Gongol.com Archives: October 2022

Brian Gongol

October 13, 2022

News Is it criticism, or just preaching to the converted?

Praise broadly and criticize specifically: It's good advice for management and equally good advice within personal relationships. To be easy with praise -- so long as it is authentic -- is a good way to ensure that people feel appreciated and recognized for their personal dignity. To constrain criticisms to the most specific level possible helps reduce differences to the narrowest possible lanes. ■ Both habits are means to reinforce mutual trust and respect, and to encourage the most dignified possible interactions among people. And they are habits sorely missing from the mainstream of contentious public opinion. ■ The nature of space-constrained headline snippets and the relentless pressure to get people to take measurable action (by "liking", sharing, or reading content) is having a toxic effect on the way people take in their opinions. If a writer can't get an audience to "tune in" on the basis of what fits into a social-media clip, then all the leftover effort in the world can go into crafting the perfect inverted pyramid and it won't make any difference. The headline either makes the sale or it does not. ■ Unwavering fealty to the demand for spicy headlines doesn't do much for the dignity of interactions. It just encourages broad criticisms in pursuit of getting the largest number of like-minded critics to like, share, and click. It's an incentive structure that rewards tribal signaling, not witty critique. ■ Thus, when an opinion columnist for the New York Times wants to criticize a member of the United States Senate, goodwill and specificity go out the window. Instead, Carlos Lozada declares "Among the hundreds of books I read in my years as a critic, only three felt so paralyzing[ly] pointless that, upon reaching the end, I found I had nothing to say." That is how the reader is supposed to be drawn into reading nearly 1,500 words on Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who is likely to be leaving the Senate before the end of his term in order to become the president of the University of Florida. ■ The suitability of a candidate for a university presidency is a nuanced matter. It's especially interesting when the final candidate is an incumbent politician from another state. But the column doesn't attempt to do that; it instead offers a laundry list of vague complaints about "vapid sentence[s]" and a "trifecta of triteness". ■ That kind of opinion writing reflects an addiction to engagement -- finding the biggest possible Hallelujah chorus to amplify broad complaints about an individual who is seen as a convenient foil, rather than taking the most challenging route to identifying general good and separating it from particular complaints. ■ Lozada's complaints about style could be countered by an argument that a politician trying to reach a mass audience in book form has to state things plainly, if not simply. What he dismisses as discussions of civics in "the most Founders 101 way possible" might instead be praised with equal enthusiasm as "adhering to the long-standing practices that have historically paid generous dividends to America as a country. ■ No single opinion essay tells the whole story of any subject, but the patterns that make one column into unpleasant reading (for an audience not predisposed to agree with the author's conclusions) can also be the patterns that make it hard to have interesting, good-faith discussions about matters that really are in the public interest. ■ There is no doubt that the state of higher education is a significant matter of such interest, and the contributions a high-profile public policy-maker could make instead at the helm of a major university are decidedly worth discussion. But if the country's de facto newspaper of record isn't willing to rise above a mainly superficial critique of a person instead of taking on a fair-minded grappling with that person's ideas, then we're bound for trouble. ■ We have to be able to assume earnest good faith in others more often than not -- even when we are inclined to disagree with them. Social media snippets don't reward that kind of behavior, and that is a problem worth lots of thoughtful review. But when the social-media pile-on style becomes an end unto itself, then we really must take a step back. Critics will criticize, of course, but if there's nothing redeeming about doing so, then we need to ask what good all of this "engagement" is for.

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