One of the real poverties of our digital age is the lack of authentic constructive criticism that happens in our online discourse. This is because we have ghettoized ourselves tribally according to ideological litmus tests, so the only interactions we have with people we actually disagree with are psychological warfare meant to rattle them with snarky zingers (a.k.a. “trolling”) rather than a genuine attempt to help others get past problems we perceive in their thinking. Imagine if you took responsibility for trying to persuade an ideological opponent of the plausibility of your views rather than simply showing off for the people who already agree with you by executing a slick take-down. Here are seven brief thoughts about how to be a better internet critic.
1) A little vulnerability goes a long way
If you seem like somebody who has your mind completely made up about what you think, I’m less likely to take you seriously than if you make it clear that you don’t you think you’ve arrived yet. The less authoritative your tone, the more authority your criticism will actually have with me. Show me your cards a little bit. Show what you personally have at stake in holding to whatever position you have. I can smell the difference between perfunctory false humility and true vulnerability. If I see that you have some self-awareness, I will regard you as a thoughtful person. Don’t make it easy for me to dismiss you as a brainwashed ideologue regurgitating somebody else’s talking points.
2) Presume that my intentions are good (even when they aren’t)
There’s a kernel of good in everyone’s intentions even when that good is shrouded in confusion and sin. The times that I have been the most convicted of my own arrogance and ignorance are when people are able to see good in me that I didn’t see and it makes me feel ashamed of the part of my intentions that are sleazy. This doesn’t work if it sounds too formulaic and disingenuous. If I sense that you see some good in my heart, then I’m going to hear your advice as coming from a place of love instead of dismissing it as disingenuous concern-trolling.
3) Show me that you read more than the title
I can’t tell you how many people make it very clear by their responses to my posts that they only read the title. I deliberately title my pieces as provocatively as possible to be good click-bait. So you might be more offended by the title than you are by what I actually wrote. When you actually read what I write, it’s a good deal more nuanced and cautious than the title might suggest. Also I often take current events as a jumping off point for a related but completely different topic, so if you start to argue one side of a current event debate that I actually haven’t been arguing about, it shows me that you didn’t have the patience to actually read what I wrote.4) Engage my actual words, not my perceived tribe
It seems like a lot of lazy internet critics just cut and paste the same recycled argument into the comments of all the people they perceive to be in the opposing tribe. You don’t know how many tribes I belong to. We may be in the same tribe on a lot of issues. So engage my words directly instead of recycling your one played-out argument.
5) Find something about what I’m trying to do that you can sympathize with
If you can show me that you appreciate and respect my goals while disagreeing with me on a particular point, then it’s a whole lot more likely that I’m going to hear you out on that point. Too often, when we critique others, we try to trash everything that they have to say because we’re operating in total take-down mode. I can’t learn anything from you if you’re in total take-down mode.
6) Recognize that you have never thought “just like me”
Nothing is more patronizing and laughably ignorant in Internet conversation than when people say, “You know, I used to think just like you.” Of course that’s what we all think about other people when we’re being intellectually lazy, because we project our own life histories onto others. Even if you once said something very similar to what you hear me saying, it doesn’t mean that I’m coming from the same place you were. Every life-story is irreducibly unique and unrepeatable. The best way to ensure that I will listen to nothing you’re saying is to insinuate that I’m you before you saw the light.
7) Don’t tell me that you or the “expert” whose blog you follow has “already addressed” my concerns in the link you want to share with me
It’s true that there’s nothing new under the sun. We’re having the same debates that people have had for thousands of years. But that doesn’t mean that you or anybody else has “already addressed” my concerns. If you don’t have the respect to engage me directly with a freshly written comment, then why do you think I’m going to click on your linkspam and let you exploit my blog to build your platform?