Nuancing Online Disagreements
I recently read a thoughtful article about the phenomenon of the #girlboss label and whether or not it’s actually good for women. This is the type of critique that feeds my soul – the sort of thing that makes me say Yes! out loud when I’m reading it.
And, while I’ll admit that I tend to agree with author Anna Jordan’s critique of the phrase as unnecessary and maybe even a bit patriarchal, I would have liked this piece even if it had taken a more charitable approach to the phrase.
I liked it because it was critical while remaining gracious, assertive while remaining inclusive.
No one was supposed to feel attacked or left out, maybe just uncomfortable enough to think on it for awhile.
Critiquing Our Own Movements
I think critique – particularly internal critique – is essential to personal and professional growth. And I believe it’s necessary ethics work, as well. If you’re a Christian, you’re probably familiar with the verse in Matthew (and the line in the contemporary worship song, I Will Never Be The Same Again) that talks about God “burning away the chaff.”
The chaff is the coarse exterior husk of wheat or corn that needs to be separated from the grain in order for it to be edible or, at the very least, enjoyable to eat.
I like this imagery in the context of critique. Think of it as an editing process. You revise and revise – taking away the filler adjectives and the unclear sentence fragments until you’re left with something more digestible, and perhaps closer to the truth.
But, while I advocate critique, I never advocate dismissal. Unfortunately, most of us have been on facebook and twitter long enough that it can be difficult to see critique as anything but dismissal. We’re conditioned to be ready for backlash before we even hit the Publish button on our statuses.
I’ve “unfriended” several people because their trolling comments were jeopardizing my emotional health. So, while it’s understandable that we’re all geared up for the fight-to-the-death battle that is 80% of conversations on the internet…
Critique without trolling
This defensive stance toward critical engagement with others is ultimately hurting us.
Self defense can be healthy, even necessary, but we should be more careful to note whether the person we’re “up against” is actually against us. We need to leave space for clarifying questions and legitimate revision. In the case of Anna Jordan, author of the #girlboss piece, it seemed clear to me that her intention was to clarify the reasons for using the term, Girl Boss, instead of simply, Boss, in the context of female leaders.
She wanted to better understand the ways use of the term may ultimately be harmful – even condescending – to women due to its implication that women in leadership are an anomaly that need qualification. But she didn’t end with a feminist battle cry swearing off the term altogether, or asking women who like it to abandon it as soon as they finished burning their bras. She was the definition of gracious.
And yet the comments rolled in and a few angry respondents acted as if she had told women who celebrate the term, Girl Boss, that they should go to Hell! I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and interpreting this as poor reading comprehension skills conditioned by internet trolls rather than a calculated effort to dismiss her legitimate critique.
That being said, if they were angry that she disagreed with them, why were they acting as if she’d committed some sort of human rights abuse – some scandal in the female solidarity movement? It’s because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, account for nuance.
Two people can both be right
They couldn’t understand that disagreement is not inherently dismissal.
We come to our beliefs and opinions from different places. Our lives tell different stories, have different arcs and different triggers. If I disagree with you, it very well may be that after a nice chat, we’ll start to understand each other, even if we still don’t see eye to eye.
If I tell you the color pink sucks (it totally does) and you disagree with me, it does not necessarily follow that I think you suck, too. And what if I said that coral shouldn’t technically be classified as pink when it’s really more of an orange, and you disagreed?
If you could get past the feeling that I was attacking the very essence of your pink-and-coral-loving identity and calmly explain why you felt otherwise, we could make real progress!
On the other hand, if you’d dismissed me from the beginning, we would continue to hold our opposing views – no matter how wrong – forever and ever. We would build tiny fortresses around our Pink and Coral beliefs when we could have built a lovely, technicolor castle and have someone to eat dinner with every night.
Healthy Disagreement is community functioning well
The point is that disagreement is not a crisis, it is a part of life.
And if we can learn to be critical without being dismissive and, on the flip side, if we can absorb critique without shutting down, we will be better for it. Sometimes critique is scary. Sometimes it hurts.
Sometimes it’s supposed to. Let’s cultivate in ourselves and in our communities the reasoning and grace to understand the difference between trolling and legitimate critique.
Because if we lose our tolerance for real critique, we’ve lost our primary tool for cutting away the chaff. And if we lose that, how are we going to eat?
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.
Saturday 21st of May 2016
Saturday 21st of May 2016
That's awesome! And good point about it being part of one's upbringing. My father inadvertently taught us the importance of standing up for our beliefs (even though he really meant *his* beliefs and that didn't work out so well) so I've tended toward being fairly straightforward, but it's still really scary.
Wednesday 18th of May 2016
This piece was very needed in the media and cultural landscape we live in today. Well said Leah.
Thursday 12th of May 2016
Whoa - Anna Jordan was actually one of the leaders of an online writing workshop that I took this past winter. So cool that you saw this piece of hers as well (which I also found edifying!).I'll admit to being one of those who sometimes shies away from critique and may occasionally buy into the critique-as-dismissal conditioning...not always, but sometimes. I think part of it has to do with my upbringing - being indirectly taught to avoid conflict as much as possible. But conflict isn't necessarily bad, either - it can produce so much growth! Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, Leah. Helpful.