Critics, Criticism, and Civil Society

I have worked as a critic, and I am socially acquainted with other critics. I have enjoyed many a pleasant meal with critics (the ones who write reviews of anime and manga, at least). I have read hundreds of thousands of words of criticism on topics ranging from consumer technology to scholarly monographs. And as a sociologist, the language of academic criticism has become part and parcel of my daily discourse. Yet despite this critical mass (excuse the pun) of interaction with both the labour of criticism and other critics themselves, one thing has never ceased to baffle me: how critics can believe that something is just a matter of opinion unless it’s their opinion—in which case the opinion is actually true.

Is the manga series Naruto gem or junk, and if I write that it is a gem, is this a truth claim, or is just my opinion? Perhaps you have your own view. Perhaps you think this is a silly question that does not merit a column in the first place. I, however, would argue that this question is a red herring. Instead of worrying about the existential issues, we ought, instead, to ask the following question: Under what conditions is the labour of criticism constructive or destructive? This is a question that takes on a particular urgency in the digital age, where the proliferation of blogs, online forums, and other social media means that everyone who has an opinion has a place to express it.

In Human Communication as Narration, Walter Fisher (1989) argues that there is no such thing as a value-free argument; you cannot separate fact from value. The logic sequences with which we construct our arguments are inextricably bound to our moral and ethical selves. If this is true, then, I would argue, criticism is important not for what is concluded, but rather why it is concluded. In other words, when we read an influential film critic panning the latest blockbuster because all of the female characters are either mothers or whores, we ought to be concerned less with whether or not we believe him to be correct and far more about whether or not we think the absence of three-dimensional female characters is wrong.

This shift in emphasis isn’t just about how we might go about reading about entertainment media; it also has important implications for critical political discourse as well. Politicians and pundits, eager to assume a mantle of virtuousness, often call for a ‘change in the tone’ of political debate. They decry the vitriol, the obscenities, the volume turned up to the maximum setting. They call for civility, for reasoned debate…and strangely it doesn’t seem to matter what side you’re on. But this too is a red herring. Does it really matter if the politician smiles politely while he passes legislation that makes our society more unjust and unequal? Are his actions excusable, just because he said ‘please’, ‘excuse me’, and ‘thank you very much’? I certainly hope not!

In fact, polite, civil discourse can be used to conceal positions that, were they to be expressed in the bluntest of terms, would be immediately recognized as utterly unacceptable. I am reminded of an anecdote told by Norman Finkelstein at a conference on academic freedom at NYU a couple of years ago. He proposed a scenario (and I paraphrase here) where a black student appears in a professor’s office to ask for some additional academic guidance. Would it be worse for that professor to casually dismiss the student’s concerns by saying, ‘Good scientific research shows that black people like yourself have statistically significant lower IQ scores than white people’, or if he said, ‘Stop wasting my time, jungle baby’! The answer is obvious.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

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