Management: This particular piece only covers one side of the equation, so before I start, I should link this earlier piece that tackles this issue from the opposite angle.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve witnessed a good number of online teapot-tempests related to both criticism generally and tone specifically. Which seems like a silly thing to even announce – of course people have been bickering, this is the internet, that’s what it’s for. But these particular arguments kinda struck me – though they all concerned different groups of people, they all played out similarly, and I think the reasons why touch on some general pitfalls of both criticism specifically and discourse more generally. Unfortunately, those pitfalls don’t all line up in a neat row, so I’m gonna have to break this down into a few pieces – starting with the dangerous assumptions critics can make and hopefully meandering my way towards something approaching a point. Consider this an open letter to critics, fans, and anyone else who’s ever valued their own opinion enough to inflict it on others.
So. You want to criticize stuff, huh? Of course you do – every child dreams of spending hours of unpaid labor attempting to comment on art for an uncaring niche audience. But before you get to work, you should probably learn that you’re wrong, everyone else is right, your taste is irrelevant, and you’re a bad person besides. Why? Let’s take those charges one at a time.
On Why You Are Always Wrong
First of all, I hope it goes without saying that no critic is ever right. And by that, I mean anyone who says they’re imparting the “One Truth” of criticism on an uncaring public is lying to themselves. There is no one “correct” way to make a successful work of art, and all of us have certain artistic priorities we value more than others. You can talk about general values of criticism as applied to film or literature, but even these are fluid, and our response to various works is always based in our personal references and experiences. If you acknowledge this, you can be a harsh critic people still like – it just requires admitting that your standards of criticism are based, like every other single human being’s, on a personal system of evaluation. And even then, you can still argue “I think these artistic priorities are more valuable than others” – I certainly do. But that doesn’t mean I just attack anything that doesn’t correlate to those values – I try to evaluate how it succeeds in its own goals, and place it on my own scale in light of that. And I don’t go attacking people for enjoying it, because attacking what people already enjoy is the worst, least useful way of making people appreciate great art – frankly, it’s just masturbation designed to make you feel smart. You can’t take away other people’s experiences of art, but what you can do is try to illustrate why the things you love are so great – be a positive influence on the world and you’ll change a lot more minds.
On Why the Majority is Always Right
I often hear people disparage the “dumb majority” or the “lowest common denominator” or whatnot, and talk of how the majority is “wrong” to like what they like. Well, turns out this is pretty much just a fake idea, and based in some assumptions about “taste” that just don’t mean anything. For example…
Last year, the most popular show by far was Attack on Titan. It was a big, expensive blockbuster with a lot of action sequences, melodramatic direction, and classic, archetypal characters. It is very difficult to defend its writing as great literature, and even among the show’s fans, there were many people who said it had pacing problems. Does this mean people were “wrong” to like it? Not at all – it was very much the show people wanted. Its lack of anime-specific tropes opened it to a wider audience, its western aesthetic and action-packed narrative hearkened back to the shows a generation of latent anime fans remembered from the late 90s/early 00s, and its straightforward war drama focus kept audiences consistently entertained. It was the right show for the right audience.
That’s not to say it’s useless to critique it, of course. Obviously fans of anything can get defensive about the things they like (particularly when you start attacking the opinions of very young people, who are more inclined to associate their media with their identity), but that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to listen to contrary opinions. I gave it a 6/10 review personally, but I didn’t get attacked for my opinion, because I stated my reasons and didn’t attack others for liking what they like. The majority don’t like what they like because they’re “too stupid” to like what you like – they like what they like because their favorites succeed in being what they want from their media. And until you can acknowledge the many different things people could want from their media, you will not be communicating at all.
On Why Your Critical Taste is Irrelevant
People often tar shows they dislike with terms like “pandering” or “indulgent,” and use these terms to dismiss the people who enjoy them. Crazily enough, it turns out these aren’t strictly negative terms, and seeking shows that challenge you doesn’t make you a better person. There are people who spend all day working on solutions to tough coding problems, or campaigning for politicians they believe in, or solving problems in a stressful office environment, and then come home and watch some moe slice of life to relax for a while. Do you feel justified in yelling at these people for not continuously watching cartoons that make them question their worldview? You think anime is the only way you can inject intellectual stimulation into your life, or even anywhere near the most effective way? That’s ludicrous. Personally, yeah, I generally (though far from always) watch anime with an eye for themes and writing, and my own preferences on storytelling often align with traditional metrics of this stuff, and I happen to be someone who finds nothing more interesting than storytelling itself, and so I’ve spent years and years obsessing over such things in my education, work, and private life. I am not normal. That is not the normal case, and it is not the “correct” case, either.
