Wheaton's Law trumps again

>> Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kate pointed me to a discussion occurring online, one that involves Nick Mamatas (whose Move Under Ground is an interesting if not, to my mind, wholly successful mashup of Lovecraft and The Beats) and Jeremiah Tolbert (whose work I don't believe I'm familiar with). The discussion is over, I guess you could say, the necessity or desirability of being nice and constructive with criticism. Mr. Tolbert's position can be partly summed up in the title of his post: "Be A Positive Force In Fandom, Not An Asshole," though Mr. Tolbert goes a bit further and suggests being specific in criticisms and remembering that there are people on the receiving end of those criticisms. Mr. Mamatas' position, in a nutshell, is that Mr. Tolbert is wrong.

Could be they're both wrong, actually. Though both pieces are worth a read.

The problems with Mr. Tolbert's piece are fairly well summarized by Mr. Mamatas. The one thing I'd add that I think Mr. Mamatas sort of alludes to but ultimately talks around is a response to this passage in Tolbert:

So you have a burning desire to share your disapproval of something and you just can’t be stopped. Fine. Leave your critical remark, but here are critcial [sic] remarks that do nothing but hurt people:

'It sucked." [sic]

"Don’t quit your day job"

"I want my [PERIOD OF TIME SPENT] back."

"Who likes this shit?"

Do you see the trend here? We've all seen these comments. Most of us have probably left them at some point. What’s missing here is substance.

You owe your fellow humans to be specific in your criticism. It’s in everyone’s best interests for a creator to improve, and they can’t use your feedback to do that if it doesn’t have any substance.

Mamatas points out that some targets of criticism just don't care. What I'd point out is that, unfortunately, sometimes things just suck, and there's really not a useful nice or civil way to say it. Britney Spears' cover of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock And Roll," for example, objectively sucks: it's a terrible rendition that's overproduced, that suggests the person performing it is at best casually acquainted with the rock'n'roll œuvre, and pretty much pisses on the legacy of one of rock's greatest and most ass-kicking "bad girls" with a soulless, mailed-in, all-about-the-marketing rendition. Now, you might be thinking, "Well, hey, that's specific"--well, no, that's why Ms. Spears' cover sucks, but if you want it in two succinct words, boldtype, top-of-the column, "it sucks" is all the review it really deserves. And I don't much care if Ms. Spears knows that it sucks or her feelings are hurt, hell, for all I know she knows in her heart of hearts that it sucks. Sucks ass. Sucks hard.

Which brings us to another issue, actually, and that's the fact that not everybody deserves to have their feelings spared. Most people do--and that's is where I think Mr. Mamatas is wrong, or partly wrong when he takes Tolbert to task. On the other hand: it's purest coincidence, but I happened to re-read Hunter S. Thompson's obituary for Richard M. Nixon, a brutal, completely truthful, totally fair and accurate evisceration not of a person's creative output but of his entire miserable, crooked, shallow, worthless life, and it's as fine a piece of continuous invective as you're likely to find in the English language. And of course it's not nice because Richard Nixon didn't deserve nice. If anything, Mr. Thompson maybe goes a little easy on old Tricky Dick.

Of course, Nixon isn't around to Google himself and have his (purely hypothetical) feelings hurt (to the best of my knowledge, Neil Young is the only one to suggest Nixon had soul, and he was being snarky at the time), and he was dead when Thompson famously bled his spleen onto Nixon's corpse; but Nixon's family was still around, and, more importantly, as Thompson points out, he didn't say anything after Nixon was dead that he didn't say when he was alive. To his face, on at least one occasion:

Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."

I feel a little bad saying this, because I'm a touchy-feely liberal sensitive bleeding heart, the kind of soft douchewad who stopped on his way to where his car was parked after work today to watch a little grey bird hopping around, the type of guy who hates seeing women cry and who feels guilty within seconds of yelling at his cat for drawing blood (which may be why the cat still thinks feet = cat toys and is generally spoiled and ill-mannered), but here it goes: some people deserve to have their feelings hurt. Repeatedly. Most people don't. And in a way I don't even believe that about "some people," at least not consistently; my favorite lines from Shakespeare, actually, are this sort of obscure bit from Hamlet:

My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

God's bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

(Act II, sc. 2)

Everybody deserves to be treated better than they deserve. Except the ones who, for whatever reason, don't.

What can I say? So I'm a terrible human being after all.

But this phases into where I said Mamatas was wrong--you do remember I said both writers were wrong, right? Mr. Mamatas says that Mr. Tolbert "gets it all wrong," but Mr. Tolbert is correct that most people deserve to be treated well. Richard Nixon deserves to have his feelings hurt--he can take it, especially now that he's dead. Britney Spears is a bit of a pathetic, tragic figure, but her music really is a travesty and it would have been a kindness, and not just to the music-listening public, if she'd skipped the career altogether (honestly, if she'd had a day job that wasn't working for Disney and later for Jive, she might have been happier and saner while simultaneously sparing us various awful creative productions1).

