David Smalley asked a question on Twitter last night:
I’m not sure “How do I criticize without being subject to criticism myself” is quite the right frame of mind for the question, but there’s a decent question in there. So, assuming he actually meant to ask, “How do I make it clear that I’m in favor of something while criticizing its abuse?”, here are some tips drawn from my prior writing on giving criticism.
These may seem a bit general, but the point of criticizing something you like should be to improve it. That means you want to make your criticism constructive. How?
- Don’t pretend to be more objective about the situation than you are. You have history, particularly in a smaller community. Own it and the personal biases you’ve developed with it.
- Offer your criticism when it’s least likely to be viewed as an attempt to put a finger on the scale of current events. This makes the situation less “us vs. them”, making it easier to hear your criticism, and reduces your appearance of bias.
- Offer real, unstinting, thoughtful praise of the people and “something good” you’re going on to criticize. If you do that well before you offer criticism and do it consistently, you’re much more likely to be viewed as trying to be helpful.
- Be specific in your criticism and praise. This is particularly true when you’re trying to separate appropriate use of something from abuse. What’s an example of doing it right? How does that differ from doing it wrong? Can you point to real examples of each?
- Focus on behaviors you want to see change. Calling people “Outrage Brigade”, for example, isn’t useful. If you want to offer constructive criticism, focus instead on which expressions of outrage you find problematic. People can change what they do, not who they are.
- Make sure your criticism is accurate. Someone who doesn’t agree with you about the basics of a situation or behavior you’re complaining about isn’t going to think anything more needs to change than your perceptions.
- Don’t try to set yourself up as an authority when offering criticism. Give them other reasons to change. If people don’t agree that you have any authority over them, your “Change” will be met with “Make me.”
- Make sure you’re not just venting. Venting is fine, but it isn’t constructive criticism. If you actually want change instead of just for people to hear you, you’ve got a lot more work to do.
Those are the basics. I hope they help, David.
If this post sounds familiar to you, that’s because, like all the talk of “dividing” the atheist and skeptic movements, none of this is new. None of what we’re seeing these days is even responsive to prior critique. But if other people can repeat themselves on this, so can I. Maybe this time, I’ll even get some answers.
For context, a friend posted recently about finding out someone they’d looked up to had been accused of unethical behavior. The post was more a cri de coeur than anything else, along the lines of “Will everyone in this movement disappoint me?” Given that my first guess regarding which person they were talking about was wrong, I can’t really argue with the sentiment.
Someone else did, though. An atheist media personality responded to suggest the question was unfair and unhelpful. Continue reading “Questions from the Outrage Brigade”
I push pretty hard for organizations to do things better. I suggest changes. I criticize what I think are obvious mistakes. I even helped run a conference this summer aimed at making people better activists.
Occasionally, people look at that and think I’m demanding perfection. I’m not. If I were, I’d be in trouble, because I personally have never run an event where something didn’t go wrong. I don’t know any other organizer who has either. Perfection isn’t nigh unto impossible and even harder when you’re being ambitious.
I actually advocate for two things. First of all, I want people to make new mistakes instead of old ones. I want us to share information with each other about our challenges and solutions. I want us to listen to people who tell us we’ve failed them and either do better or be up front about the needs we can’t meet. I want us to get good enough at what we do that we can spend energy on trying new things instead of scrambling when something predictable goes wrong.
I also want us to get better at dealing with mistakes. I want to stop seeing people vilified for pointing them out. I want to see us keep taking responsibility like adults even when things go badly. I want us to learn instead of asking our friends to comfort us and tell us we did nothing wrong.
None of this is impossible, but it is often hard and uncomfortable. In light of that, I’d like to talk about a few things that went wrong with Skepticon this year and give the organizers some kudos for how they handled it they figured out they’d screwed something up. Continue reading “Skepticon, and Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong”
In October 2000, American McGee’s Alice came out to a good bit of fanfare. In the dark video game, Alice Liddell has gone down the dark rabbit hole of madness after losing her family in a house fire. Using her vorpal blade and other weapons derived from Wonderland and the land behind the looking glass, she bloodily battles elements of her own psyche for control of her mind. The game was so successful that in 2003, McGee announced a sequel of sorts, to feature Dorothy Gale in her own twisted adventures in Oz.
Due to financial difficulties, the game was never made, but the announcement was enough to set off the guys at Penny Arcade, the webcomic dealing primarily with the video game industry. On April 14, 2003, they released a comic lampooning McGee’s destruction of childhood innocence. The single-panel comic presented itself as an ad for American McGee’s Strawberry Shortcake. Strawberry Shortcake’s friend Plum Pudding, now looking quite grown up in a corset and thigh-high stockings, was shown on her hands and knees, while Strawberry Shortcake sat on top of her, similarly attired, brandishing a riding crop she’d obviously been using on her friend. Custard the kitten sat in the background, now a panther with bloody jowls.
The text of the fake ad told us Strawberry Shortcake was “a sweet girl with a taste for PAIN.” We also learned “Her kitten, Custard, fed by a thousand corpses, seeks out a meal of flesh!” and “Strawberry’s naughty playmate Plum Pudding is the main course at this tea party!” Finally, we were invited to “Taste her in 2005”. Two rather toothy and demonic-looking strawberries completed the picture.
The comic was amusing and on-point, but it probably would have been forgotten by now, except for one thing.
Continue reading “Handling Criticism: Beware the Legal Option”
A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow-FtB blogger Miri found out that someone on Facebook had started a page whose title asked whether she should be murdered. On the page itself were posts advocating changes to the law so the murdering Miri would be legal and suggestions that people should tell Miri to kill herself. Miri blogs about mental health and is very open about her own experiences with depression, including contemplating suicide. The Facebook page also told people how to find Miri’s blog and her Facebook page.
