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The not-so-fine lines between critiquing and policing

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There was much discussion this past week about critiquing and policing in online communities. Robin’s post last week kicked off a lively discussion in the comments and on Twitter, and I started to see examples of the tension she highlighted in post throughout the week, here at Dear Author and elsewhere. A particular back-and forth in the comments thread to her post stayed with me, that of the difference between critiquing something, whether it’s a book, an argument, a trope, or even a genre, and policing individuals and groups within the community.

Maybe it’s because I’m mired in prep for a class on collection of data and methods of analysis, but for me the line between both critique and policing isn’t difficult to see at all. I consider them both to be forms of persuasion. They are both designed to convince the intended audience to accept a particular point of view (and in the case of policing, to affect behavior as a result). But they are different types of persuasion.

In my world, critique requires logical argument, evidence, and in the best-case scenario, something original. Policing, on the other hand, is the regulation of existing behavior. It draws its legitimacy from a previously articulated argument rather than making a new or more detailed case for it, and it doesn’t usually bring anything new to the table. It’s a reiteration of an already existing position. The writing of the regulation is where the original work occurs (often accompanied by or following a period of debate and critique), and the policing is the unoriginal, order-restoring part. And it’s not about being PC or not PC in either case (this came up in various ways in several conversations I followed). There is no innate connection between political correctness (which is a term usually invoked to caricature an ideology or world view), and critiques and policing, which are methods of articulating and implementing theories and opinions.

Critiques abound in romance land, and while Dear Author and other blogs often write opinion pieces that incorporate critique, the most commonly found type is that of a substantive review. Obviously, some (many?) reviews are primarily reflections of the writer’s emotional response to a book, a short or long explanation that falls somewhere on the spectrum from “I loved it” to  “I hated it.” But other reviewers take a more analytical approach, whether the analysis is implicit or explicit, and it can be about the literary and technical aspects, the ideological assumptions, the choice of setting and character, or some combination of these.

Critique is an indirect form of persuasion: Here is my argument and my evidence for it, with which I hope to convince you of something. I say indirect because critiques aren’t aimed at changing reader behavior but at providing information and analysis that can help the reader make informed decisions about the text and whether it will appeal to her. Even when critiques are written at a more meta level, as in opinion pieces, the writer frequently provides examples to support the claims being made. Critiques most often seek to persuade through argument and example.

Policing, by contrast, is a direct form of persuasion. Examples of policing as persuasion in romland are probably as easy to find as critical reviews. They include instances when someone argues that a book shouldn’t be read at all, or should be read but not reviewed, or should be reviewed but not recommended, or should be recommended but with caveats at the recommendation stage(s).  As with non-romland forms of policing, our policing invokes authority rather than direct evidence. Sometimes it draws on moral suasion (e.g., a review site of this type/calibre shouldn’t be publicizing this book), sometimes it invokes superior authenticity and legitimacy (e.g., a POC commenter labels a book racist), and sometimes it appeals to community norms about societal conditions and effects (e.g. women are disproportionally harmed by rape and books that romanticize rape reinforce this process, so books that romanticize rape are bad for women).

None of these examples involve critique, i.e., making an argument at the moment of policing about the specific example under discussion. Policing is more frequently accompanied by generalities. If you agree that the generality invoked applies to the specific case, you’re more likely to be persuaded. Policing is not always bad, not by any means. It’s a way of keeping order, which all communities find necessary, and of reminding individuals of shared norms, which hold communities together.

That acceptance of the need for some order is probably why we see very few truly unmoderated sites and blogs, especially in romanceland.  People disagree all the time about what level of moderation should be used (partly because we don’t all share the same norms about what constitutes the ideal level of order), but we don’t disagree with the principle of moderation. And we recognize that some people have more policing power than others in certain circumstances, thus the common phrase “your blog, your rules,” whether we agree with those rules or not.

I’m not opposed to policing; as I said, it’s necessary and useful in communities. But is usually more fraught, because participants don’t necessarily agree on the assumptions, or they don’t value the appeal to authority in the same way, or they just don’t like being told what to do. It’s hard for policing to sound anything but prescriptive, while the prescriptive aspects of critique are embedded within a larger descriptive and analytic context. A critique will take the form, “this book is not worth reading because of A, B, and C,” where A, B, and C are examples from the text under discussion. An attempt to police will be phrased as “this book is bad because it perpetuates (or romanticizes, or gives legitimacy to) X, Y, and Z,” where X, Y, and Z are social problems, without providing any concrete evidence of the relationship.

