On Criticism: How to Take it and How to Dish it Out

James E. Miller

Introduction

Hi everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on here and I just wanted to apologize for not noting beforehand that I was going on a trip to Boston from March 3rd to yesterday and would therefore be less likely to keep things on the up and up.

A little before that though James E. Miller, the editor of Mises Canada wrote an astonishing critique of me that you can find on The Mitrailleuse.

Astonishing not in a good way but a really awful way. More on that later.

Some of you may have noticed that the time between my absence and this critique being published correlate pretty nicely. Thankfully for those of us who know basic statistics, correlation doesn’t equal causation and the critique didn’t actually affect me much. I had a good few laughs about it, discussed it with some friends and then pondered about how to respond to it.

That pondering took a few days and by then I had decided to go all out and give a very incisive, degrading and pretty much insulting response. The response itself measured in at a hefty 4,000+ words (largely due to debating Miller line by line) but I’m sorry to say that it’ll never see the light of day.

There are a bunch of reasons for this but one of the main ones is that more often than not, I’m not really a petty person. I’m not very interested in drama or perpetuating some sort of flame war in some unnecessary way. That’s not to say I haven’t done any of that before but usually when I do I’m not thinking straight in some important sense.

Here it’s different. I have the time and energy and motivation to write a response and I want to make it good and make it count for something. And reducing this whole “thing” to just me one-upping an article mostly filled of ad hominem with my own attacks just doesn’t seem like the optimal way to get good results.

I think there are other reasons why it wouldn’t be a good idea to give Mr. Miller and the blog he represents so much attention and so much of my time. Honestly, when it comes down to it, I just don’t think his post merits that sort of attention to begin with.

do, however, think it merits some kind of attention and that’s on the basis of basic respect.

Mr. Miller clearly cares about my cause, in that he passionately disagrees. It’s pretty clear that he put some time, thought and energy into his post and I think it’d be unwise for me not to do the same, at least to some extent. Of course, just because he put those things into his article doesn’t mean it’s good (it unequivocally isn’t in my opinion) but it does inspire some sort of reciprocity in me that I think makes sense to abide by.

Criticism

So when you criticize someone’s ideas it’s always best to represent them as strongly as possible, this can be referred to as “steelmanning” (as opposed to strawmanning) their position. Make it as strong as possible, charitably read it as much as you can and even put things in that aid the argument if you think you can do so. All of these are great things to do in a debate because if you can prove your points better than someone else even when they are at their best then you probably have something pretty good on your hands. Or at least relative to your interlocutor.

Debates aren’t about “winning” or “losing” or at least they aren’t for me. I don’t take much pleasure in the long run over proving someone wrong. For instance, someone recently told me that the anti-capitalist stuff I was talking about in college about wage-slavery was right. I was happy for a split second and maybe even felt some feelings of pride or smugness but they went away pretty quickly. That was because I realized that my correct positions on capitalism were only realized because it was now affecting a good friend of mine. What’s the point of getting happy about being correct in such a case?

One of the biggest problems with Mr. Miller’s “critique” of me is that it isn’t much of a critique at all. Nowhere in his article does he try to accurately represent my position on work or why I believe in what I believe. He constantly conflates the definition of work with effort. This is especially egregious considering that the distinction between these two is something I’ve put some time and energy into taking apart. But for whatever reason Miller feels his time is better spent looking through my Twitter feed. From there he summarizes that I fit the slacker ethos by liking video games and shitty music (he claims Weird Al Yakovich is somehow indicative of the latter which is perhaps his most off-point claim in the whole article).

Another way to not critique someone is to go off on tangents. Bringing up irrelevant or even worse seemingly relevant points but using them in pretty noxious ways. For instance, Mr. Miller says that left-libertarians are the reasons why Chris Christie (the governor of New Jersey) dismisses libertarianism. But this hardly has much to do with a philosophy that largely regards electoral action as a waste of time compared to direct action.

When critiquing someone you should probably be a little familiar with what you’re critiquing. Otherwise whatever you say may sound pretty silly. For example, if I tried to talk about net neutrality I’d probably come off as a fool because I’ve never understood much of the issue and don’t honestly know enough to have a strong stance. So if I started criticizing someone’s article on net neutrality I’d have to resort to a bunch of non-sequiturs, ad hominems and probably a lot of fluff to make it seem like I know what I’m talking about.

One good example of Miller not really knowing what he’s talking about is when he mentions that left-libertarianism is “anti-business”. I’m not sure what this means because Miller doesn’t cite any examples of this so-called “ethos” that left-libertarians have but I can easily cite counter-examples. For instance, C4SS has an entrepreneurial anti-capitalism program and the Homebrew Industrial Donation program which seeks to support radical groups and innovators whose projects are filled with anti-authoritarian sentiments.

Maybe if Miller narrowly defines “pro-business” as “pro-corporation” then sure, C4SS easily fits the bill. And so to do most left-libertarians. But he offers us no real reason to make this sort of equivocation or why we should believe him that it’s useful to do so in the first place.

There’s only really one point in Miller’s critique where he actually seems to adequately argue something:

In a recent missive, he champions the failed idea of open office spaces because they contribute to low productivity. A 2011 study by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis determined such spaces are detrimental to worker “attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.” Thus, Ford is all for wide-open working space if it contributes to the stagnation of diabolical corporations.

While I wouldn’t call a blog post a “letter” much less a long or “official” one it’s certainly true that I (with my tongue placed firmly in cheek) praised open office spaces because they contribute to low productivity.

