When Criticism Would Help But Critics Might Hurt

The intention of this post is twofold: first, to explain why a person should in some cases hold off from making valid critiques of social justice movements; second, to explain why I in particular tend not to make such critiques. I want to emphasize that I am very much in favour of social justice movements and hope to support them whenever possible. However, I am also very much in favour of improving things I value by criticizing them, so it should logically follow that I am in favour of criticizing social justice movements. This post should explain why this is not so.


Source: Melissa Wall at flic.kr/p/6Y9fxk

On Criticism

I believe, very strongly, in criticism; criticism is necessary for a thing to improve, and there are very few things and people who could not use improvement. Above all I believe in self-criticism, the capacity to be one’s own best critic. Often I am the person best suited to finding the weaknesses in my arguments, the faults in my character, the strain in my writing. But just as often I am not the person best suited to find those weaknesses, faults, and strains. If I am ignorant of my own error, I will require another person to point it out to me.

Of course I am not advocating for snide, malicious, unthoughtful, or uninformed criticism. These are not helpful. But I know from creative writing workshops and from editing and being edited that direct criticism is by and large far more helpful than praise. A critique without praise is not ideal, but a critique without criticism is worthless.

Mostly I am willing to universalize this; in strict epistemological terms I might invoke fallibilism, which states that propositions are not confirmed but rather tested and either falsified or not (yet) falsified. If you recall my discussions of personal epistemology, you will perhaps see the relationship between fallibilism and the final stages of personal epistemology, called evaluativism: because knowledge is a construction which is never absolute but which can be evaluated by standards of evidence and reason, knowledge is always imperfect. I therefore don’t seek perfect knowledge of something; I seek the best knowledge that is possible to me given my pre-existing knowledge and resources. (Or, I don’t. People usually satisfice rather than optimize.) When I remember all of this, I understand that there could be better knowledge. The best knowledge I have is only the best knowledge I have right now. The only way to improve my knowledge is to discover the imperfection in my knowledge and to falsify it. That is, I must submit my knowledge to criticism in order to improve it. This is true of everyone, always, and not just in epistemology: it is true to of refining one’s artistic talent, of becoming a more virtuous person, of improving one’s athletic technique, of overcoming harmful mental habits. One refines through fire.


Social Justice and Criticism

For this reason, most movements that have improved the world have been in some way critical. I take most movements now labelled social justice as emblematic of this tendency. Feminism, anti-racist activism, prison reform, LGTBQ activism: these have all strongly criticized the existing social order with the aim of removing harmful structures, attitudes, and institutions so that those people who suffered under them would have opportunities to thrive without them. Of course criticism was and is not always the only component of these movements, but the negative freedoms (from discrimination, persecution, slavery, etc.) are usually preconditions for positive freedoms. I am therefore unsurprised that these movements have tended to criticize themselves as well. What is called intersectional feminism, for instance, has emerged to replace and criticize previous forms of feminism that were not sensitive to the ways racism, economic oppression, homophobia, and transphobia impact and are impacted by sexism.

Lately there have been concerns that the social justice movement is not sensitive to another kind of criticism, however: suggestions that it has gone too far, for instance; suggestions that it has done unwarranted harm to non-members; suggestions that it has started to do harm to its own members; suggestions that it has not adequately replaced the institutions it has dismantled; or suggestions that it is targeting the wrong structures of oppression. As just one example, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has apparently been making such criticism for years and has also claimed that most of the time no one is willing to listen to him. I don’t mean to pick on Alexander, but he has articulated his position so clearly and so often that he makes a good example of someone who a) is often writing about his problems with feminism and b) seems, as explained below, to be the sort of person who should probably make these criticisms less often and less forcefully than he does.

My own sense of this is that these critiques fall into three categories: 1) entirely baseless, self-interested, and uninformed responses from people with privilege (often these are cynically meant, but sometimes the people who make them are fooling themselves more than anyone); 2) self-interested and uninformed responses from people with privilege that do, nonetheless, address actual problematic behaviour within social justice movements; and 3) informed and disinterested responses that address actual problematic behaviour within social justice movements. These categories are listed in order from most common to least common (in my experience), but all of them exist.