But a lot of the bile that gets slung around the internet is slung at people who don't really deserve it at all, and Tolbert is right to make a general plea for people to try to be nicer to each other. Even if a few people deserve it, most don't. And even when one deserves it, sometimes you're just demeaning yourself to dish it out.

Wisdom comes from Wil Wheaton, of all places. Who knew a kid who poked dead bodies and ruined Star Trek for a few years would turn out to be the best and brightest guy in geekdom, raconteur, good dad, gamer, lust-object for Suicide Girls--the man is The Man. And you know what I'm going to say: Wheaton famously said, "Don't be a dick," and that's really what it boils down to. When Hunter S. Thompson posthumously eviscerated Richard Nixon, he wasn't being a dick, he was being someone who told truth to power and wasn't going to mince words about it. And that's the real point that Messrs. Mamatas and Tolbert are spiraling around from opposite sides. Piling on to somebody who doesn't deserve it is being a dick; but then so is laying off somebody who has really earned a good slagging. Y'know, Thompson's obit makes this point, too, actually: when President Clinton and Senator Dole and others went to Nixon's funeral and made nice (and you should keep in mind that Sen. Dole had some prize things to say about Nixon during Nixon's wilderness years; for all his faults, Dole had a keen sense of humor and a wicked-sharp tongue combined with little patience for horseshit), they were being dicks: they weren't there out of respect so much as they were there out of obligation, and anything nice they had to say about the late lamentable ex-Pres were lies, lies and lies. Lying to somebody to spare their feelings isn't necessarily a nice thing to do, and while it's sometimes good to keep your feelings to yourself, sometimes a solid thrashing is a favor, whether it toughens up someone and makes them stronger or whether it drives them into something more productive.

So there it is: read Mr. Tolbert and Mr. Mamatas, because it's an interesting dialogue, and then ignore them both and listen to Mr. Wheaton: say what needs to be said, and/but don't be a dick.

1A related aside: "Oops, I Did It Again" is actually a song with a solid pop hook when Ms. Spears is extracted from it. Don't believe me? Here's one of the best guitarists alive to back me up--Mr. Richard Thompson, take it away:


Anne C. Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 10:46:00 PM EDT  

That was an awesome clip. Thanks, Eric!

And it has always been my opinion that when someone spreads bile and hurt and unusable criticism, it says more about the speaker than the object. And in that way, it becomes very useful... just not in the way the dick intended.

Janiece Murphy Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:31:00 PM EDT  

I thought I was the only UCFer who liked Richard Thompson. Did you hear that he's got a box set coming out for his 60th?

And good points above, too, of course.

Eric Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 10:10:00 AM EDT  

Janiece, I hadn't seen that Thompson has a new box set coming out. But it was my privilege to see him live at the Neighborhood Theater up the road from me a year or two ago (was it three? I don't think it was three...).

He originally did his version of "Oops" for his "Thousand Years Of Popular Music" album/tour (which I believe this clip comes from), but it was still in his playlist on the subsequent tour he was on when I saw him.

It was around the time he was debuting "Dad's Gonna Kill Me." Looks like that was '07, actually.

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight remains one of the most heartbreaking albums ever recorded.

Ilya Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 11:21:00 AM EDT  

...if you want it in two succinct words, boldtype, top-of-the column...

That's a bit of a circular logic, Eric. There's obviously no way to be specific, if your objective is a succinct two-word headline. Tolbert's point, I thought, was exactly about the fact that this type of emotional "review" is useless.

Let's count how many words Hunter S. Thompson used in that eulogy, shall we? I suppose it is a fair statement that he was moderately specific about the reasons he felt the way he felt about Nixon.

In my experience, I do not know many - any? - people who can judge whether an author is deserving of well-thought critique simply by reading/listening/watching their books/songs/movies. I'd submit that in the context of this discourse, "deservability" (is that a word?) of non-constructive criticism is not part of the equation.

I do agree that Wheaton's motto summarizes it best, though.

Konstantin B. Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 11:22:00 AM EDT  

Thanks for sharing the video Eric.

Marty Casey from the Lovehammers did a cover of "Baby One More Time", by ms. Spears, on the Rockstar: INXS show couple of years ago.

It's dark and nasty and an absolutely amazing rock cover of the song.


Anonymous,  Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 2:44:00 PM EDT  

Watching Richard Thompson perform that song has given me some major cognitive dissonance. I love it, but it's also causing my brain to do weird fizzy things.

BTW, Janiece, you are most definitely not the only UCFer who loves Thompson - "Persuasion" and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" are two favorite songs.

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