Criticizing is Not Complaining

Most bloggers expect and receive their fair share of stupid comments. It’s kind of an occupational hazard.

However, one recurring theme I see in comments–both on my writing and that of other opinion writers–disappoints me the most. That theme is always some variation on the following: “Sure, this is a problem. But it’s not worth writing about. I hate it when people complain about stuff that’s never going to change anyway.”

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between complaining and criticizing. Complaining is whiny and usually only points out something that’s crappy without explaining why it’s crappy, let alone proposing a way to make it better. Complaining is what people do when they post Facebook statuses about how much they hate Mondays or how annoyed they are about a new rule at school or work. Complaining is usually intended to generate sympathy, although it often fails at doing so because it is irritating.

Criticizing is very different. It involves describing an issue and explaining why it’s problematic. A good critic should also offer some suggestions for change, though that’s not absolutely necessary. (Sometimes those suggestions are best identified by reading a critic’s entire body of work; for instance, many of my posts describe problems that could be ameliorated through increased attention to mental health in our society, but I don’t always explicitly state that in each post.) The primary goal of criticism is not to elicit sympathy or attention for the writer, but to point readers’ attention to a subject that the writer thinks is important.

Readers who misinterpret the purpose of critical writing are doing a disservice to the writer and to themselves. Because these readers usually only write when it’s required for school or work or when they want to share something with their friends on Facebook, they fail to recognize the fact that, to other people, writing can have a greater purpose than that. Although most writers enjoy receiving compliments on their work, they don’t do it solely for those compliments; they do it for any number of reasons that the reader may not know. So why assume the worst?

In other words, I really hate it when people dismiss my writing as “complaining.” If that’s really what you think it is, you’re missing the point by a pretty wide margin.

Supposing a given reader has already made the decision to view all serious, critical writing as “whiny” and unworthy of his or her attention, that still leaves the question of why it’s necessary to demand that the writer stop producing it. The comments I see to this effect rarely just say that they dislike the piece in question; they usually tell the writer to “stop complaining” or that “this isn’t worth writing about.”

This really bewilders me because one would think that people would learn over time which writers they enjoy reading, and which ones irritate them. If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.

Then there are the readers who claim to agree with my point, but who think that I shouldn’t write about it because…well, just because. Usually they’ll say that there’s no point, that it’s not going to change anyway, that I’m only going to annoy people with my “complaining,” that bringing attention to the problem will cause undue criticism of certain groups or values that the reader holds dear, or–my personal favorite–that I’ll just make people realize how shitty things really are (and, of course, that’s a bad thing).

I’ll grant that there’s a fairly decent chance that nothing I personally write will ever change the world, unless I become very well-known someday. Most writers aren’t going to single-handedly change anything. But enough criticism and conversation creates an environment in which change is possible, because it places certain issues on our cultural agenda.

Furthermore, I would challenge these readers to provide me with an example of a time when people kept quiet, behaved well, and patiently waited for some societal issue to improve–and it just did.

Chances are, there isn’t an example, because you can’t solve a problem if nobody speaks up and calls it one.

From revolutions to tiny cultural shifts, all social change works this way. No dictator wakes up one morning and decides to let a democratic government take over, no CEO wakes up one morning and decides to start paying employees a living wage, and no bigot wakes up one morning and decides not to be prejudiced anymore. Unless, that is, somebody challenges them and forces them to change.

Not interested in changing the status quo? That’s fine. You don’t have to be.

But some of us are, and you should get out of our way.

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Dating Dangerously

Three weeks before my senior prom, I asked my best friend to be my date. I was sure he had feelings for me and I wanted him to know that I returned them, and that I hoped that things would go farther. Awesome! I thought. Asking people out is so easy!

Not so fast. At first, my best friend said, “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Three days later, his maybe morphed into a no. I was, needless to say, extremely confused.