The sense I get from social justice groups that I have had the privilege of observing is that there is a great deal of impatience toward people criticizing from the outside and that there is not quite enough self-criticism from within. Some communities are better than others; Tumblr is particularly bad, so much so that anyone who takes it as a benchmark for social justice movements is no different than a person who judges all patriots as though they were fascists. Other social justice communities are excellent, quite capable of taking criticism and considering it honestly. Diagnosing social justice’s capacity for self-criticism is not what I want to do in this discussion, however, not least because it is too big and diverse for such broad-stroke assessments: rather, I want to talk about the very good reasons social justice movements might be resistant to external criticism.


Why Criticism Might Be Unwelcome

First and most obvious, in the same way that most social justice activity on Tumblr is appalling, most criticism that members of social justice movements have to put up with is uninformed, badly intentioned, and (often) incoherent. Even when phrased in very logical and patient terms, they are still often these things. Indeed, that makes it worse: if the uninformed and badly intentioned people spoke only in gibberish, it would be easier to determine which was which. But as it is, a person has to put a lot of effort into understanding a critique well enough to classify it as useless or worth listening to. Most or many social justice advocates do not want to spend the time making such distinctions. If you think that it’s unfair or irrational to choose missing occasionally valuable criticism over paying attention to many many false alarms, you either undervalue the time of social justice activists or underestimate how much dreck there is clamouring for their attention.

Second and most relevant, though, is the problem of pre-existing relationships. We are not rational, disinterested, passionless individuals engaging in an intellectual exercise; we are not without histories. Even if your criticism is valid, you will probably sound very much like a person who made harmful criticism in the past. You might intend your criticism to improve social justice, to make it more fair and just, but other people will be saying the same or similar things with the intent to crush it. Perhaps you have even, in the past, made critiques in a spirit that was less fair, merciful, or just than it ought to have been (certainly I have). Perhaps, then, the person to whom you wish to present a criticism does need that criticism; they might not be improved by getting it from you, though.

By which I mean they might very well not be improved by getting it from me.


Why I Do Not Often Criticize Social Justice Movements

One of the reasons I am hesitant to voice criticism of social justice movements is, of course, that I fear it will damage whatever career I might have. I am not above craven motivation. However, this is the least of the two primary reasons; I also believe I am usually not the best person to make such critiques. I inhabit many positions of privilege;1 arguably most, though not all, of the positions I inhabit are ones of significant privilege. It will be very hard for people who are in correspondingly less privileged positions to take my criticisms unless I have built up trust first. For the most part, that cannot happen in public forums. So I tend to reserve my criticism for more private channels where I have built up such trust. Even then, I assess how necessary the criticism is, though perhaps in the last case that is merely cowardice on my part.

As I said in the opening, when self-criticism is possible it is usually more effective than external criticism. The question for someone like me is what constitutes the movement’s self; am I part of the in-group, as someone who is in favour of and more than usually educated about social justice activism, or am I part of the out-group, as someone who inhabits positions of privilege which social justice activism criticizes? So I am hesitant, yes. I fear that publicly voicing my concerns about social justice would do more harm than good.

(Another reason I avoid criticizing social justice movements is because my quarrels are usually less about which actions to take and more about the fundamental epistemological basis for their rationale. I agree with the conclusions almost all of the time; I disagree with most people about epistemology most of the time. So far, I have not had many productive arguments about epistemology and since that is where my quarrel is, I have not thought it worth my time unless the disagreement starts affecting practice in some way. Even if this were not the case, though, I wouldn’t likely think I should be the one to make the argument.)

What about you? Are you on the inside or the outside? How necessary are your criticisms, and you effective do you think you would be voicing them? These are meant as rhetorical questions which you are to ask yourself each time you want to make a criticism, not in a once-for-all fashion.

Of course, feel free to comment with fair criticisms, whether severe or gentle, if you have them. As an advocate of criticism, I wish to receive criticism far more than I wish to give it. I am selfish that way: I want to be refined.

(That said: please for the love of all that is holy, stop using the word neck-beard as an insult. Unless you are comfortable being ableist, cissexist, sizeist, and classist, I guess.)

1. I realize the word privilege, used in this way, is a reverse dog-whistle word for many people. It makes their skin crawl and alienates them from the conversation. Indeed, many of the people for whom I am writing this post will feel this way about this word. Now, it shouldn’t be a reverse dog-whistle word, and hope people will come to recognize that; it’s the best word for what I want to convey. However, I chose to use it a bit more cynically than that, I admit: does hearing this word make you close yourself a bit to whatever criticism the person using that word wants to make? That feeling is exactly what I am trying to convey here; your interlocutors’ analogous feeling is why you might not be the person to make this criticism. (If you don’t close yourself in response to privilege, then it’s a moot point.)

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