In Defense of Criticism: Building Community

Last month, I attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in Buellton, California where there was a much discussed panel of print wine writers and a workshop provided by those same three writers. First, there were several posts that were critical of the panel and workshop (Mary Cressler, Amy Corron Power, Pamela Pajuelo, and me, among others). These were followed by a few retorts—people that took exception to the initial criticism (including Frank Morgan, Allison Marriott, and Joe Roberts).

I hesitated for quite some time before writing this post, since I have no real desire to rekindle the debate about the relative merits of the panel or the conference.

Rather, the goal of this post is to address one of the pivotal points in Joe’s response—the observation made by the Keynote Speaker, Corbett Barr, that the wine blogging community needs to act more like, well, a community.

While it would be fruitless to try to establish a “code of conduct” or even “accepted practices” in a community as broad and poorly defined as “wine blogging” I believe there are at least two elements that are essential:

  1. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
  2. When another member of the community deems that said opinion is outside what they would consider “acceptable” it is their responsibility to hold the violator accountable.

Your+opinion+gets+you+an+F.+Goddamn+I+hate+when_7e7ef9_3768601Opinions, much like feelings or emotions, can’t really be “wrong” or “right” (I could likely start another whole blog debating that premise). You might not agree with my opinion, and present evidence that might cause me to change it, but by definition, an opinion is something I believe and it is not debatable whether I actually believe it or not. Again, you may disagree with me, but by nature, opinions are neither right nor wrong.

So when I said I felt that the sessions in question did not really speak to blogging and thus I felt they were less than fulfilling, well, arguing that my belief is wrong is a faulty approach.

That leads us to #2 above. You might disagree with me for any number of reasons: you might hold a different opinion, you might think that I was particularly harsh or rude, or you might believe that my opinion should have been expressed in a different forum.

All valid arguments, perhaps, but if you feel strongly enough, you need to hold me accountable if your goal is to let me know that my actions (or words) fell outside what you consider to be community “norms”. Making blanket statements and generalizations is not holding people accountable—it’s grandstanding, which is precisely one of the reasons the retorts cited as to why the criticisms were invalid (in other words, the retorters felt that some were being critical solely to generate traffic to their sites—precisely what could be said about their own posts).

If you want to say that I went over the line, or that my argument lacks merit, fine. But if the only way I am “told” is by lumping me together with other members of “the Wine Blogger Mutual Admiration and Validation Circle” (Frank Morgan), or I was one of many who had replaced my “manners with egos” (Allison Marriott), or I am simply a “doofus” (Joe Roberts), then I have no real idea if you are talking to me, which is in no way holding me accountable.

If you take umbrage with what I write, that is fine, really. You might characterize my writing any number of ways (boring, snarky, offensive) and that is alright by me as well. But, if you also feel the need to call me on it, at least let me know when you are doing it. Otherwise how could we possibly have a conversation about why I felt the need to be critical in the manner I chose (and perhaps change my behavior)?

I guess it comes down to a rather simple axiom that I learned from my grandmother (and struggle to uphold):

“Don’t say anything about someone that you would not say to their face.”

Obviously, in the internet age, “face-to-face” communication is scorned, so her message would need to be altered a bit:

“If you are going to call someone out on your blogpost, make it clear who it is.”

It will be exceedingly difficult to become more of a “community” as Corbett Barr suggested, if we don’t have honest conversations about our grievances. And those conversations are impossible unless all parties know exactly who is involved.