Thursday, 28 August 2014

Lazy Writing Ad Hominem

Suppose someone makes something you don't like, or a person you don't like makes something you don't have strong feelings about. Naturally you would go to an internet forum and say that you don't like it, right?

Well if so then I applaud you. Let's all share our opinions. Let's say what we like and don't like.

But let's stop and be a little bit careful. Did you really say that you didn't like that thing, or did you say that thing was a bad thing? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Some parts of our brains that we don't consciously monitor spend a lot of time using a mix of tricks to ensure that our rational thoughts about a subject align with our emotional reaction to it.

People distrust the medical establishment so they selectively look at evidence and only see the stuff that says they shouldn't vaccinate their children. People are scared of what the world would be if their god didn't exist so they think the argument from design sounds right. People want to push just one more button so they tell themselves that of course it's okay.

So people go to internet forums and they don't say, "I didn't like it." They say, "That sucked." Okay, that's actually fine. No one could mistake "That sucked" for anything but an expression of personal opinion. Vulgarity and insults basically have the same effect. We know that if someone just lays into the author of an article with a stream of cuss words that would make FDR blush then they are simply saying, "I didn't like this" using strong language.

But what about when someone says, "That band doesn't know how to play their instruments."

Well if someone says something like that on this particular day then what happens is I take to my blog to have a fit about it.

If someone thinks a song sounds terrible, does that mean the band can't play or the singer can't sing? Let's hop over to the John Cage channel and leave a "he doesn't know how to play the piano" comment on the 4:33 video. You have absolutely no clue whether someone knows how to play guitar by listening to them play guitar in a song. You have not idea if they know how to sing by listening to them sing. They could be the greatest guitar player the Earth has known and just doing something that you don't like the sound of. It could sound like that because that's exactly how they wanted it to sound.

But let's get to the proverbial straw that set off this episode.

If you are watching a movie and a character kicks a dog for no apparent reason, you know that character is a bad person right? Of course you do, hurting animals is a bad thing to do. Is that "lazy writing"? Because they made you dislike a character by having the character do something you dislike?

"But the character doesn't have a proper motivation for kicking that dog!" You have absolutely no idea what that character's motivation is. What you really mean is, "I have no imagination and need to be able to mind meld with every character or I can't understand what is going on." Maybe, "I an incapable of empathy."

"The character is one-dimensional!" You are one-dimensional in 99% of your life. When you bought your coffee and donut this morning, did you reveal your deep motivations to the cashier? Of course not, you have none, you are meaningless.

It's not that things can't be bad. But that phrase, "lazy writing" - that's just an ad hominem. It looks like it is a comment on the writing, but it's an insult to the person who wrote it. Just like the guitar, you have no idea if they were lazy. You can't know whether they were phoning it in or whether they were doing something clever you don't like or whether they were trying their best, just like you are trying your best to think of a way to justify your dislike for what they did with anything other than your own worthless opinion.

And by saying that you are also poisoning the entire discussion with fake rationality. If you are smart enough to convince other people with your rational arguments then you have to be aware that you are smart enough to fool yourself as well. Smart people can convince themselves of very stupid things by making arguments that they know would convince others.

Also, try to bear in mind that if you've generally found success winning rational arguments, it probably just means you are a jerk who is emotionally exhausting to talk to. At best it means you are the smartest person you tend to spend time around, which in turn would means you've selected the people you spend time around by looking for people who aren't as smart as you because that makes you feel smart. If you never lose at chess it is extremely unlikely you are Magnus Carlsen.

So I guess what I'm saying is "Up yours, everybody." I borrow a metaphor from Nietzsche, my cup is so full of rage it is overflowing and you are welcome to stand nearby and soak it up.

Please, let's all get some practice in actually liking and disliking things. With our feelings.


  1. I'm with you for "Up Yours, Everybody," but seriously, "Up Ours, Writers!" We're the worst.

  2. sometimes it really IS obvious that the guitar player simply has no clue.

    heartfelt skill-less playing can be seen, as can skilled "dirty" playing, or just stuff i don't like.

    conversely, i know a conductor who i personally do not like, and i do not like her work. it's obvious to me, however, that she is very skilled and knows what she's doing.

    i just don't like the results.

    i'm free not to like a person, not to like a person's work, and to hold the opinion that the person is unskilled. any of those things may be true or at least valid opinions, and while they may be related, they are not the same.

    example: i like you. your ideas are interesting to me. i think you are wrong about this idea.

    my opinion that you are wrong on this does not mean that i did not like the idea, nor is it dependent on how much i like you or your writing.

    i am also quite capable of hating a thing fully emotionally with no real idea why. i know the difference.

    there is a difference.