May 29 2020: Opinion and Critique

May 29 2020: People don’t understand the difference between opinion and critique. Anyone can have an opinion. It takes some degree of knowledge and expertise to offer up a proper critique. You’re allowed to like or dislike anything you please, for whatever reason you wish or even for no reason at all. Critique is understanding the criteria by which something can be evaluated, and applying that criteria objectively. Opinion and critique are not the same, and they are decidedly not equal.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov

I know that history is being rightly unkind to Asimov’s misogyny, but damn if he wasn’t right about this. The quote is from a short essay he wrote for Newsweek back in 1980 called “A Cult of Ignorance“. He was talking about oh so many things that are relevant today, but I want to scale it back to the topic it hand.

Opinion and Critique

I was taught how to give and receive critique in art school. That carried over to various writers’ groups and workshops over the years. The first rule is that it’s never personal. It’s about the work, not the person. It’s about accepted standards, not your own tastes. In having to critique others, we were learning about those standards. By listening to critiques of our own work, we were learning to focus on using those standards to make improvement. That has value.

An opinion, on the other hand, rarely has value for anyone other than the person holding it. “I think that sucks” or “I like sandwiches with a lot of mayonnaise” isn’t really making a positive contribution to the cultural zeitgeist. At best it might help you find people who share your tastes. That’s good, when it’s based on something you enjoy. It’s terrible when you start bonding over things you hate.

Which brings me to the final misconception about critique. It’s not innately negative. The purpose is not to seek out the tiniest of flaws and use them to tear people down. Critique is not a blunt instrument. It’s used to make yourself look smart while you brutally tear someone down. It ought to be used to recognize merit as well as point out where a work has missed the mark. The person whose work is being critiqued should come away having learned something, if not having something actionable they can use to make their work better.

Critique is about making the work better. Opinion is all about you.

May 29 2020

  • If you get anything out of these blog posts, consider buying me a coffee. You can also purchase one of my books or zines from Gumroad or DriveThruRPG.
  • I check all email and Twitter DMs, personal and professional, three times once a day. I respond  as time allows; if it requires some thought or research on my part, it will take me longer.
  • I am actively avoiding news and social media to focus on writing. Please take your information from reliable sources and certified experts, not the Mad Carrot and its puerile cultists.
  • Today is Day 73 in isolation. 

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2 Replies to “May 29 2020: Opinion and Critique

  1. Oddly enough I just taught this to a bunch of Computer Science students! The concept of “I am not my code” can be difficult to get your head around, but once you do, it makes things like code reviews a lot easier.

    Stick to “What squared How Why” in giving feedback. WHAT was good in the piece of work, WHAT could be improved, HOW you might set about improving it, and WHY does it matter that you do.

    If nothing else, it makes the student listen. They are made to feel good about what they’ve down, and see how it matters to their teacher than they do even better – rather than seething with rage over something they worked hard at that has just been shredded, and failing to hear anything about how to improve on it. It’s not just kinder, it’s also more effective.

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