In the act of full disclosure, this post originally began with a focus solely on video game discourse and criticism; it has, since then, become readily apparent that this is not an isolated issue but instead a collection of issues uniquely spread across almost every form of communication–if anything I only notice it in concentration in certain areas because that’s where my interests lie, before seeing the pattern spread across multiple places. So, here is a list of things that are more than likely wrong with online discourse–I’m making no claims that these are the ONLY issues, nor am I even proposing solutions, as I’m somewhat uncomfortable making absolutist statements in this regard, but also because I’d hope that by explaining them, perhaps they would begin to clear themselves up (a futile and somewhat hopeful belief, I’ll cede).
So, what exactly IS wrong with online discourse, and why is it that the word “criticism” is treated as if it were a searing brand, a destructive storm, or an earthquake from Hell, ready to tear asunder communities and groups at its mere presence?
1.) Everyone’s a Critic
It might seem strange to start a defense of critique and discourse with a statement that is generally used to dismiss overly negative statements; however, this is one of the most pressing issues, in that it will tie in to a future # down the line.
The problem is that many online “critics” use the aforementioned “Hammer for Everything” approach: one such is the particularly divisive FemFreq/Tropes V. Women project (we’ll come back to another issue facing discourse related to this topic later); at issue is not TvW’s existence, but instead its extremely limited approach to nuance: everything gets the hammer. At best TvW is a serviceable “intro” to critique of cultural products, but even then it lends too much credibility to another issue, “Criticism = Condemnation,” because there is, again, very little nuance to how TvW approaches issues of gender and representation, but simply settles on “this is bad and thus must be hammered.” There are moments of brilliance and insight in the TvW project, but its also an unfortunate beacon for what happens when the application and use of criticism is taken out of context or taken as complete, utter truth; criticism is not THE way, it is ONE way, that of the critic.
What is most at issue with “everyone is a critic” is the fact that since there is so MUCH communication on the internet, it is impossible to “deligitmize” problematic, wrongheaded, or backwards criticism; most “critics” are barely taught how to use the Toolbox, and are simply mimicking or attemtping to mimick things they’ve seen before. And while that might sound like a View from the Ivory Tower, it is easy to see what happens when you use a tool the wrong way: the object is marred or destroyed, and the tool is blamed for it, not the user.
As mentioned, I will not propose a solution, as the only one I can give (and I don’t personally even know if I can agree) is that critics need the proper training to apply their craft. This doesn’t mean everyone who wants to write a critique of something needs a Masters degree or a PhD., but in many cases the reason there is so MUCH deformed views on criticism comes from those who exit high-school or even college after taking some form of humanities class and claiming they understand every and all ways to critically interact with something.
2.) Criticism = Condemnation
This problem runs hand in hand with #1, as the very people who utilize poor critical tools do so to an audience who have similarly poor understanding of those tool’s worth. It is routine now to see any and all criticism come under fire as an “attack” upon an object or a medium, that the critic “hates” the thing they are writing about, or that they are attempting to “censor” it because of “political correctness.”
#2 is perhaps the problem I have the hardest time with; as is pretty obvious, my position within academia and within the critical apparatus within that community is from years of work and refinement; but that is again the Ivory Tower at play, as my works and writings are rarely shared outside of that circle; the idea that articles published in academic journals be shared with the “masses” is almost laughable to many people in my field, and while I think that’s wrong-headed, I also can see their trepidation from how criticism is received.
Criticism = Condemnation is a fallacy of high order, and it is not wholly on the body of the audience to blame for this, but the critic as well. As mentioned, TvW has routinely created issue in the fact that it simply “condemns” tropes without applying nuance or even skill to its critique: “This character is a trope, and therefore it is bad” is the gist of many of TvW’s videos. In a similar vein the TVTropes website has perhaps some blame to shoulder in this regard, as it has routinely and wrong-headedly (and here I generally mean its community) applied the idea that Tropes are not only concrete, but absolute: there can be no nuance, things must fit in Categories and those Categories are further Binary in “Good” and “Bad” piles. It is the reason why many critics of anime, comics, video games, or any cultural object routinely start and end their critiques with “I really love this thing, please don’t think I hate it,” because they are already on the defensive for their performance, already dodging tomatoes from the crowd because of the notion that what they are saying is going to somehow tear the medium to the ground and destroy it.
In essence, any medium that cannot withstand criticism, (well done or not), is a medium that probably does not deserve attention, resepect, or time. It is at that point that you are dealing with a momentary diversion, not a medium, something that amuses and is promptly discarded when a newer, more interesting amusement presents itself. If Criticism is Condemnation, then the existence of art forms and mediums that have grown and evolved with them are direct evidence that this fallacy is not only completely wrong, but needs to disappear; and, for the sake of record, there IS a difference between “critique” and “hating” something. This is perhaps something else for a different discussion, but it is another in a long line of assumptions that critics simply show up to “destroy” or “force” mediums to be what they want it to be; for the amount of time it takes a well formed critique to begin, to its publication, it would be nearly impossible or untenable to believe that comes from a position of disgust and resentment, of hating the object one is critiquing. Criticism instead comes from places of love and warmth, of wanting things to either be better than they are, or to be viewed and respected for the hidden value within them, hidden under layers of easily overlooked camouflage; it is almost possible to say that the critic must love the object more than the “fan,” as the fan simply wants to be “rewarded” for loyalty or devotion, while the critic wants the object to continue to strive for betterment.
