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.

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32 thoughts on “In Defense of Criticism: Building Community

  1. So the only post I read was the Joe’s post, and I thought it was quite general – what makes you think he was targeting you specifically, but not naming your name?

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    • That’s just it–I have no idea who he was talking to or if I was even part of the “group”. If he (or the others) was not talking to me, to whom were they speaking? Was it just one blogger in particular? Was it several? What was it exactly that they found so offensive? Is it dissent in general? Do they hope to create a group-think mentality where everything is rosy and bright?

      Again.

      That’s just it–I have no idea.

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      • Not you directly, bro. I think all of your points above were valid.

        The trouble for me was not just blog posts about it, but also chatter offline, micro-blogging about it (twitter, fb, etc.), and some of that stuff happening during the WBC itself.

        I like your take on it, and NorCal Wine’s as well, because both are geared towards actually changing the things they did not like. So that’s not carping in my book, it’s constructive criticism.

        But it would be just like a self-absorbed Eagles fan to assume I was talking nly about them, wouldn’t it? ;-)

        We should discuss it more, but only in person and with a few bottles of good juice opened!

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      • What Joe was saying in his post was addressed to many people, it was addressed to the wine bloggers as a whole.Why do you expect that he was supposed to offer you an individual criticism? This is way too much effort, and also – as I can tell by your very post, you were perfectly able to self-identify, and so did the others, judging by the comments in Joe’s blog. I agree with Joe that as a group we need to take a good and realistic look at ourselves and understand what we are and what we do, and how we can do it best – but every blogger have to do it on their own.

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      • Thanks Joe, I actually did not think you were speaking just to me, but was wondering if I was part of the collective. The way I read your piece (as well as Frank’s and Allison’s) was that you were talking to a subset of the “community” but other than some broad descriptors, it was not really clear who was included (or excluded). You are right, I think sitting down over some wine and chatting about this and how we can work on this sense of “community” would be a good thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Anatoli, where did I say that I expected Joe or anyone to offer me an individual criticism? You say I was able to “self-identify” but Joe’s subsequent comment stated that I was not part of his intended audience. So that means that either Joe is being less than truthful (which I doubt), or that it was difficult for me (and by extension, others) to discern whom he was addressing.

        So if I were to have stopped writing these kind of posts based on the backlash, would that be the desired effect? Not according to Joe: “I like your take on it, and NorCal Wine’s as well, because both are geared towards actually changing the things they did not like. So that’s not carping in my book, it’s constructive criticism.”

        So this gets to my precise point: if you desire to affect behavior through blanket criticism, but the intended audience does not hear it, and some of the non-intended audience does, are you actually doing more harm than good?

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    • My man! Yeah, I am *too* general sometimes, and get criticized that I am sitting on the fence on some issues, but that’s because I do genuinely see both sides of this stuff, and see there are merits to both. It’s tough to quantify that in the post I wrote because a) for various reasons, I don’t think we’d progress this stuff constructively if I named names, and b) a lot of it was inspired by offline discussions, and those were in confidence, so they’re a no-go in terms of specifics as far as I am concerned.

      We do have to realize that, like it or not, we must self-police the community to some extent. If I had a dime for every time I was at an event or on a trip where someone told me that they didn’t expect to like me because I was a blogger and the last wine blogger they were with was a royal a-hole, I could retire *again*!

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      • Joe, we are on the same page… Even if I disagree with someone, I would only leave a critical comment if the person is making a grave technical mistake, like saying that Champagne is made out of Cabernet Sauvignon – and I would not even comment for that sake of the writer, but for the sake of the potential reader. Otherwise, everybody are entitled to their own opinion – but as a group “think”, we need to be consciously aware of what we are doing…

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      • Oh come on Anatoli, you leave critical comments on this blog all the time (and few, if any, are “technical” in nature). I welcome it, of course, since I believe dialogue is a good thing….

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  2. Jeff! More wine blogging about wine blogging — well done, sir. Blogger high five my friend. (I have a t-shirt for you. Size?).

    I can’t figure out from this post if you are defending ‘your’ brand of criticism, or everyone’s right to their own brand of criticism (or everyone’s own brand of blatant irony and cheekiness)?

    “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…” Brilliant. I agree with you!

    And, since we’re sharing axioms learned from our grandmothers, here’s one my grandmother would remind me of that may be applicable here;

    “It’s not always about you dear so get over yourself.”

    Thought provoking as always, Jeff.

    Cheers!

    * Does this meet your standard of citation adequacy?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Frank, again with the meme “wine blogging about wine blogging”. Explain to me why this is a bad thing again? Can you name any established “community” or “genre” that does not take an occasional critical look at their own craft? Better yet, can you name an established, respected wine blogger that has not blogged about blogging? I can’t.

      As for the “it’s not always about you”–I re-read my post a couple times and I guess I am too wrapped up in “me” to see where I was giving off the vibe that it “is all about me”. I thought I wrote about building community and holding others accountable vs. making blanket statements and grandstanding.

      Maybe I just internalized the name of your blog and adopted it: “Write What YOU Like”

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      • Jeff, I reread my comment a couple of times and I can’t see where I said ‘wine blogging about wine blogging’ is a “bad thing.” I gave you the blogger high five for this wine blogging about wine blogging post.