A few hours later, after dozens of people reported the page to Facebook for harassment and threats, Facebook sent automated responses to everyone saying that the page met their community standards. Then the outrage, which had been directed at the page’s creator, was redirected at Facebook. People responded to the notices, quoting Facebook’s own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
Other people, remembering that it had previously taken a campaign targeting Facebook’s advertisers to get Facebook to respond to pages advocating violence against women, took to social media and started yelling about the problem instead. Miri herself tweeted, “Hey @facebook, I’m really glad to know threatening me with murder on your website fits your ‘community standards.'”
That’s when Facebook’s Chief Engineer, Mike Shaver, decided to step in. Continue reading “Handling Criticism: Focus on the Reasonable”
On September 25, Guido Barilla, part owner and chair of pasta maker the Barilla Group, appeared on Italian radio show La Zanara. In a discussion with the show’s hosts on using families headed by same-sex couples in adversiting, Barilla made a number of comments that revealed ignorance of and prejudice. (All quotes from Guido Barilla have been translated.)
For us, the ‘sacral family’ remains one of the company’s core values. Our family is a traditional family. If gays like our pasta and our advertisings, they will eat our pasta; if they don’t like that, they will eat someone else’s pasta. You can’t always please everyone not to displease anyone. I would not do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect toward homosexuals – who have the right to do whatever they want without disturbing others – but because I don’t agree with them, and I think we want to talk to traditional families. The women are crucial in this.
He also took the opportunity to suggest that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt. Continue reading “Handling Criticism: Decide Who Represents You”
“Eating batteries”. That was the title of the first post on 9-year-old Martha Payne’s food blog, NeverSeconds. Her plan to take a picture of her school lunch each day as a writing prompt had been thwarted by her misbehaving camera.
Just over a week later, however, on May 8, 2012, Payne posted two pictures of her lunches. They were skimpy affairs, even for a child’s lunch. Vegetables and fruit were barely to be seen. Payne’s father, David, tweeted “My primary school daughter is blogging her £2 school lunch experiences. I’m speechless. http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk Please comment.”
Not only did people comment, they passed the link around. David’s tweet was retweeted more than 500 times. Though Payne also tweeted the link separately to the attention of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and a regional news site, the blog seems to have gained its popularity through “old-fashioned” internet means. People simply passed it around. In hours, David Payne and the blog were trending topics on Twitter in the UK. The blog post received 25,000 views that day. Continue reading “Handling Criticism: Understand Your Power”
On July 6, 2009, the folk duo Sons of Maxwell uploaded a video for a new country song to their YouTube channel. Most of their songs recorded before that date currently show views in the tens of thousands. A couple have over 100,000 views. This new video passed two and a half million views in its first week online and is sitting at thirteen and a half million views now. The song was a download hit on iTunes as well.
What was this amazing song? “United Breaks Guitars”.
The song was Dave Carroll expression of frustration with United Airlines. In 2008, the neck of Carroll’s guitar was broken when his guitar was thrown while being unloaded from a plane. Carroll had the guitar fixed (though he said the sound wasn’t the same) and asked United to pay for the repairs. He spent months talking to people in various parts of the company, only to have his claim denied because it wasn’t filed within 24 hours, even though Carroll had attempted to get help from United employees immediately after the incident.
Within 24 hours after the video was released, it had received 150,000 views, and United offered to pay the claim if Carroll would take the video down. He suggested they give the money to charity. Continue reading “Handling Criticism: Decide Whether to Respond”
“My friend doesn’t think you’re funny.”
Bland criticism like that is routine for most comedians. However, in November of 2006, responding to just those words killed the career of one of the stars of one of television’s most successful comedies. In the seven years since Michael Richards appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to talk about that gig, he’s appeared on television a grand total of eight times, most of them projects related to Seinfeld.
The problem wasn’t the criticism itself. After all, the words came from a heckler in a room packed full of people paying to see Richards perform. Engaged audiences don’t like hecklers any more than comedians do. If Richards had told the heckler and his friends to sit down, shut up, and let everyone else enjoy their evening, he’d have received a round of applause.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what Richards did. Continue reading “Handling Criticism: Stop”
We’re coming up on Skepticon again soon. Not only will I be there, but I will be running another Friday workshop. This year’s topic: dealing with public criticism. You know you want to see that–or the reactions to that on the conference hashtag.
I kid, but it’s true that most people have only a rough idea how to handle criticism from friends, much less criticism that turns the public eye on them. People who handle public criticism really well are rare enough that they get our attention. Still, criticism isn’t going to stop coming from the religious, from people whose other ideas we debunk, or from each other. So we’ll take an hour and work through some of the considerations and skills needed to deal with it.
Preparing for the workshop, I found that there aren’t a lot of good resources out there on the topic. There are a bunch of link- and SEO-bait short articles. There are a couple good, longer articles aimed at businesses. There are what appear to be a couple of good chapters in Online Reputation Management for Dummies, but they aren’t comprehensive, and again, the book is mostly aimed at businesses. So between now and Skepticon, I’ll be putting a lot of my writing time and energy into doing a brain dump on the topic. If it turns out to be good, it may become something more formal after the conference.
Either way, come to Skepticon! Register if you haven’t already. Donate if you can. Donate now and double your donation through two matching grants that have have just been announced. Buy some of their custom dinosaur chocolates, perfect gifts for all those fall birthdays.
Then show up for my workshop, and we’ll talk about criticism. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.