How to criticise without starting a witch huntAugust 11, 2016
I’ve been writing about schools being ‘shamed’ in the press or on social media. In my latest post I had promised to look at how we, the users of social media, can avoid starting or prolonging the type of hate campaign I have been describing in previous posts:
…when it comes to how people should behave on social media, I really can’t think of any hard and fast rules. I am the last person on earth to advocate refusing to criticise schools. I am also hardly likely to suggest that social media is not a good way to whistle blow when things are going on in schools that the public should be aware of. But I do not think a hate campaign achieves anything other than to silence debate. And, at the very least, we can all consider the possible consequences of criticising.
I think the following points are all worth considering when criticising something. And, please note, these are a series of suggestions about how to judge one’s own behaviour, which I hope will influence my future behaviour, not a set of standards by which to judge others, or a claim to have always got these right in the past.
- What are your motives for criticising? I think this question is always worth considering. It seems fair to give examples of things happening in schools because people have denied that such a thing happens, or claimed they are uncommon. At times it may be fine even just to illustrate. If people make false claims about schools, I think it’s more than okay to correct them, even if that may reveal a less positive picture of the school. But while such things might upset individuals, upsetting should never be the aim. Deliberate intimidation, such as in Twitter storms, is even worse. I’d also warn against “virtue-signalling” as a questionable motive, i.e. condemning others in order to gain the approval of the like-minded. Sometimes somebody’s behaviour is so bad that it is worth saying it is disgusting, but do so because the person should know, not in order to vent, so save that for exceptional cases not just things you disagree with.
- Are your criticisms based on accurate information? In my descriptions of shaming, I didn’t want to restart the witch hunt, so I cut out any information about the actual concerns of the shamers. If I hadn’t though, I could have included as many tweets and emails that were factually incorrect as ones that were insulting. Never assume that the account of one disgruntled parent is accurate. Never assume that a newspaper story is accurate. Always try to check facts and find out the context. If that means contacting the person you are criticising first, so be it. Also be willing to admit the error, and make corrections when you have got your facts wrong.
- Are you criticising public behaviour? I should be careful here to state that I am not saying we should never discuss what goes on behind the school gates. Schools receive public money and should expect to be scrutinised. But I do think there is a difference between criticising what schools and teachers proclaim publicly, and weighing in on what is brought to light by their critics. In the first case, making something public invites (reasonable) responses and people should know if something they are saying in public is widely considered objectionable. Also, if it’s something you have posted online you always have the opportunity to remove it if there is a backlash you hadn’t anticipated. We should feel free to openly criticise the content of tweets or blogs, although I would suggest that deleted tweets or blogs should be forgotten about unless the author tries to pretend they never happened, or tries to misrepresent what happened (most commonly by claiming to be the victim in a row they started). In the second case, where the school has not put the information in the public domain, we can still criticise. However, when criticising we need to accept that we are now responsible for the consequences of sharing that information. It is not good enough to say “well, it was in a newspaper” or “it was already out there”, if the information is then misused, or prompts a hate campaign.
- Can those being criticised defend themselves? This is the “witch hunt” clause. Too many people claim they just want to debate what has happened in situations where nobody can express the opposing view without being insulted. When it comes to accusations about individuals, it is worse. If people have been genuinely forced off social media, (and I mean by weight of abuse, not because they flounced off) it is not fair to make accusations about them on social media. Don’t join in with a chorus of hostility when you know those at whom it is aimed cannot possibly reply. Also, if somebody is defending themselves, address the content of their defence. Don’t start changing the accusation to something different. I would also be careful against tweeting, or blogging about individuals who can be identified, but haven’t been named, or notified that you are talking about them. Some people seem to think that criticising somebody in public without identifying them is a way to make debate less personal (see point 6) but the usual result is that the criticised person feels they are being slagged off behind their back in order to stop them defending themselves. With regard to avoiding Twitter storms, you can try to involve others in discussions that criticise, but back off if it could be intimidating. You may want to make people aware of somebody’s objectionable opinion, but try not to send the message: “let’s all pile in now”.
