quick to mock victims of con artists. My friend isn’t even the most important target audience, they’re just one person I know for sure is in the target audience. And when that one friend nods along and agrees without realizing they were the target of criticism, that’s disappointing not just because this one person didn’t understand, but because I imagine other people with similar attitudes also failed to understand.

    On platforms like Tumblr or Twitter, wanting to avoid naming specific targets of criticism is extremely common, because people know that whenever they criticize a specific person, they risk calling down a lot of harassment, either on themselves or on the person they’re criticizing. So, subtweeting is a thing.

  3. says

    Wanting to keep it general makes a lot of sense in a lot of contexts, so I wouldn’t say that’s the problem. When you write on the internet, you often aren’t targeting just one person.

    Sure, if your goal is to write for a large audience, then keeping it general makes sense.

    But if your primary goal was to inform your friend that you disapprove of his behavior, then that would be ineffective communication.

    Speaking in riddles and hints is something humans do on a regular basis, and afterwards they are routinely disappointed that they weren’t understood. This is silly behavior.

  4. says

    @Andreas Avester #3,
    Yeah, okay. But I think you’re focusing too much on that particular aspect of the example. I should have given an example where it was more clear that the primary goal is not to address an individual, but to address a general pattern of behavior.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    Maybe another way to put this is that it’s impossible to argue with someone unless you are first able to establish that you share a set of beliefs and assumptions about the world. The better you can establish those, the more effective your argument. With no common ground, there is no chance of anyone budging.

  6. coyote says

    Oh hey, I’ve been granted the title of “bloggy friend.” 🙂

    @Andreas Avester & Siggy, re: the tension between keeping it general vs. addressing a particular person —

    I don’t have any particular rules about what people *should* do in these situations, but I can speak to my own particular blogging style and the reasoning behind it.

    Sometimes, I will encounter something that annoys me, and it inspires a more general thought about the patterns and pitfalls I consider it to be a part of. For example, this post is a general thought that was inspired by a specific recent case. I’ve already said my piece about the particulars of that case in a couple of other different posts, and I decided to make this more general post because I wanted to also talk about the more general problem/lesson/takeaways I associate it with.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because the goal here is just “post thoughts on the internet, hopefully be taken seriously.” If the goal were something else, like “get a specific person to rethink and change their mind about a specific recent behavior,” then… I’m not sure what I’d do differently, but it would surely depend on more context. For example, how well I know the person I’m annoyed with, whether there’s any direct/easy means to contact them, how well I can imagine that playing out, etc. are all relevant factors here.

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