Online discourse and criticism face perhaps one of their biggest issues in the form of legitimacy, and in this case it is almost impossible to avoid many of the constant arguments within the video game community for examples. In most mediums, extremely fringe attitudes are discarded or ignored, relegated to the outliers–however, with the advent of social media, 24/7 news cycles, and other things, not only is EVERY viewpoint given the light of day, but they are also (wrongly) viewed as having equal and legitimate merit; it is the reason the “Feminist vs. MRA” argument has flared up in recent years, as what was once fringe, forgettable pap has gained footholds by finding like-minded people who can simply claim each other as their legitimizing factor: “My friend agrees, therefore we are right and you are wrong.” This can only appear in a discourse location that lacks any types of reality based thinking: people no longer confront their own views and opinions by challenging themselves, they instead look for people who think, act, and believe as they do and double-down on their positions. Say something racist? Don’t apologize, just have a friend speak up and say you are not one / you didn’t say anything bad (better still if said friend is a PoC). Sexist? Homophobic? Transphobic? Same thing! Just find a person who thinks like you to agree with you, and hand-waving criticism is easier than breathing, and most certainly easier than thinking about what you did.
This, of course, links to another issue, “You’re just looking to be upset,” or “Stop taking things so seriously,” in that surrounding oneself with a discourse of confirmation means that any negative voices can summarily be silenced or ignored; in many cases, this is most troublesome when people in positions of power–social, economic, political, cultural–are routinely turned away from interacting with critics and instead buoyed by their “supporters,” never truly looking the other side in the face, but instead having a curtain drawn for them and told comforting things to block out the “noise.”
Unfortunately, not everything said deserves legitimacy, or deserves to be heard–the act of free speech is an amazing one, but it does not require that one listen to or even respect what is said, nor does it mean that just because one CAN say whatever they want, that they should do so without thinking. This applies just as much to the Critic as it does to the Commenter, and can be seen routinely in the way that trash-can reporting from places like Gawker earn and sustain legitimacy in the 24/7 information world, just as much as it can be from the toxic replies from “community advocates” on social media, comment sections, and the like. Since there is no Accountability, no Peer Review, there is also nothing stopping the sewage from mixing with the river water, and all that is left is murky water.
4.) “You’re trying to ruin/change this thing for yourself!”
This particular statement generally comes from discourse dealing with gender, sexuality, or race related issues in communities and discourses, and is one of the more head-scratching ones to figure out. It generally comes from people who also make claims of wanting their mediums taken “seriously” or “as an art form,” without a hint of cognition that they simply are looking for someone to justify the way they waste their time instead of the reality of having their medium that they enjoy taken as “art.”
But, inclusion has never been easy, for any medium. Prose writing serves as one of the best examples, as women and PoC were routinely forced to use pen-names or hide their identities to get published, even up until the mid-20th century. It is perhaps almost charmingly idealistic to hope that any new medium less than 100 years old could obtain that within such a short period of time, but it is not really all that impossible. What is most at issue is how insignifcant many of the people in “online discourse” fail to realize they really are–for the 100s of comments in an article, there are 10s of thousands of consumers buying and selling in the medium without any interest or care about how “good” a commenter “got” a “feminist” with their reply. Inclusion happens, and it happens either more slowly or more quickly depending on the market and the viability, but also on visibility. The more consumers see themselves in a product, the more they are likely to buy it, and the more creators see themselves in the field, the more that field is to reflect the creators. It is perhaps simply time to watch those against “inclusion” as a funny relic of a dying age, a fire that is slowly burning out yet struggles greatly against the lack of oxygen, flickering and dancing with curious power.
Of course, the reality is simply that things will and must become more inclusive, and the idea that it can be “stopped” is almost as ridiculous as claiming one can “stop” the earth from rotating around the sun. As our world becomes flatter, as people become more and more mixed, as more voices are allowed and more people find the courage to either speak or hold up those who will, inclusion marches on. It is simply at that point that one decides to be a gatekeeper, to attempt at being George Wallace of the 21st century, or to simply realize that not only do these people share your love and interests, but that they are also looking to see themselves reflected in the mirror, instead of looking at the back of your head all the time. And, perhaps most beautifully, the realization that there are not only enough mirrors to go around, but that people can share them too–seeing a new reflection might help you recognize things about yourself you hadn’t before.
