The Perqs of Online Criticism

As humans, we are trained to fear and loathe criticism.

Our formative years are punctuated by moments when we handed over a paper or a grade sheet to parents, with the mark of lack of perfection stamped indelibly, forced to justify why we didn’t get one grade mark higher than we did — without any real understanding of why, of course — and the knowledge that this would go on our permanent record.

We are socialized to understand the role criticism plays in peer pressure, but not trained to negotiate the rough waters for ourselves. No one ever tells you that other people suck; you learn it for yourself when the class comes up with a nonsensical and unpleasant nickname for you at 6 years old and at 25 people still remember it. You learn it when your second grade teacher tells you’re too dumb to read, or you tell you parents you want to be a singer when you grow up and they tell you you need to get a real job. And when you tell them you want to build bridges for a living they try to steer you into an office job.

Criticism of all kinds walk side by side with every endeavor we attempt whether we be in school, at work, in relationships. We’re taught by people around us that “constructive criticism,” although it will hurt, will ultimately help. But criticism of all kind hurts! How do we know when what we’ve heard is constructive?

It’s all constructive.

Playground insults, online threats, derisive coworkers…it’s all constructive.

Brené Brown discusses in her 99u talk Why Your Critics Aren’t The One Who Count on how we are our own worst critics, on why the people who criticize your work, your efforts “in the arena” and even your looks, simply don’t count. And I agree with her completely. If you are not or never have been in the arena, your criticism bears no weight with me. Armchair quarterbacks aren’t hired by professional football teams for a reason.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from them.

I write a blog about animation and comics. In my niche, it’s the oldest and most comprehensive blog in the world. My niche is specifically lesbian-themed Japanese comics and animation. You’d think there wouldn’t be too much to disagree with in such a small, personal and unpopulated field. You’d be wrong.

All fandoms have a single thing in common — people feel very strongly about whatever it is that they feel strongly about. (I have a theory about this, as it happens. When people form an opinion they effectively “take a side.” In order to form an opinion, we have to believe one thing more than another enough in order to make having an opinion about it worth having. The less consequential the thing is, the more strongly we must defend the position to justify having one at all. Whether that opinion is Spike was better for Buffy than Angel or The Packers are better than the Vikings, the more our opinion is challenged, the more we defend it and the more convinced we are that it is important.) In every fandom, there are any number of critical “sides” to be taken. Some of these battles last decades, fading out, only to pop up again when a new fan scratches off an old scab.

So back to my blog. In anime blogging almost no one gets angry at you when you like something, unless you commit the obvious crime of comparing it to something else. But should you not like something…well, then, it’s open season.

And here’s where we encounter the tip of the iceberg known broadly and coldly as “online harassment.” Because, as a woman with an opinion on the Internet, should I ever take any position in opposition to any man, it becomes open season.

In her talk, Brown talks about how, as her own worst critic, she will be unhappy with herself, her motions, her looks, her voice, all as example of the most useless forms of criticism. But online, we don’t need to be that harsh on ourselves…someone is glad to do it for us. And with precision, dedication and commitment, those people will take a scalpel to everything about yourself that you ever thought. Those people will let you know, in great detail how stupid, ugly, horrible, useless, did I mention stupid and ugly?, you are and will ever be.

Conventional wisdom tells us to not feed the trolls, but we’ve long passed the tipping point on that. Trolls are self-sustaining, they don’t need us to give them attention, they give it to each other for being trolls. In school we were told to ignore the teasing, at work we’re told to ignore harassment. It’s pretty obvious that conventional wisdom is scared of bullies and trolls and doesn’t want to have to deal with it.

But those of us in the arena do have to deal with it. For actual threatening and harmful behavior, I recommend the Crash Override Network, an organization created by survivors of prolonged, violent and terroristic threats, Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz.

But what about those of us in smaller, less public arenas? For us, I advocate considering criticism a perquisite.

Are we in fact our worst critics? I mean, I might not think I’m beautiful, but the email I receive gives me specifics on all the things I need to do to be fuckable. Is my voice in that video annoying in my opinion? Let my helpful online critics tell me all the irritating things it sounds like to them.

In fact, I consider my online critics to be a sort of outsourcing company for all my deepest fears and self-doubts. I never have to worry that I might forget for a second that I’m a woman talking about lesbian comics for men, because my online critics will be sure to remind me, as they will remind me that I am not a “true” fan of any given genre and therefore an imposter, incapable of rendering a valid verdict.

I am thankful to my critics, I truly am. Motivated by jealousy or inability to create in their own right, or whatever, they gleefully force me to face everything I doubt about myself head-on, accept those things and move forward.

Life coaches ask you to assess what can be changed and what cannot and work on those things that can. Critics are practically a life coach - delineating every weak area in your presentation, every annoying physical or verbal tick you have, an endless Greek Chorus of self-improvement tips.

Having mentioned the Greek Chorus, it seems fitting to end this with a Deus ex Machina. There are any number of inspirational quotes about you having a right to be where you are and say what you are saying, critics be damned. So I’m simply going to say this — when your critics are harshest, you know you’re looking at the deepest darkest depths of your own underworld. Thank those impermanent shades for their guidance and reminders of all the unreal things that hold you back and head to the surface, sure in your own abilities to know what is real and what can be changed.

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