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  3. We are exceeding the depth of the comments here, so I can only reply as a fresh comment. Two things ( you know I like lists), in response to your two comments:
    1. This is your blog and your opinion – I would never tell you to stop writing whatever you feel like writing in your own blog. So by all means, this is a great and thought provocative post.
    2. I’m afraid we need to clearly identify what criticism is? If I offer my opinion in your blog, and my opinion is different than yours, does that classify as “criticism”? If yes, than of course I left many critical comments in your blog. But if it is only a different opinion, than I’m not so sure…

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    • Thanks again for the comment Anatoli. You raise a good point–exactly what is criticism? When does a “different opinion” cross over to “criticism” (I am speaking generally here). I imagine it changes from person to person a bit.

      Again, thanks for your comment, I really value them–they are consistently thought provoking and help to keep me honest!

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      • What I still find ironic…is that bloggers were considered “thin skinned” if they objected to their written work being critiqued and were labeled “whiners” if they complained about the delivery of said critiques, Add in “mean,” “unprofessional” “disrespectful,” or not properly “grateful” for “free” criticism. Yet, when the shoe is on the other foot, when the bloggers critiqued the critics, providing their own opinions on their own blogs (which, after all, are merely opinions and not “journalism”) the aforementioned critics ranted, stomped feet, threatened to never show their faces again, etc etc etc. Bloggers offering opinions are told their “opinion” is wrong (which you so sagely pointed out is impossible.) Still other bloggers are encouraged to provide counterbalancing “everything was awesome” posts. And if and “opinion” leans toward “critical” it is deemed not helpful to a pro blogging community. What’s wrong with this picture? It’s the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.

        Also Jeff, whenever I make a snarky comment about sabering it IS about you, but in the nicest way possible! ;)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Amy, I could not agree more! If I were to object to anything a more “experienced” writer were to say about my writing I would be labeled as an inexperienced hack (or worse). But if I object to writing or comments made by the “established” writers, I instantly become a hack, whiner (or worse). I just don’t get it. I guess once you achieve a certain level of acclaim as a writer, you are immune to any and all comments that are even slightly critical. Until then–you are a whinny little piece of scum that should be thankful to have an outlet at all.

        My question: Is there a secret ceremony to alert you when you have crossed the threshold?

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  4. I thought everyone made valid critiques about the panels, including you. I even commented and agreed with many of the initial points and criticisms made by many- both in their comments section and on twitter. It was also in the comments section and on facebook that I saw things tending to get really nasty, which can be all too easy to do from behind a computer screen.

    That particular post of mine really was meant to be read as quite general; they were *for the most part* very general observations from my first conference experience, its aftermath, and getting to know the different types of folks who make up our diverse community.

    That comment regarding egos really wasn’t about you or your post, (which I believe all three of the “retorters” commented on in a specific manner!). If it WAS about you, I would’ve tweeted you, DM’ed, emailed, made a more direct comment. I’ve done it to others, who chose to completely disengage and/or even mock me in a public forum. Which is fine, but it’s not my style and it never will be.

    I do agree these are discussions best had in person, over a glass (or bottle…or two) of wine.

    So if my post offended any of the “critics”, I apologize, but it was very much written in the same spirit of wanting our community to behave in a nicer, more civilized and respectful manner- even while (perhaps especially while) disagreeing. I didn’t even bring up “the panel that shall not be named”, nor did I link or intend it as a direct retort to anyone’s critique.

    In hindsight, I probably should’ve made that last paragraph a bit longer and more specific, but I stand by my assertion that honesty need not come wrapped in barbed wire. For the record- I don’t think yours did.

    Cheers,
    Alison
    (@districtwino/Bon Vivant DC)

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    • Thanks for the comment and the clarification, Allison! Despite what my buddy Frank said above, I was not trying to make this “all about me”, I was just confused as to whom your comments were directed. I did not see the Facebook posts you referenced here in your comment, so I was not aware that there was a “nasty” vibe out there about the Conference.

      I have always said that I have really enjoyed the two conferences that I have attended and I think that Zephyr does a really nice job. However, as with most things, there is room for improvement.

      I do hope that if you ever feel that something I write (or say) is out of line, you will contact me and let me know. My goal is never to offend or shock–just merely encourage debate.

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  5. Whoops, just re-read my own post. I DID refer to the panel obliquely, but that really wasn’t the gist…I guess I can see how you or others might’ve read it as a critique (even though I was fairly engaged in direct commentary with many who wrote critiques). It was intended to speak more to my own philosophy and digestion of the whole experience. Those examples were cited, among many others, given the sheer volume and attention given to those particular issues. If you re-read the post, I hope you’ll see it wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular.

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  6. Well I am not a wine blogger, but just “anotherfoodieblogger”. (No aim intended for more audience.) I’ve quite enjoyed your blog and I do know that foodie bloggers have their own conferences although I’ve never attended. I just wanted to say that I follow and read your blog to learn about wine because I’m a total newbie on that subject, (although I am learning more now from you!) and that I can’t wait to read the next series of OHMYGOD! (Even though you have truthfully told us some parts are more than slightly fabricated.) My point? Not much except that I hope you continue what you do, criticism or not of others aside!

    Like

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