Out of all of the problems, there is perhaps none so toxic and awful as #5, as it is the forceful and willful decision of a person or group of persons to relegate another into a position of silence, through force, threat, or other means. Why it is at all tolerated in online communities is perhaps one of the biggest issues to online discourse and criticism being able to go toe-to-toe with traditional academia; there is no time in which an academic conference would devolve into a speaker being told to “kill themselves” or “shut up” or “stop being so offended” when they are given the chance to speak.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Silencing is that groups who feel “attacked” routinely claim that THEY are the ones being silenced: “stop censoring me!” when in reality that defense is, in itself, a silencing tactic. What is at root in Silencing is that a group that holds a majority position simply dose not want to entertain or “hear” voices that do not match their own, like a Diva who resents anyone singing their song in a different key. Silencing is also further “helped” by people in positions of power being dismissive or silent in the face of them–when someone comes forth with a criticism, those people in power either immediately become defensive (“Stop attacking me” style) or simply idly watch/ignore as their devoted “supporters” do the work for them. In many cases this plays into the issues of Legitimacy and Criticism = Condemnation, as it places the person who wants to offer a critique in an immediately defensive position: Is it worth speaking up when it may do nothing but attract hateful language, harassment, and possibly stalker-like activity to you, for the act of commenting about something? The answer is obviously no, and the fact that many people have to even ask themselves that question before saying anything is an unfortunate, sobering reality of online discourse.
Similarly, the argument that one is “looking” to be offended is an attempt to silence the critic as someone who is simply looking for attention–that there can be no obvious critique of something unless you’re just TRYING to find something wrong with it, which is of course not only ridiculous, but is particularly harmful. Creating an atmosphere where critique is viewed as “toxic” to a supposedly “perfect” medium is one that is ripe for the sands of time to wash it from history.
This is a problem in which groups of people seem to believe, or unconsciously believe, that a critique of their medium of choice is an attack against them–that they must be offended on the sake of the creator for the critique, because as its supporters, they “own” a share in it.
There are some obvious ways to see how this belief is completely ridiculous, and yet it is easy to see (once again, sadly, within the gaming community) due to the way that critics are routinely forced to defend against angry “fans” who treat statements like personal attacks.
Criticism of an object is not criticism of a person, nor is it criticism of the group that enjoys or partakes of the object. It is criticism of the object. Being unable, or unwilling, to accept that means you are not a supporter, you are a fanatic. You no more own the object than the critic, and in many cases you don’t own it any more than the creator does once the object is made public (outside of obvious economic ownership, a different beast). This mentality of ownership is almost Gollum-like, selfishly attempting to shield the object from any other eyes while keeping it to oneself again denies the object the ability to become a medium or a creative landscape, but instead relegates it to a personal amusement.
Similarly tied to this is the idea that by including larger groups, or being more sensitive to issues facing your much broader demographic, will somehow ‘ruin’ your medium, is linked to the idea that you ‘own’ that medium because you somehow contributed to where it is. In that sense, one would consider that if so many people would like to see it improved, that since you BUILT it, you would work with them, would be perhaps the obvious reaction. However, it rarely is, and is met with either creator chiding or claims of “its not FOR you,” as if mediums were limited to certain audiences and the fact that someone outside the “fence” got a hold of it is the problem, not that the thing you created has issues.
No one is going to “leave” a medium because it became more inclusive or more open to new ideas and people. And if there are people that DO leave, did you REALLY want them to be in your medium to begin with, if the idea of allowing more people access, comfort, or acceptability is what drives them out?
7.) Being Reactionary
This issue applies to almost everyone within online discourse; it is the thing that ruins friendships and sends huge divides into communities. When something happens, there are reactions to it. Some people take the reaction too far, and it leads to a cascade of other problems, like a hurricane that causes a mudslide which causes a flood. The issue with #7 is that it includes so many of the other problems within it, that its hard to even think of a solution except to “not respond.” This is one of the hardest solutions to cope with–I personally have a hard time with it–but not everything needs a response, nor does it deserve one. Reactionary responses are also the tools by which Silencers love to utilize; they are the things passed around to show how “crazy” a group is, like propaganda: “Look at what this crazy person said! Did you know that they’re a FEMINIST? I bet they’re ALL like that!” Which of course is not necessarily fair to pin on the person being reactionary, but if there is one thing all forms of discourse need online, it is mediation and the realization that everyone’s voice not only deserves to be heard, but that each voice should do so in a way that is respectful to the other; if someone gets upset, too often the reaction is to goad them into being MORE upset and say something ridiculous or awful to another party, instead of sussing out why they were upset in the first place and creating dialogue.
I’m sure there are more numbers that could be added to this list; all in all, its a reason I act with trepidation in terms of wading into discussions these days. It is also why I relish certain opportunities; the AX Symposium that I take part in is one such opportunity, as it allows academics to produce criticism and speak to a “public” audience, showing them the interesting and new ways that their medium can be enjoyed and is, in fact, respected or legitimized. It would be a great future for online discourse communities, particularly those with such apparently passionate members, to have that sort of future–a place where critics are not only respected, but have earned that respect through their hard work and years of practice, not because they are ‘popular’ or say the ‘right things.’ I’m not really sure how long it would take to get there, but I’d like to think that it will, because the other alternative is a scorched wasteland, while academic discourse continues from its Ivory Tower, echoing into the empty to halls to no one in particular. The best future is one where “public” and “academic” no longer have to be separated, but there is so much work to be done, and it seems so much easier to be divisive than it is to build bridges.