Anecdotally, I’ve found that people don’t, in general, like to be criticised. While some people will seek out criticism in order to identify errors in their work (that they can then attempt to correct), for others criticism is unwelcome and they prefer to deflect it rather than take note of it. Here are some of the ways in which they attempt this.
The Well-Meaning Defence
A tactic I’ve written about before is the well-meaning defence. Here are the main points:
I’ve noticed that, on occasion, criticism of the views, policies, or recommendations of individuals or organisations elicits the response that the individual or group being criticised is “well-meaning”, “sensitive” or “nice”, or even “sincere” and the suggestion that perhaps they should not be the subject of criticism.
It is my opinion that, however well-meaning or pleasant a person or organisation may be, if views are made public then it is reasonable that those views be subject to critical appraisal. It is also my opinion that sincerity is not a substitute for accuracy.
Sometimes, commenters will suggest an alternative – a person or organisation that they consider to be a more appropriate target for criticism.
Being nice, sincere, or well-meaning should not exempt someone from criticism of their actions as long as the criticism is fair. It doesn’t matter how saintly someone is – it’s fair to point out when they are wrong. When someone is wrong on an important matter (for example, a life-and-death issue such as vaccination against infectious diseases or taking precautions against HIV/Aids) I would argue that it’s not just fair to criticise a position, it’s the right thing to do. Allowing misinformation on such important topics to be disseminated without appropriate challenge could in practice mean failure to prevent actual physical harm as a consequence.
There appear to be two distinct forms of whataboutery – the first is an attempt to neuter criticism by pointing out that the other side has done the same / similar things to the acts that they are critical of, the second is an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the behaviour being criticised by pointing to topics the commenter considers to be more important.
Slugger O’Toole describes the former here:
Evasion may not be the intention but it is the obvious effect. It occurs when individuals are confronted with a difficult or uncomfortable question. The respondent retrenches his/her position and rejigs the question, being careful to pick open a sore point on the part of questioner’s ‘tribe’. He/she then fires the original query back at the inquirer.
The latter does not involve an attempt to find equivalent bad behaviour on the part of the ‘other side’, but invokes unrelated topics that they consider to be more serious, more important, or more interesting. While there may be subjects arguably more worthy of debate, these topics are often being discussed by people who are well-placed to write about them. Allegations of racism, the challenges posed by global warming, or the existence of global poverty may well be more serious and/or more interesting than homeopathy, vitamin pills and magic crystal skulls – but those topics receive plenty of coverage elsewhere from people far better placed than I am to write about them. The existence of more serious subjects does not mean that no-one should write about topics perceived to be less important.
The “Sad Little Man” Gambit
A couple of years ago, I had a comment from someone upset that I was sceptical of magic crystal skulls. Their comment focused on portraying me as a sad little man: “you probably spend a lot of time being miserable and arguing, don’t like yourself very much and have troubles relating to the opposite sex”. While not a million miles away from the truth, I fail to see how this was relevant to the magic crystal skulls being discussed. It was nothing but an attempt at distraction. More recently, I had this comment from someone using the exact phrase sad little man.
Combining the sad little man gambit with some whataboutery, “Noneofurbeez” aims this at Simon Singh in the comments section under an article about Sally Morgan.
Just get over yourself and find something better to do with your time. How about political corruption, or global warming, or famine in Africa? Get a life dude.
The “Bashing” Defence
Beloved of anti-vaccine campaigners, the bashing defence allows them to deflect criticism by turning attention to a perceived “attack on parents”. Clifford Miller and John Stone, for example. Miller is the author of a graph that he wrongly claims demonstrates that the risk of death from measles infection in England and Wales is less than 1 in 55 million. The graph does not include deaths from measles in 2006, 2007, and 2008. In response to my raising this point, Miller replied with a callous dismissal of these deaths as being “boring” and “trivia”, and an unsubstantiated allegation of “parent bashing”.
You have been shown here to be someone who visits and runs parent/doctor bashing sites.
Now you turn up with trivia.
The allegation of “parent bashing” was seemingly based on my referring to John Stone as “drearily ubiquitous” (hardly a savage and vitriolic comment). This comment was made in the context of my criticisms of a response Stone sent to the BMJ regarding an article on vaccination. Stone was writing in his capacity as ‘UK editor of Age of Autism’ rather than in his capacity as a parent. Characterising an entire blog as being “a parent/doctor bashing site” on the basis of one rather mild insult aimed at someone writing in their capacity as a journalist seems a little over the top to me. The reference to “doctor bashing” is perhaps even more of a stretch. It’s true that I’ve criticised Dr Sarah Myhill and Dr Richard Halvorsen, but I don’t think that my criticism of these doctors can be fairly described as “bashing”.
I aim to address rather than deflect criticism. If there are any errors in this or any other post then please do point them out to me.
Update, 8th January 2012
Other methods of deflecting (or suppressing) criticism include legal chill (I have a category for this here), the vitriol defence (because pointing out that people are wrong is “mean”), and the bogus claims of censorship that are sometimes made (when people, deliberately or otherwise, wrongly equate robust criticism with shutting down debate).