Monday, April 8, 2013

Criticism alone is not an Assault, Witch Hunt, Lynch Mob, or Crucifixion

I try to draw a line between criticism and violence.

I do, actually, get online threats of actual violence. This isn't unusual for bloggers, especially ones who belong to oppressed groups. I tend to get mine because I'm a woman, a feminist and a Jew. If someone receives rape and/or death threats -- and people do, far too often, especially if they belong to marginalized groups -- I find that horrifying.

However, I also find it clearly distinct from criticism.

Criticism (especially in a social justice context) is often described as assault, a witch hunt, a lynch mob, or a crucifixion. (There are a couple other go-to metaphors, but those are the major ones.) Of these, "witch hunt" and "lynch mob" are the most upsetting. However, they are all attempts to silence criticism by comparing it to a violent, unacceptable act. It is unacceptable to assault someone, ever; therefore, it's implied, that the criticism is likewise by its very nature unacceptable.

The use of the terms witch hunts and lynch mobs (or mobs in general) also implies that the criticism is not being offered in good faith, and certainly not with thoughtfulness, deliberation or sincerity. Instead, it implies that the criticism is the result of a mass delusion. It implies that there is nothing to criticize at all--that the very nature of what is being criticized is superstition--since witches don't exist and lynched victims are innocent. It implies that the only goal of criticism is bloodletting, that it will only be satisfied by burning stakes, pressing stones, or hung corpses.

Now, I do not mean to imply that no one who offers criticism is ever an asshole. People are totally assholes. You can easily show me examples of someone criticizing someone else, even taking a position I broadly agree with, and acting like a flaming asshole. And I will look at that and say, "Wow, that person is acting like a flaming asshole." This happens--it is, in fact, inevitable. Groups of people contain assholes.

I'm down with criticizing assholes for being assholes. But the terms "witch hunt" etc assume that the grounds for criticism are vaporous. When applied to groups, it also implies that no one (or almost no one) in the group is offering good faith or meritorious arguments.

It is sometimes true that a person is, in fact, offering a critique that stems from delusional, bad faith bloodthirstiness. It is sometimes true that groups are doing the same. When a group of people bullies a trans person until they commit suicide, I am comfortable saying that this is the result of delusion (transphobia is based on delusional principles), bad faith (transphobia itself may be something an individual feels in good faith; bullying is not an activity pursued in good faith), and bloodthirstiness (as it ends in death). Bullying exists at an intersection where words can become assault. That intersection *does* exist.

But people are very free with the comparisons of criticism to violence. And I would counsel being, instead, very strict with them.

Be aware of (among other things):

*The stakes. Is physical safety actually on the line? With a bullied gay teenager, it may be. With an adult blogger being criticized by anti-racist bloggers, it's probably not.

*Whose history you are invoking. Are you defending a person who is (in this argument) privileged by comparing their situation to violence or death that was explicitly directed toward people who were (in the salient situations) oppressed? Are you comparing a person whose speech is being criticized for being racist to someone who was killed by a lynch mob?

*Are you legitimately comfortable saying that the people you're accusing of participating in a witch hunt would like to see their victims subjected to physical violence? Or, instead, when you fill in the abstraction of "people criticizing this person I'd like to defend" with "Blogger X," does the metaphor start to make you uncomfortable? When you fill in the actual implications of the metaphor by defamiliarizing the language (instead of "this person is engaged in a witch hunt," something like "this person experiencing a mass delusion that makes them want to see people die"), does that make the comparison seem apt or appalling?

*(As a complicating factor to the above, are you using the history of the oppressed group against them? Are you using the real, historical deaths of people of color to suggest that criticism from people of color is like murder?)

Just because speech is being criticized doesn't mean that the criticism is legitimate. People can offer good faith criticisms, even criticisms that are theoretically rooted in correct ideas such as anti-racism, that are still totally wrong. People can be unreasonable assholes, and groups can pursue unreasonable, assholish arguments. As noted, sometimes speech does actually rise to the level of actual assault when violence is involved, either directly (as in threats) or implicitly (as in bullying). But most of the time, even the people who are being unreasonable jerks aren't actually arguing in bad faith or lusting for blood. They are arguing stupid points and doing it stupidly. Rather than attempting to shut them down by calling their criticism assault (unacceptable in any circumstances) as if it's the fact of *criticism itself* that is the problem, the best response is usually to explain why their *particular* criticism sucks. Unless their criticism *really is* assault, in which case, please do call it out. Explain why. Be savvy and aware. But don't just use these terms as short-hand or rhetorical flourish when they're not really what you mean. They're silencing, inacccurate, and in some cases offensive.

Real people really died as a result of lynch mobs. It's particularly insensitive for white Americans to use that as a metaphor for someone being criticized. As a Jew who lost a lot of relatives in the Holocaust, I would be upset if the go-to metaphor was to imply that criticism was like pushing people onto trains that would take them to gas chambers. That's taking the deaths of my relatives experienced and making them something trivial.

If you find yourself wanting to argue that I'm taking metaphorical language too seriously, then I ask you to really stop and think about the things you care most about, the ones that pinch and hurt, and imagine them being used this way. Try to take it out of the abstract for yourself. Find the places where you are tender. Now really, and in good faith, imagine that everyone presses on those tender places all the time, that they see them as fodder for winning internet arguments, and not actual, painful things. If you've done that and you still feel that you want to argue abstractions about language, then all right. I won't agree with you, but I'll believe you've tried to take my position into account. But please, first go to the place that hurts, and then imagine that being used against you as a way to stop you from arguing the positions you are passionate about.

1 comment:

CJDevall said...

Key distinctions - some very nice parsing out of what some people like to make into very convoluted issues. (Obfuscation generally being a tool used to maintain and power, and all that.) Thanks.