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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Criticism Etiquette

I have no interest in getting in the middle of the gathering clash between Brian Leiter and "Juan Non-Volokh" (see, e.g., here and here).  But Eugene Volokh has offered a few comments on the disagreement, and I'm interested in one of them. 

In a post entitled "Commenting on Portions of Others' Writings," Eugene notes that "[s]ome people have recently faulted others for commenting on only a small part of a piece -- whether a blog post, a newspaper article, a book, or what have you."  First, a point of clarification.  Although Eugene refers only to "some people," I think it's clear he's talking, at least in part, about Leiter's interchange with Non-Volokh.  First, one of Leiter's main complaints about Non-Volokh is that he "bypassed all the real arguments [presented by Leiter in his earlier post on the constitutional case for impeaching President Bush], and picked up on something at the very end."  Second, this post by Eugene came immediately after two others expressly talking about various aspects of the Leiter-Non-Volokh clash.  So, expressio unius notwithstanding, I read Eugene's reference to "some people" to mean "Brian Leiter (and maybe some others)."

Now to the substance of Eugene's post.  He takes the position that commenting on only one small part of another's blog, book, article, or other writing can often be "perfectly apt."  He continues:

Say that you read an article or a post, and find something in it that's mistaken. There are several reasons why you might not want to comment on the article or post as a whole, but only on the mistaken item:

  1. You may agree with the rest of the piece, and have nothing much to add to it.

  2. You may not know enough to have an informed opinion about the rest of the piece.

  3. You may think that your criticisms of the rest of the piece would be banal, too long, or otherwise boring for you or your readers, while the criticism of the one particular item is helpful and interesting.

  4. You may think that this particular mistake is emblematic of a broader kind of error, and thus use it in a post that's about this error.

In such situations, it seems to me quite proper to focus only on the one mistaken item. If you're right in your criticisms, then you've helped correct a mistake, even if only a small mistake. If you're wrong in those criticisms, then you should be faulted for being wrong, not for choosing to criticize a small part of a post.

I agree that commenting on only a small part of a piece can be appropriate for precisely the reasons Eugene offers.  The problem, though, is that such commentary can often be read (and by commentators operating in bad faith, may even be intended) to suggest that the small item being commented on is actually representative of the entire work, and/or that the problems with the small item infect the work as a whole.  You see this all the time in litigation, especially in reply briefs:  Faced with a strong brief by the appellee/respondent, the appellant/petitioner too often files a reply brief focusing only on minor, even trivial, flaws in its opponents' arguments, hoping to impeach indirectly what it cannot rebut directly.  It seems a similar practice can be found in the blogosphere as well, not to mention academic writing.

On the other hand, as Eugene rightly points out, the argument against a criticism that looks only at a small part of a piece isn't that the criticism itself is wrong, but that, even if it is sound, it is of limited utility and doesn't undermine the main thrust of the piece.  So the question is:  Who has the burden of clarifying that a criticism of a small part of a piece doesn't undermine its main thrust?  Should the critic be explicit at the outset about the limited nature of his/her criticism, or should we leave it to the author of the piece in question to point it out?

I suppose people may have different preferences, but I think the burden should rest with the critic.  For one thing, it seems impractical to expect the author of a piece to remain constantly on the lookout for tangential criticisms requiring contextualization.  For another, I think the real problem here is with critics who knowingly engage in tangential, minor criticisms in an effort to discredit pieces they don't like but are unable to refute more substantively.  The approach I favor would help smoke out such behavior.  (I take no position on whether Non-Volokh or Leiter has engaged in such behavior during their interchange.)

Posted by Trevor Morrison on June 22, 2005 at 08:18 PM in Blogging | Permalink


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I have no view on whether Juan Non-Volokh violated blog etiquette in his initial post, mainly because I haven't studied that post (or Brian Leiter's responses) in any detail. My post was in response to Eugene's post about the propriety of criticizing small aspects of another's writing. As I noted in my post, I think Eugene's post was, at least in part, a response to one of Leiter's criticisms of Non-Volokh. But I didn't mean to be taking any position on anything Leiter or Non-Volokh had written.

In response to Kaimi, yes, there will sometimes be disagreement over the boundary between major and minor points, and my approach won't solve that problem. But the fact that my approach won't solve all problems doesn't mean it has no value. That is, just because there will *sometimes* be disagreement over the boundary between major and minor issues doesn't mean it is *never* possible to agree on the difference. And, as I've said, I'm most concerned about instances where the critic *knows* s/he is only offering a tangential criticism, but is hoping to get more mileage out of it.


Posted by: Trevor Morrison | Jun 23, 2005 11:51:09 AM

I generally agree with the post above, and believe that my initial post (if not the follow-ups) follwed those guidelines (as do, I hope, most all of my posts on the Conspiracy). In my post I noted that I was responding to a small "tangential" point at the end of a long post on another subject. I noted that the author of the post himslf considered the point tangential to the post. I linked to the post in question so readers could judge for themselves, and I expressed disagreement with the comment.

Without revisiting the substance of the matter, I would be curious if Prof. Morrison or others thought I nonetheless violated blog etiquette in my initial post. I of course recognize why others may not wish to engage the details of this case.

Posted by: Juan Non-Volokh | Jun 23, 2005 9:54:09 AM

Further note -- my sarcastic ending "and then they both accuse the other side of bad faith" in the prior comment is based on blogophere observation in general only. It is not meant as a specific characterization of any of the participants in the Leiter-JNV debate.

I am Switzerland. I am neutral. You boys with guns can go fight it out at the corral. I'm going to sit here on the porch, sipping lemonade and reading a book.

Posted by: Kaimi | Jun 22, 2005 9:06:43 PM

This sounds reasonable on paper, but I think that it's likely to break down over disagreement about the boundary between minor and major points, between germane and tangential.

You seem to be suggesting that a writer's reply of "stop bugging me about minutia" -- which has been Leiter's argument so far, more or less -- should be accorded pretty strong weight.

An obvious potential problem with this, however, comes when the critic challenges not only the content of an original writer's statement, but also the writer's categorization of a particular statement as minutia. A conceptually coherent to response to "stop bugging me about minutia" is "that line wasn't really minutia, because of reasons X, Y and Z." (JNV hasn't actually done this yet, which is kind of surprising.)

If that happens, then we're into the same mudfight. Because in the end, it's not always clear how to categorize a statement. There are a number of statements that could fall into gray areas -- discussed for a paragraph, perhaps. Is that a developed point, or a bit of tangential minutia?

Even instances where a statement looks clearly tangential present potential wrinkles. Perhaps the tangential statement could be characterized as part of a pattern of other statements, or part of a cumulative argument.

We can place the burden on the critic, as you've suggested, to explain why a particular statement matters. But that doesn't solve the problem. It just moves the fight to a slightly different location. The critic says "that statement is tied in to your arguments," the writer says "no it's not." And then they both accuse the other side of bad faith.


(Note: I'm not taking any public position, one way or the other, on the actual merits of Leiter and JNV's discussion -- including the minutia issue as it relates to that debate).

Posted by: Kaimi | Jun 22, 2005 9:03:36 PM

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