I recall a time when it was common for my peers to counter criticism leveled against personal projects by saying things like, "At least I'm doing something." If I had to label that period of time, I would call it college. That defense (or is it an attack?) is part, of course, of an age-old hatred of critics by those who create. It is assumed that those who are critics are all failures at their own passions, and all they have left in their shriveled hearts is spite for those who still have a hope of success.
When I hear the "at least I tried" argument, I recognize it as tired. I recognize that my peers have stopped using it. But why? What's really wrong with with the argument, aside from its snide passive-aggressiveness?
I think there are 2 main flaws:
- It assumes all effort is equal
- It assumes equal interest in producing and consuming
I don't know why, but I have carried in my memory for several years now a piece of stencil graffiti from U-M's campus. It said, "Just do something." In my memory it had a backwards Nike swoosh under the text, but I may be imagining that part. The stencil was in itself a perfect example of why not to just do "something." I've seen a lot of clever and occasionally even beautiful stencil graffiti, but I've seen a whole lot more crummy stencil graffiti. In this particular example, I think the public would have been better off if the perpetrator had stayed home that night with a 40 of Schlitz Ice and watched some Cartoon Network. People may be trying, but if they're failing, then it isn't very productive, is it? In fact, it might be counter-productive. At very least, a waste of time and resources.
All effort is obviously not equal. I would go so far as to argue that not all effort has a net positive outcome. My friend Tina2 once said, "Doing nothing is always better than doing something." I'm not entirely sure what she meant by that, but I always assumed it meant that, if you are doing nothing at all, at least you're not hurting anything.
A counter-argument would be that such fair-to-middling attempts are just fledgling efforts, and that people need to have these mediocre efforts in order to develop themselves. Very few talented people are born great writers, musicians, or musicians. Everything takes practice. Even, say, stencil graffiti. Fortunately, all of these things and more can be practiced in relative privacy, without foisting a lot of early efforts on the public.
Consumers and Producers
The implied question/accusation in "At least I'm doing something" is "Why aren't you doing anything?" or "What have you done (that is better)?" Perhaps in college this was a somewhat fair question, because many of us were interchangeably slackerific: we had spare time, and yes, we were wasting it on entirely unproductive pursuits. But everyone seems pretty busy to me these days, and everyone has their own hobbies and pursuits, interests and skills. If someone puts a poem in front of me and asks me for my opinion, it shouldn't matter that I am not a writer of poetry3—it should only matter than I am a reader of poetry. When my response can be summarized as "try harder," I don't think that an inventory and evaluation of my verse writing should come into question.
(Of course, perhaps the problem is that no one asked me my opinion. OK, here I'm guilty. I'm constantly offering up unsolicited opinions. However, in some ways, I feel that anything public is asking for evaluation. Maybe it's asking for silent evaluation, I don't know. But here on the Internet, especially in Blogland where nearly every post has a comments section, there is an implied invitation. Maybe I misunderstand, and comments are only for saying hello and offering adoration, but I always assumed they were to promote a dialogue.)
The avid nature photographer may enjoy watching short cartoons on YouTube, but has no interest in making her own short cartoons. If she leaves a comment for a short cartoon that says, "Eh, I've seen better" (admittedly not constructive criticism, but do you mistake people for angels?), I don't see how "At least I made a cartoon" is meaningful. It implies a lack of industry on the part of the nature photographer, but she is industrious—she merely has other pursuits.
Does it even matter if the critic is industrious at all? The criticized work should stand on its own, and if the criticism has merit, it should be just as true if it comes from an expert as if it comes from a fool. Or even a cat who is logged under her owner's account.
I feel that this argument has come up a lot lately, thanks to the great wikification of the Internet. If you see something that could be improved and you make an offhand remark to that effect, you're liable to have someone reply by saying, "submit a bug report" or "contribute a better version" or "edit the entry, you don't even need a login." Part of this naturally assumes that we all have the time and energy to devote to such tasks, but even more so it assumes that we have the inclination to do so and the necessary knowledge to boot.
For example, I recently saw what was clearly an error of fact on a Wikipedia entry, wherein a person was involved in an activity in a year that was preceded by the year of his death. I couldn't correct it, because I know neither when he died nor when he participated in the activity. I could have added to the discussion page, but someone else had already pointed out the inconsistency. I'm no expert on this person, so I leave it alone. In any case, why should it be assumed that my interest in reading such entries equates to my interest in writing such entries? Furthermore, my lack of activity on the authoring-wikipedia-articles front in no way diminishes the fact that one of the two dates listed was obviously incorrect.
I have 2 pieces of advice as takeaways:
- If you're going to go about things in a half-assed manner, by all means: post it to the Internet! That's what the Internet is there for. Just disable comments and don't leave your email address; that way no one will be able to tell you that they think it sucks.
- Just because your critics aren't spending their time writing questions for your "Which fictitious food from the Harry Potter novels are you?" quiz doesn't mean they aren't as smart or as talented as you are. In fact, their lack of industriousness may just be the mark of genius.
- Man, I can be such a jerk sometimes!
- While Tina is my friend, I guess I should also say she is my ex-girlfriend.
- This example is not entirely true. I have been a prolific writer of scatological verse, ranging from dirty haiku and filthy limericks to an 8-page parody of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Not that I would ever recommend reading any of it—and not that I would let you.