Lately, some of the genre communities I’m a part of, specifically tabletop gaming and genre movies, have seen some pretty dramatic internal arguments over criticism. Arguments that I’ve found pretty silly and even, yes, stupid, on the part of people who get upset that the things they like and personally identify with are not universally loved.
Criticism of a given work is a good thing, is not something to be attacked and is not an attack on the people who like that thing specifically. It most especially is not censorship. Even when criticism has an obvious agenda, pointing out things as sexist or racist or homophobic, that criticism serves a purpose and has a place. Even with the things you love. Believe it or not, the people who are delivering the critique probably love the things you love too. Maybe even as a much as you do.
Why is criticism a good thing? Well, no work exists in a vacuum. Which is to say that creators don’t just pluck lotus-formed artistic works out of their minds and cast them on the waters of popular culture. Everything builds on something. The trick, for a creator, is to build off things that make your creation great. The responsibility of a creator (and one that is often ignored) is to make sure that you’re not creating something that does more harm than good to the medium you’re creating for and the general social discourse. Criticism helps us see why a given thing is subjectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to a given person. Get enough of these opinions together in one place and you can start to see what society as a whole or a genre fandom in specific may have thought about a particular work.
It is not an Orwellian tattoo across the forehead branding anyone who likes that thing a bad person. It is not a malicious attack attempting to destroy something you love. It is not the end of the world. It isn’t even the end of the day. It is the opinion of a single person, just like you, who, thanks to their own life experience, education, background and personality comes to a certain conclusion about a certain work.
Doesn’t sound like much to get worked up about does it?
Here are some things you can do to understand and deal with critique of the things you love a little better and a little more maturely.
- Understand that it isn’t personal. Unless you are actually the creator of a given piece, somebody saying that they don’t like that work is not your problem and not an insult or challenge to you.
- Try to understand the viewpoint of the critic. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. That doesn’t you have to think they aren’t full of crap. But try to see what they saw when they delivered their criticism of a given work. There is a significant chance that a person who is significantly different from you, in terms of gender, nationality, orientation, race, religion, class, education and a thousand other factors is going to take away something different from a given work. That doesn’t make either viewpoint invalid. It just means that art means different things to different people.
- Rebut the critique, not the critic. If you have a problem with a review or critique, write your own. If it is occurring face to face, then politely explain why you disagree. Understand that nobody is obligated to listen, though. You weren’t obligated to read or listen or watch the review or critique and nobody is obligated to listen to your counter-argument. Which brings us to….
- Understand that sometimes you are going to disagree. Permanently. Completely. Even with people you like and who like you. That happens. How you choose to react to that may determine whether those people stay your friends. Being dismissive, mean-spirited or just generally an asshole about a disagreement of taste is a great way to alienate people. And especially online, some of us aren’t inclined to grant second chances.
- Don’t try to raise the bar to the fandom just for the critics. Saying things like, ‘If you don’t like the way women are presented in video games, go your own video game!’ and ‘Look, if you don’t see gay people in RPGs, then go make an RPG!’ sound great in your head. But consider that nobody else who likes video games or tabletop RPGs is being told they have to create those things in order to enjoy them. What you’re doing is essentially saying ‘this isn’t your fandom, this isn’t for you’. And that’s probably not the message most of you want to send.
- Understand that this is all make believe. All of it. Batman. Dungeons and Dragons. Mass Effect. All the media, all the games, all of it. It is all imaginary. And imaginary stuff is not worth inflicting real damage. Threatening to harm people, frightening them, attempting to bleed fandom over into everyday life is a bad thing. A stupid and harmful thing. In many cases, an illegal thing. We, as a whole, should be better than that. Conversely, understand that the critic is probably as invested in the genre, medium or hobby as you are. Even professional critics need a passion for what they review or they wouldn’t be interested in reviewing those particular things.
- Walk away. In case none of the above helps. In case you just feel like you’re going to burst if you can’t threaten, berate, belittle or harangue somebody for not sharing your love of something, get up, walk away and take some time. Refusing to engage doesn’t make you wrong. It doesn’t mean you ‘lose’ a conversation. It doesn’t make the other person right. It just means that you decline to have an argument over imaginary stuff.
There we go, seven ways you can handle criticism a little better. These may not be as much fun as ripping into somebody who disagrees with you, but in the end, they are a hell of a lot more productive and bring a lot more people to the table to talk about what we like and not what we don’t.