Critiquing and policing aren’t limited to blog posts, of course, or to blog owners and contributors. Comment threads are full of examples of readers doing both. Commenters will support or rebut an argument in the review or opinion piece with examples, providing a mini-critique by doing so, and then other commenters might signal their agreement or disagreement, and by the end of the thread, in my favorite outcome, the combination of post and discussion provide the ultimate rebuttal to that usually excellent advice about the internet: “Don’t read the comments.”

Commenters also practice policing on blogs, and you can see certain power relationships in play there too. More established commenters will police newer ones, and after a while regular commenters will be accorded authority status on certain issues. Tensions are more likely, though, when commenters police rather than critique each other. For example, if a commenter supports a criticism of a book as homophobic with examples from the text, or a link to a review, that contribution is more likely to be accepted as legitimate than a criticism of, say, a commenter’s agreement with a positive review on the grounds that the book is homophobic, or a criticism that such a book shouldn’t have been reviewed because it is so homophobic. That sounds like a tone complaint, but it’s not: it’s an evidence complaint, or put another way, commenters rebuff the criticism because the critic hasn’t provided evidence to back up the critical statement.

And, I imagine, the resistance stems from loyalty to the reviewer, the blog more generally, and/or to the members of the community who also liked the purportedly homophobic book. Because it’s worth remembering that all of these one-on-one interactions take place in the context of the larger community. Even when the exchange is between two individuals, a conflict can be about issues in which many members of the community consider themselves to be stakeholders, and given the embedding of the romance community in social media, individual blog posts and exchanges between a couple of commenters don’t take long to be shared by a larger audience, many of whom are invested in the debate.

Communities, like all institutions, are created by individuals but exist apart from the individuals who are in them at any given time. As long as there is churn (enough people entering in as others exit to maintain a critical mass), the community will continue, often keeping the same name and some of the same norms, even if it undergoes quite a bit of change overall. Think of romanceland twenty years ago v. romanceland now. Many authors from the 90s aren’t writing romance anymore, trad regencies are gone, YA has become a big part of the romance genre, and the contemporary and historical romance genres have ebbed and flowed more than once.

A romance blog has an owner, and moderators, and a structure. But the larger community I’m calling romanceland doesn’t. Everyone is pretty much an equal, especially when we are speaking in our identity as readers, and policing of equals by equals is not always going to be well received. Policing when people have stipulated power, like blog ownership, is dicey enough. But policing from a position of asserted authority that’s not consensually accepted is more likely to work when the policing serves as a reminder of a shared norm, and less likely when it is asserting or imposing a new or contested one. Even when authority is asserted, very few of us can stand in for an entire ethnic, racial, or cultural group. That’s why argument supported by evidence is critical; rather than asserting your authority to police a fellow reader’s choices, evidence allows her to make her own decision.

If you want to make lasting changes to aspects of the genre, the most effective way is to engage in collective action to bring about enough individual participation to achieve your goals. Of course, that’s incredibly difficult and more effort than most of us (me included) are willing to take on. An alternative: be the change you wish to see. If you ask someone to refrain from reading or writing something that contributes to social injustice, something that they enjoy, start by telling them about a sacrifice you’ve made along analogous lines (for example, I’ve given up on Western romances). At least then you look like you’re taking a punch, not just delivering one.

Sunita has been reading romances almost as long as she has been reading. Her favorite genres these days are contemporary, category, and novels with romantic elements. She also reads SFF, mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, and the backs of cereal boxes.

6 Comments

  1. JJPP
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 09:44:04

    This was very interesting and clearly put, Sunita. I hadn’t thought about these ideas before.

  2. Liz Mc2
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 10:11:43

    I found this post really helpful, Sunita. I think *emotionally* critique and policing can be hard to distinguish: a critique can be felt as policing by someone reading it (especially if its tone is on the angry/hyperbolic side) and readers can feel that a criticism of policing is a call to stifle criticism. So a logical distinction/definition like this is useful–and just confirms my resolution to write more about individual books and less general commentary.

