On negativity.

[Y]our thoughts on the sex of your drawings are boring and naïve, take a first year psychology class and leave the hard thinking to someone else.

–commenter on the Spokesmonster blog

I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that people who may be perfectly polite to strangers they meet at a party or in a bar will say outlandishly hostile things to strangers online. It’s not that they feel like they’re protected by some kind of Cloak of Invisibility; the commenter above left his or her email address. It’s just that the internet is a coarse environment. It doesn’t require a first-year psychology class to realise that if you hang out with smart, well-spoken people, you will become smarter and better-spoken, while if you hang out with the commenters on fark.com, you will become a snarky negative bastard. I can lament this coarsening effect, but if I want to keep my sanity and still participate in the modern world, I had better get used to it.

But there’s a difference between insults that are merely moronic (my favourite comment on Garson Hampfield: “Typical Jewish bullshit!”) and the ones that hint at some kind of withheld intelligence. What’s aggravating about the “boring and naïve” comment is that there may be some truth to it. I never studied psychology – never went to university at all – and there’s probably a lot I could have learned from it that would have given my rambling speculations on the gender of stickmen greater dimension. I would be happy to be taught something new. It’s possible the commenter really has some insight to share. But he doesn’t share it – just says, “Your ignorance is too obvious to bother explaining. Seeya!” Very unhelpful.

Similary unhelpful (I apologise for going back to this yet again) were most of the comments on AgentGenius about the first Spokesmonster cartoon. After a round of monster-bashing, Benn, the originator of the thread, finally intervened to say,

What I find interesting is no one is being specific as to why it should or shouldn’t be changed. Are we being polite, or do we just not like it because it isn’t pretty?

(But Benn, what do you mean, “it isn’t pretty”?)

I don’t quite see how comments like “This is really really bad. Really bad. Nothing good about it at all so nothing salvagable. Scrap scrap scrap” qualify as polite, but I was interested, too, to see what, specifically, the complainers were complaining about. Some of them were obviously offended by the “hillfolk” reference. Others seemed to be irritated by the lack of specific information about the service (it not having been made clear that the cartoon was a teaser for a product that was still early in development). But still, I was baffled by the intensity of the negative reaction. It just seemed disproportionate. Was there, as Benn implied, something the critics were holding back, something that was obvious to everyone but completely mysterious to me?

I worry about this kind of thing a lot, and here’s why: I sometimes think that I might be a little autistic. My interpersonal skills are, to put it mildly, underdeveloped; my tastes are a little obscure; I’m far more comfortable with a book than I am with most humans; when people speak of common sense I often think, maybe so, but it’s not common to me.

People who are at ease with other people, I think, must be more certain of their shared sense of normality, of what is held in common. They can disregard a critic who says, “It’s obviously bad”, because they feel they already have a grip on what’s obvious and what’s not. I can’t really do that. What is and isn’t obvious is not obvious to me.

It’s tough to be a critic, though. Most of the things we feel strongly enough about to bother criticising, we do so precisely because our objections are so immediate that they can’t even be articulated. Do I need to tell you why a line of dialogue like this one (from Dan Simmons’ The Terror) is badly written?

“Cook is preparing roast beef tonight, my darling. Your favorite. Since she’s new – I am certain that the Irish woman was padding our accounts, stealing is as natural as drinking to the Irish – I reminded her that you insist that it must be rare enough to bleed at the touch of the carving knife.”

It’s just – bad. Unrealistic. That little aside about the Irish – forget about whether the character would really say it, just look at the way it’s phrased. People don’t talk like that. Isn’t it obvious?

Well, no, it’s not. If people don’t talk like that, how do they talk? If they don’t talk like that now, isn’t it possible they did talk that way back in the 1840s, when the novel is set? Even if they never did talk like that, what about all those movies and books I love where the dialogue is even less realistic? How do I account for those?

All those questions can be answered, but only with a lot of hard work. And as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a pretty lazy guy. Speaking to other lazy people, all I’d ask is that if you’re going to go negative, put in that extra bit of effort. Reason, argue, explain. You might think you’ve already made your superior intelligence apparent to all. I’m sorry to inform you – you haven’t.


As an example of criticism whose vehemence is all out of proportion to its subject, here’s Andrew Orlowski ranting in The Register about Malcolm Gladwell:

He’s better known for his Afro than any big idea, or bold conclusion – and his insights have all the depth and originality of Readers Digest or a Hallmark greeting card.

On one of Gladwell’s speeches:

Gladwell blathers at great length about an obscure market researcher called Howard Moskowitz. Who? On his own website, Howie calls himself “a well-known experimental psychologist in the field of psychophysics”. Yet Gladwell describes Moskowitz’ market testing of varieties of soup as if he was an unsung genius of the 20th century.

All this takes up 15 minutes, but it’s so repetitious and predictable, it seems to take about three times as long. (So much for the dazzling oratory Guardian leader writers admire.)

That “so much for the dazzling oratory” sums up the “my point is too obvious to waste time explaining” school of criticism that I so dislike. For those of us who enjoy watching Gladwell speak, his gift is precisely that he can make fifteen minutes on market testing varieties of soup seem compelling. Obviously it’s not as compelling to Orlowski. But the words “repetitious and predictable” – let alone the contemptuous “Who?” with which Orlowski dismisses the soup-tester – don’t triumphantly prove the critic’s point; they barely begin to make it.

I happen to agree with Orlowski’s larger argument, that Gladwell’s driblets of scientific wisdom often seem meagre in comparison with the vast apparatus of anecdote and digression required to render them down. But one doesn’t read Gladwell for the science, any more than one reads Dickens for his political platform or Chesterton for his religious conclusions. I’d put them into the category of writers for whom the journey is the destination.


Why can’t I let this subject go? I wrote more on the Spokesmonster mini-controversy here.


3 Responses to “On negativity.”

  1. 1 Benn w/Agent Genius December 2, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    “But Benn, what do you mean, “it isn’t pretty”?”

    I meant exactly what I asked, it wasn’t a statement. Words are very complicated in written form especially when attempting to be harmless in persuading a particular result.

    I’ve withheld my personal feelings on the spokesmonster, and instead contacted vendasta directly – I’ve since been delighted.

  2. 2 orangeraisin December 3, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Don’t think we’re not grateful, Benn, that you refrained from expressing your personal feelings, whatever they might have been. Actually we’re pretty happy about how the whole thing turned out.

    There was a scary moment there when I first read the comments on your post and I thought, “What have I done? – No, seriously, what have I done, cos I have no idea and no-one seems to be saying.” But the hostility gave us a good premise for the second cartoon, which (it is universally agreed) was much better than the first.

    Maybe part of the reason it’s taking me so long to get the third cartoon off the ground is that I have had nothing to bounce off. Antagonism can be frustrating, but it can also be inspiring.


  3. 3 Benn/Ag December 6, 2008 at 9:26 am

    There are a few of those commenters you may want to reach out to directly and get private opinions- I would trust their impressions any day, I believe they were being cautions in many instances.

    You’re right that it turned out brilliantly, and I think it did because you knew a little better what dots would need to be connected to make the case for rep.

    Isn’t it interesting that mostly always 50% of everyone will feel generally one way, while the other 50% will come down on the other side- the reality is always that the truth is in the middle.

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