The challenges of “Be Critical”

“Be critical of the media you consume” and all subsequent variations, has become something of a buzzword among certain social circles recently. While the sentiment itself is not exactly new, the way it has been adopted as the go-to catchphrase for a not-insignificant collection of commentators has in turn created a zetigiest without definition.

Though it may on the surface appear fair and pointed, the complicated nature of the phrase’s meaning becomes clear when you begin to challenge what people actually mean by “critical”. Because while the word criticism might currently have an agreed upon meaning, it is still up to both individuals and groups to then categorize criticism from non-criticism, and therein lies the problem.

Whether it is acknowledged or not, people are going to come to wildly different conclusions with regards to this subject. For some it might be “what does the author say?”, while for others it could be “How do the female characters converse with each other?”. There is not an exhaustive list possible for me to use here, but you might note the incisive nature of the two I chose, given that they refer to authorial intent and Bechdel test respectively. Perhaps you just applied your own value judgement to them. Though I appreciate that it is rare for anyone to adopt only one approach to their engagement with media, the mere fact that these concepts have both proponents and detractors should begin clueing you into the concern of this essay.

By now I expect you understand the necessity of interpretation when defining “criticism”, and how it is the responsibility not one, but two parties. The one writing the statement and the one reading it. Space for incongruity then arises, if for example, the one writing “Be critical of the media you consume” believes the Bechtel test is NOT valid criticism, while the one reading it thinks is IS a valid from of criticism. While many have a sort of postmodernist “anything goes” attitude towards these matters, there are clearly limits that can be reached, whether it be my previous stance on contextualization, or something as simple as not accepting anything with incomplete logical threads (i.e. fallacies). Fundamentally, if anything truly did go, then the person would have no reason to say “Be critical”- since it would be predetermined.

Despite how the phrase is typically used as a good faith gesture from people sincerely wishing to open up public engagement with media, whatever that truly means, it is perhaps not the best way of communicating such a point. Certainly it can be made discernible by having an audience already attuned to your beliefs, but then redundancy again rears its ugly head, as you might as well be saying, for example, “Keep being feminists, feminists!”.

However the largest and most pressing issue with the title remark stems from the incessant presentation of it as the solution to any and all problems with media’s production, distribution and consumption. As well-meaning as it is, it’s a take that lacks precision and nuance. Answering problems, whether they relate to problematic tropes, industry safeguards or perhaps interlocking systems of oppression, unsurprisingly requires specificity. Simply put; if the answer needs to come from a certain kind(s) of discipline in order for substantial change to happen, say so!

If to ‘be critical’ is to acknowledge how a marginalized group’s representation within media has been perpetuated through negative stereotypes and misinformation, explain it to a public audience, and have more people reject such narratives in the future – then that’s truly fantastic! – but realize the two words we’ve discussed do not independently communicate that.

If I may be so bold as to assume people making the be critical thesis in turn consider themselves critics, or otherwise critical consumers, then I’ll make this plea: do away with nebulous remarks that only serve to reinforce pre-established beliefs. I understand how easy it is to get complacent with making the point. I also understand how the burden of making the point overwhelming falls onto those who are often marginalized and sidelined in mainstream society. However, with these acknowledgements, the core argument here is not “do even more!” but rather “switch things up”. Instead of giving nondescript solutions to nondescript problems, ask yourself things like:

Is what I’m addressing made clear?

If I don’t have a direct answer then what further questions might lead to one?

What kind of perspectives would I like to see more of here? 

Who might be best equipped to comment on this subject, and how can I support them?

How can all this knowledge be pushed towards a working resolution?

But if nothing else, fall back to these three questions:

What am I referring to when I ask for critical thought? Who am I referring to when I ask for critical thought? How can I reach them?

I’m a big fan of accountability, which I believe is a concept not about apologies and admissions of guilt, but an understanding of what hasn’t worked – and how it can be better approached from now on. If that attentive process is consistently being made then it will almost certainly become reflected in future interactions, which is more or less the end goal of accountability. Demonstrating it.

Again, I believe everyone who uses the title term does so purely out of passion for what they do and through a desire to share their interest with others. My intention here wasn’t to be needlessly pedantic towards those people. Rather as I’ve hopefully illustrated here, the current framing of the matter simply isn’t conducive to the desired outcome. Under the right circumstances language can be powerful, and if there is anything I want to be taken away from this short dissection, it’s that small adjustments to how we speak about important issues can have a huge impact on how things then change.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “The challenges of “Be Critical”

  1. You know, a while back a smart friend of mine said, “Many people, including some very smart people, have said that it doesn’t matter what you consume as long as you’re able to be self-reflective about it, and I think that’s true. It’s just that I also think it’s COMPLETE BULLSHIT and I think we all fucking know that.”

    And that’s sort of what the whole “Be critical” fad reminds me of – especially because, as you point out, it doesn’t really have grounded meaning. And it makes me wonder, is “be critical of the media you consume” just a new way of letting ourselves off the hook? Because it is such a vague and ill-defined thing, it can mean anything. When I watch something and say, “Oh yes, I am critical of this,” when “being critical” doesn’t really mean anything in particular, what do I really have to do? What accountability is there for me beyond just doing this criticism thing that no one actually has conceptualized beyond a Good Thing to Do.

    That’s a rather more pessimistic take on this whole idea than what you’ve written here, and I certainly do think that, definitely, there are people around who use it for passion, but at the same time the lack of grounding causes me to be a bit cynical at times…

    …sorry this is just a mess of random blabber…

    Liked by 4 people

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