Of course I also pointed out that the way open office spaces are implemented now is not good because it relies on top-down styled decision making and that it’s treated as panacea. But none of that nuance seems to matter to Miller. To Miller, something I only half-seriously support in its current form, criticize and finally offer a new vision of how it could be implemented is grounds for calling me a “champion” of open office spaces.

But Miller fails to read into the fact that there’s a difference of having open office spaces as they currently stand (which I argued was a trap) and open office spaces as decided by the workers themselves. This new way of deciding open office spaces would also be balanced out by private rooms and whatever else the workers felt was acceptable to their given space. Maybe they wouldn’t even want open office spaces, who knows? But that should be up to them and not the bosses.

So Miller’s strongest argument against me isn’t much of a charitable or nuanced reading.

How to Take it and How to Dish it Out

I’m not going to go through all of Miller’s article because the rest of it is mostly calling me names or trying to insult me in some bizarre way. But I do want to note that there are many ways to discuss criticism of yourself and your mileage may vary on how effective each one is.

I’m comfortable with responding to the criticism by taking larger points from it and just engaging in a meta discussion about how to do criticism better. I’m not claiming if you follow what I’ve said that everything will be fine and dandy but I do think it’ll help you avoid some of the pitfalls Mr. Miller may have fell into in his own article.

When taking a response, especially one like Mr. Miller’s, the best thing to do is just laugh. And then maybe sit for a bit and think if the person is worth responding to. Possibly even get a few second opinions if you aren’t sure. If after all of that then you decide that they aren’t worth directly responding to then maybe you could still make use of this critique. A good example is by treating their critique as a good example for a meta-discussion (which I’ve chosen to do here) about critique itself.

Then again, if you think their criticism is so noxious that even doing that would be a bad idea then you should probably just ignore the person.

The reason I don’t completely ignore Mr. Miller’s article is because a lot of what he says people might actually think is related to the anti-work perspective. I lean towards that being more likely if people haven’t actually bothered to read the site (especially the recommended section) And of course, some people might read the site and still come to some of the same conclusions. Albeit I think at that point most of them might be a little nicer than Mr. Miller but still may just conclude that I’m doing this because I was fired (untrue) or that I’ve worked shitty jobs (partially true) or that I’m just lazy (definitely true).

I think there’s something to be said about wanting to live better so that you may eventually be “happily frolicking through an idyllic field of daisies” to quote Miller. Maybe he doesn’t see a world where all one needs to do is “work for anything other than their own leisure” but that’s a world I’d like to see.

I think Miller really proves the point of anti-work when he says that “Normal folks are too busy busting their ass to pay the mortgage to care what an overgrown child has to say about the tyranny of sweat.”

To reiterate it isn’t correct that anti-work is equivalent to anti-sweat or anti-effort and I believe I’ve clarified this a few times on my site. Then again, I don’t think Miller read any of those posts or cared enough to even think to do so.

The whole idea behind anti-work is that most people eventually aren’t to busy to hear what other people have to say about the state of the world. Not being able to get that feedback on what’s going on means being less able to make rational and time-saving decisions about their life. That way they can focus on what’s really important to them.

Speaking of which, I think I’ve used enough of my time here to prove my point. Miller’s “critique” is mostly a collection of useless tangents, blatant ad hominems, strawmans almost everywhere you look and more.

It’d take a lot of time to go over just how bad it is and why but I think most people who have been following the site will know it’s pretty poorly written without me doing that. If you’re new to the site however or if you’re just not buying these arguments or claims then like I said, I wrote a draft of 3000 or more words on the topic.

So I think I know a little something about how bad it is (which doesn’t make me right of course) and could easily answer Miller’s article point by point if I really wanted to.

Then again, that sounds like too much work.

 

3 thoughts on “On Criticism: How to Take it and How to Dish it Out

  1. Pingback: A response to Nick Ford: get off your high horse bro | The Mitrailleuse

  2. You missed calling him out on “land is expensive” when it used to be “commons”(where nobody was set up yet), don’t “expensive land” comes from enclosures, capitalism and state? To me this is one of the strongest points for anarchism

    Also I don’t know why this guy talks about his right libertarianism as if left-libertarians were putting a “bad name” on libertarianism when it’s right-wingers who appropriated the word that was used for socialist anarchists for more than a hundred years. I also don’t know why would he talk about libertarianism as if the left and right strains as if they are under the same banner, which is false as left-libertarianism would come from the socialist tradition and not the classical liberalism one(that being said, I think markets are an important aspect to make it happen).

    On closing thoughts, why do all right-wingers think they’re though-guy straight-talkers who don’t need no argumenting or something? Getitng old.

    • Hey, BR, thanks for the comment!

      To my credit, there was a lot to call him out on. So I’m not surprised I missed that point out of everything. More to the point though, my response was more of a “meta-response” and showing why his response was very problematic for many reasons. As such I didn’t really focus on the more object-level issues with his assertions.

      Miller most likely either doesn’t know about that history or if he does I don’t know that he’d care. He’s probably of the opinion that it’s a good thing that RLism has risen to prominence in the US as opposed to LLism of any sort.

      He was talking about them under the same umbrella because the sort of left-libertarian I am is more along the lines of mutualism or individualist anarchism and not anarcho-communism. I take strains of thought from radical classical liberal thought as well as radical socialist thought too.

      I’m not sure if it’s a RL thing but if it is then Miller owned it all the way through. 😉

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