Sunday, 6 September 2009

The delicate art of criticism as an outsider

The delicate art of criticism.

I’ve spoken before on how important unity and intersectionality is. But I want to add to that with a problem I’m seeing over and over with people who are trying to promote it - the delicate art of criticising a marginalised group/movement - ESPECIALLY if you are not a part of it or see to have different priorities than it.

Criticising a marginalised group is delicate and difficult. Because we’re defensive. Yes, we are.

Ok, I know that’s annoying to read - we’re all tired of silencing techniques of saying we’re too “emotional” or “angry” or “hysterical” or “sensitive.” They are so often used to basically tell any marginalised group to sit down and shut up - and certainly anyone trying to silence you this way should be hit with a fish repeatedly until they can only twitch slightly.

But we are often defensive. We’re defensive because people under attack ARE defensive. We’re defensive and irritated by outside criticism because 90% of it is so utterly wrong. Best case scenario it’s so utterly ignorant that it makes your head hurt and the worst case scenario it’s some prejudiced arsehole taking any opportunity they can to bash you. In short, 90% of “criticism” is just yet another way the privileged world likes to give you a good kicking. This usually means that any outside criticism will quickly be greeted with hostility.

So here is Sparky’s guide to trying to be critical on important matters without causing the hackles to rise. I’m using the lens of people criticising the GBLT movement, but the same applies across the board

1) Be respectful. Remember, your audience is going to be angry and hurt - remember also you are talking about issues from the outside. If you want to be heard, blasting in with insults, homophobia, radical generalisations etc are going to annoy. You need to get past that initial anger and pain

2) Is criticism a habit? Do you only say bad things about homosexuals or the GBLT movement? Do you ever have any praise for us or our causes? Do you express outrage or anger at the abuses GBLT people face? If so what’s the ratio? 1 semi-positive post to 10 posts that are critical? Because if it’s all negative all the time, then you may want to consider why and whether there’s any point to your criticism - because it comes off as a homophobic screed. I follow one blog that is extremely informative and useful on some issues, but the blogger so constantly lashes out at gay people and the gay rights movement that I no longer consider it a safe place. Even if you think your criticism is valid - if you only post the bad it makes it look like you’re LOOKING for things to throw at us.

3) Are you criticising individuals and presenting their actions/words as universal or typical? We’re not all Perez Hilton or Dan Savage. It’s age old prejudice to present the negative actions of one member of a group as typical of all.

4) If you are criticising an individual as just an individual - is there a specific reason you picked them out? I had a colleague when I was at uni who was always ready to tell me about various crimes committed by immigrants. He never said anything inaccurate, nor did he use offensive terms - but religiously reported every crime he could find. If an immigrant wasn’t the criminal, he didn’t report it. He also felt the need to make it clear that the criminal was an immigrant every time. Again, trawling for the negative.

So, why are you talking about this person? Is their sexuality an important descriptor? For example, there are no end of epicly failing parents out there - so why did you feel the need to comment on the Lesbian couple’s ridiculous law suit ? Why was the lesbianism an important enough part of the story to mention?

5) Have you thrown any stones at your own glass house? This is one thing that is irritating and often leads to people lashing back. Are you criticising people/groups on an issue that your own group/movement is also failing on? If so, have you commented on your own group’s failure? In recent months I have seen many people criticise the GBLT movement on the lack of diversity in their leadership - coming from people who have not cracked their teeth on their own movement’s lack of intersectionality or diverse representation. If intersectionality is truly important to you, then you will address it as a whole - if you think it’s only important when discussing the GBLT community’s failing then it looks like the issue isn’t important to you - finding another excuse to criticise gay people looks much more likely.

I really think there is a lot of useful information out there and a lot of valid criticism. I think our allies - and all marginalised groups’ allies have a lot of useful things to add and maybe see things that we miss. But it is being lost either because it is poorly presented AND because there are so many people who are using the EXCUSE of the criticism to indulge their homophobia.

I am thankful that there are some wonderful people and wonderful bloggers and activists who are getting this right. Hopefully more and more people will listen to them. But the number of people screwing it up badly is turning a lot of people off - and making them less likely to listen to those who got it right.

The message is lost in the anger and the hurt - and nobody wins then.