    Your points about community also helped me think about where policing is coming from. Robin commented in her post on how policing from other readers within our own community can feel like a particularly painful betrayal, and I don’t disagree at all. But I think policers, too, can be responding to a feeling of betrayal, and we don’t always see that. Policing/reader-shaming tends to be seen as a position of condescending, pearl-clutching, PC superiority (from people who haven’t even read the books[s] in question, perhaps, and who of course *never* enjoy something that might seem problematic to others): “Your reading is having this harmful effect! Stop at once! I know better than you how you are interpreting/responding to something!” And sometimes that’s exactly what it is.

    But it is also often coming from a reader who feels hurt, who has been hurt, by encountering something that she finds sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, etc. in the genre she loves. “This is awful and shouldn’t exist!” can mean “I don’t ever again want to encounter something that hurts me like this in my pleasure reading!” When you feel hurt and angry, it can be easier to lash out with generalities than write a reasoned critique. I think we often forget that in these discussions. We focus on the hurt of those who feel shamed, and overlook the hurt felt by the policers. I’m not defending policing at all, but you helped me think more sympathetically about what might lie behind that impulse, and why I sometimes feel it myself.

    Here’s to many thoughtful critiques!

  3. hapax
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 10:28:40

    This was a fascinating and important analysis that is relevant to more than just book / genre review / discussion sites. I have seen this exact same dynamics play out in any number of online communities, including those based around fandoms, politics, religion, and even shared occupations.

    Generally speaking, these communities are only sustained when there is a good balance of BOTH critique and policing. That is, there has to be enough evidence-based critique that the discussions are interesting, but enough room for personal “gut” feelings (and even tangential silliness) that the sites are fun. There has to be enough policing that the discussions remain on-track and don’t descend into abuse and name-calling, but not so much that spirited debate and unconventional points of view are silenced.

    It’s a very difficult balancing act, and almost impossible to maintain for the long term. I’ve tried it myself and failed miserably. I am consistently impressed with how this (and a few other sites that I frequent) have managed to hold this balance — albeit sometimes shakily! — for years, with very large readership.

  4. Robin/Janet
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 12:22:49

    @Liz Mc2: I don’t disagree at all with your comment, I just wanted to point out that Rebecca Rogers Maher made the original comment on betrayal to which you refer: http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/anxieties-of-influence/#comment-689758

  5. Sunita
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 12:27:21

    @JJPP: Thank you!

    @Liz Mc2: These are such great points. I purposely omitted talking about the emotional aspects because I wanted to shed light on other stuff, but emotion plays such a huge role. Which of course makes sense, because I think romance more than any other genre asks us to read with our emotions always present.

    a critique can be felt as policing by someone reading it (especially if its tone is on the angry/hyperbolic side)

    Absolutely. Not all critiques invite discussion, and not all critiques are generous, even when the arguments are well supported. Those kind of critiques can feel like policing, perhaps because they feel as if they are closing rather than opening or continuing a conversation.

    But I think policers, too, can be responding to a feeling of betrayal, and we don’t always see that.

    I agree completely. And even when that sense of betrayal is recognized, the conversation can become derailed by debates about whether those feelings are legitimate, or proportionate, or some other “test” of their legitimacy.

    It’s the dilemma of every community, I think. If I tell you you’re hurting me by your actions, what is your responsibility to me once I know that? Physical harm we have a handle on. Emotional harm is much more difficult to create clear remedies and actions for.

  6. Sunita
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 12:33:28

    @hapax: Thank you, I really appreciate that. I agree that this happens in all kinds of forums and communities. And while the line is clear for me, people who aren’t as used to using evidence in support of their arguments probably find the line to be blurrier. And you’re so right that we need both things, as well as some leeway to have fun.

    I’m as guilty of this sort of thing as anyone. When a commenter says something that (to me) refers back to many other conversations, I have to stop myself from saying “you’re really new here, aren’t you.” As if being new is a bad thing, when the truth is that if new people didn’t enter, communities would die. And often times repeating things that The Olds have heard a million times isn’t a bad idea, like studying the same problem from different angles with different methods isn’t a bad idea.

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