Thursday, November 13, 2014

On the Boundaries of Criticism

Recently there has been an enormous amount of discussion about an individual who blogged and wrote under a variety of names, the most well-known being Requires Only That You Hate (sometimes shortened to Requires Hate or ROTYH). This individual's characteristic book reviewing style was not only sharp and incisive in observation about observed flaws of the works in question, but harsh and even brutal in comments directed to the authors themselves. In some cases this individual make remarks to the effect that the author in question should experience various horrific forms of bodily harm, including acid attacks and being raped by dogs.

This individual typically focusing a particular wrath upon works that were perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise containing unacceptable bigotries. And these were not necessarily the obvious -- many of the criticisms were focused on offenses such as exoticization, in which the Other is portrayed as interesting and exciting simply for being other, or cultural appropriation, which was originally used to refer to people taking the traditional stories of impoverished communities and repackaging them for profit without any sort of consideration to the peoples from whom those intellectual properties originally came, but grew to become effectively a catch-all term for almost any writing of other cultures by white authors. But they all had the common trait of vicious language, often shocking in its level of cruelty and vulgarity.

One may ask why this individual's critical style should only have become an issue recently, when this individual has been writing for years, almost a decade. Part of it is a desire not to appear thin-skinned or unable to take criticism -- it is generally considered very bad form for an author to take exception to a review, except in matters of verifiable factual matters. But the biggest part of it, the part that kept even third parties from stepping up and saying that Requires Hate's most egregious personal language toward authors crossed the line to unacceptable, was the fear that one would look racist, or at least appear to be an apologist for bigotry, by attempting to speak against the excesses of RH's suggestions that horrible things ought to happen to authors whose works were to be condemned. Thus it was only when another author revealed that RH had also been targeting minority authors that it became acceptable to object to RH's conduct, and then only in very careful terms.

There are two big issues in this discussion that are in danger of becoming the Elephant in the Middle of the Living Room if political considerations are given primacy. First is the question of Acceptable Targets -- should some people be considered fair game simply by their membership in certain identity groups, in particular Straight White Male? Or should the discussion of a work be entirely on its merits, and the author entirely upon his or her actions?

And the second is how far is too far in writing a harsh critique. Are there limits on what is appropriate in a review, and is there a point at which one has Gone Too Far? Should the work be treated as something separate from the author, or does it necessarily reflect flaws in the moral character of its creator that may have been carefully kept from that individual's personal behavior?

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