- Are you being insulting? This is one that always amazes me online. People often have a very odd concept of “insulting”. On the one hand there are people who see insult where there is none, and often reply with insults to an insult that exists only in their imagination. Common examples of this are those who think an insult can be defined by “offence”, so if they are offended by something, even just an opposing opinion, then they have been insulted. I have encountered people online who argue that you should never point out when somebody has passed on false information, even deliberate lies, because this is the same as calling somebody a liar. Also there are those who feel that if they think the person they are speaking to does not respect them, usually judged from the “tone” of comments, or their own insecurities, then they have been insulted. On the other hand, there are those who start with insults and then complain about the response (or lack of response). There are those who think that if they state something true, it cannot be an insult: “but your mother is fat and that’s just a medical fact”. There are also those who use analogies without quite realising that a comparison can be insulting: “No, I am just saying you are acting like a Nazi, not that you are a Nazi”. It is best not to start an argument with “anybody who disagrees is bonkers”, nor to resort too easily to the claim that somebody you disagree with has misunderstood. A “bully” is not somebody who disagrees with you. Similarly, describing anything you object to as “child abuse” is not the way to win an argument about whether it is right or wrong; it is just an insult. Finally, satire should be aimed at the powerful; some of the worst insults I’ve seen online have been defended as clever parody or just a joke, yet if the “joke” is that some ordinary teacher is pure evil and might do or say evil things, it can be indistinguishable from abuse.
- Are you making it personal? Even if you are not insulting people, arguments are not helped by making them about the people who hold the opinion rather than the content of the opinion. Some people do this so habitually that they cannot imagine arguing with somebody who is anonymous. Online argument often consists entirely of a series of ad hominems and appeals to expertise, where people are sorted into goodies (or victims) and baddies (or oppressors) where it is a priori wrong to disagree with the goodies, or agree with the baddies. Try to avoid these narratives. Be careful when using yourself, your school, or your children as an example; if you can’t bear to see any of these criticised, then don’t bring them up. If something is common, you do not need to provide specific examples. If you do not agree with a policy or teaching approach, you may not need to name examples of people (or schools) who agree with it in order to discuss it, although be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of criticising people behind their back (see point 4). People should not find that when they search for their own name, the name of their school, or their Twitter username, that they get your rant about them.
- Are you just repeating what has been said by others? This is probably a good way to avoid a Twitter storm. If you want to make a point to somebody you don’t need a 1000 others to say he same thing. Sometimes, you do want to get across the point that “this is not just me saying this”, but be careful that you are not getting dozens of people to repeat you. Sometimes a Twitter poll will help get the point across better than asking people to make comments. If somebody asks their timeline for their opinions, don’t bother if lots of people have already said what you wanted to say. It is okay to “like” a good argument that you agree with on Twitter, but read the responses first. Sometimes weak, or factually incorrect arguments (particularly about politics) are being liked on Twitter for days after they have been exposed as incorrect. Finally, if something is all over Twitter, we do not have to join in with a chorus of disapproval immediately. We can stop and think, look for the counter-arguments, or just wait to see how it plays out.
- Are you applying the same standards to yourself, or those you sympathise with? This is always one of the trickiest things to consider. We naturally apply all kinds of mitigation to ourselves and those we agree with that we don’t apply to others. But we should try to avoid it. If you are going to declare “nobody should ever do this”, but you know there are times when it is acceptable, it is best to mention the exceptions up front. It is best to think through the wider principles behind what we say, just in case we have just come up with a brilliant argument against our own beliefs. Sometimes it’s better to check your previous contributions to a discussion as you add to it, rather than ending up condemning somebody for doing something you started yourself. Furthermore, if you haven’t always got things right in the past, admit it. (P.S. I haven’t always got the things listed in points 1-8 right in the past).