Because there isn’t a “correct” case – there are just people, all of whom bring different desires to media. Some people want to feel powerful. Some people want to relax and feel warm and unstressed. Some people want to feel intellectually engaged. Some people want to fall in love. One of the beautiful things about stories is they can do all of these things. And obviously I’m not neutral here, either – I certainly evaluate things, and I certainly get loud with my opinions. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that the transformative power of art, its ability to fundamentally change us as human beings, either rattling our convictions, opening our worldview, articulating something we’ve known but never felt, or breaking our hearts, is one of the most powerful, beautiful, and important things in the world, and I will always, always, always champion works that I think embody that power.
But that’s just my opinion. And if other people don’t seek that stimulation in art, they are still not wrong. And even if you want to demonstrate to other people how rewarding your own style of engagement with art can be, saying “your taste is stupid” is not the way to do it. If you’re actually looking to change minds, don’t tell people how stupid it is to be them. Demonstrate how satisfying it is to be you.
On Why You Deserve to Be Yelled At
I hope this one follows naturally from the ones above, but if it doesn’t, here’s the kicker: if you frame your criticism as a direct attack on the people who enjoy something, those people are going to get mad. Shocking, I know. And I don’t mean this to say you can’t do that – just that angry responses shouldn’t really be surprising. I certainly know why people frame things in dismissive ways – it’s fun! It’s very fun to feel powerful as a critic, and it’s fun to get silly with your criticism. The anti-camaraderie that builds around disliking a show promotes exactly the same kind of in-group special-feeling-ness that liking a show does, and riffing on what you dislike about a show is one of the easiest ways to make with the funny criticism yuck yucks. Plus, those clicks. Those delicious, delicious clicks. We all know how the internet works – hell, we all know how people work. Say something reasonable and well-thought-through, and maybe you’ll get one comment either agreeing, disagreeing, or commenting on your sexuality. Say something inflammatory and dismissive, and ho boy those clicks are comin’. People are baited by conflict in either direction – whether they agree or disagree, a wild, untamed opinion will get their attention. Believe me, I know the allure.
And honestly, I’m not actually against it. But when you switch from tearing a show apart to attacking the actual motives of the people who watch it, well, they’re not going to appreciate it. You are no longer engaging in even-handed criticism – you are now just mocking people on the internet. So when they respond to that with their own personal attacks, well, you can’t really say you didn’t see it coming.
On Why You Are a Shitty Human Being
Criticism isn’t necessarily a responsibility, but it is a power. When you put words out there, you change the world. Not necessarily in big ways – not every forum post and tweet is going to usher in a new era of kindness and humility. But every thing you write affects the reader. If they were having a bad day and you wrote something encouraging, you just made their life a little better. If they were having a good day and you wrote something dismissive, you just made their life a little worse. This doesn’t mean you need to pore over the potential consequences of every single statement you make, but please, from time to time, ask yourself. What are you trying to change? What is the purpose of your criticism? If it’s to entertain some and alienate others, then you have no right to complain about negative reactions. When you frame your content in such a way that it actively disparages people who disagree with you, their reaction is what you are creating. It’s not on them – hostility is what you have chosen to offer the world, and though everyone is in control of their own reactions, you always have the option to think about what you say before you say it, consider who you’re actually attacking, and be the better person. And if it isn’t already clear, this doesn’t just apply to critics – this applies to every person who has said anything to any other person ever.
I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that in modern culture, “asshole” has come to be seen as a perfectly valid way of representing yourself. “Sorry, I’m kind of an asshole.” “Pardon me if I offended you.” Etc. “Asshole” is considered a valid affectation – something comparable to “prankster” or “rascal.”
Well, here’s the last kicker: “asshole” is really just a socially-sterilized synonym for “shitty human being.” Does that sting a bit more? Good. That’s how being an “asshole” is supposed to feel. Not that you’re automatically a shitty human being if you say anything uncharitable or unkind – but I think internet discourse could use a whole lot less “pardon me, I’m kind of an asshole,” and a whole lot more “before I post this, is this something an empathetic person would say, or something a shitty human being would say?” You are not responsible for making sure no one is ever hurt by what you say, but your contributions to the dialogue are always within your control, and always reflective of your identity.
On Why It’s Okay, Really
Unfortunately, the vast majority of us kind of are shitty human beings. At least sometimes. We get mad, we get lazy, we get self-righteous, we even just want to say dumb, mean stuff because it’s easy and funny and laughing along with people who agree with us feels good. We’re all works in progress here. I’m not here to indict you – I’m offering my opinion, because this is my struggle along with everyone else’s. Embrace being wrong in your own way, but make that a positive thing – make it something that even people who disagree with you can respect. Make your fortress passion, not scorn. Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t make mocking, dismissive stuff, or that doing that is “wrong” – it just means you should always be conscious of the choices you make. Making jokes about the art is fine, being opinionated and abrasive is fine, but don’t let cynicism be your identity – your negativity is not just a personal choice, it is an act that contributes to a discourse beyond your control. It’s a goddamn magical power the internet has given us, so be yourself, but always aspire to be kind.