Traditional dating wisdom would attribute this unfortunate turn of events to one of only two possible causes: One, that my friend had simply lost interest in me; and two, that he still liked me but just didn’t want to go to prom with me for whatever reason. In the first case, there was obviously nothing I could do and I should just move on–okay. Makes sense. In the second, well, obviously my friend is a sissy who doesn’t have the guts to act on his feelings, and therefore I should just move on because he would clearly make a crappy boyfriend anyway.

Well, I immediately threw out both of these explanations and decided to ask my friend why he said no. Turns out that he’d been worried that, as I’d recently ended a relationship, our going to prom together would look bad. I respectfully disagreed. To this day, I still don’t understand what was going through my friend’s mind, but he soon changed it and decided to take me to prom after all.

And in fact, we soon started dating seriously and continued to do so for nearly two years, at which point we broke up and remained best friends.

The point of this lengthy and seemingly unnecessary foray into my personal life is this: I would’ve missed out on a hell of a lot if I’d just done things according to tradition. Because according to tradition, first of all, I should never have asked my friend out to begin with. After all, if a guy doesn’t ask a girl out himself, clearly he’s either not interested or, again, a sissy. Second, when I received the answer “no,” I should’ve realized that my friend was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Just Not Interested.

And then, not only would I have spent my senior prom awkwardly taking pictures of my girlfriends and their dates, but I would also have foregone nearly two years of a serious, loving relationship.

The truth is, scripts and stereotypes make dating simpler. Rather than actually having to figure out how the other person feels–or, you know, ask them–you can just rely on a mental flowchart to help you. He didn’t offer to pay? He either lacks manners or just isn’t that interested. She invited you into her apartment? She wants to have sex.

Dating scripts also make it much easier to negotiate a timeline. (FYI, if you don’t know what I mean by “scripts,” here’s an unfortunately crappy wiki page about this sociological term.) A guy once said to me, “So, this is our third date. When are we going to kiss?” As if my kissability expires after the third date. Although people undeniably differ in how slowly or quickly they like to go, the very idea that things should progress according to a set schedule makes it easier for people to pick potential partners. If someone takes less time than you to be ready for something, then clearly they’re “easy” and you shouldn’t bother with them. If they take more time than you, then clearly they’re “prudish” and…you shouldn’t bother with them.

I met a guy once who all but bragged to me about how he was once seeing a girl, and the first time they made out, he tried to take her shirt off. According to his account, she “totally freaked out”–that is, not only did she decline to let him remove her shirt, but she also apparently didn’t do this in a nice enough way. Leaving aside the issue of the woman’s possible lack of manners, this guy decided that she wasn’t right for him purely because she wasn’t ready to remove her shirt and he was. In fact, even though she wanted to see him again after that, he ignored her calls without any further explanation.

And that was much easier than asking her to tell him how she felt, or simply apologizing and waiting for her to remove her own shirt when she was ready to. Was it possible that the girl was really unable to satisfy his needs, and that he’d do well to move on? Sure. But he didn’t ask. Perhaps her reaction was due to memories of a painful past experience, or maybe he pulled on her shirt too hard and startled her, or maybe she suddenly remembered that she’d worn her ugliest bra that day. It could be anything, and not all of those possibilities necessarily involve her being unsuitable girlfriend material.

Traditional gender roles and dating practices are also restrictive when it comes to men’s behavior. As a girl, I’ve grown up hearing entire lists of how men who wish to date me ought to behave. They should always offer to pay, and they should always walk me back to my apartment after a date, even if it adds half an hour to their walk home. They should be willing to spend time with me any evening I want, and they should always help me with homework, take me grocery shopping if they have a car, carry my bags, move my furniture, fix my computer, buy me gifts, and initiate everything sexual without any reassurances from me. And, of course, they wouldn’t be even remotely interested in seeing any other girl. Only me.

So imagine my surprise when I started dating and encountered the following paradox: plenty of guys wanted to date me, and they seemed quite interested. Hell, sometimes they even wrote me love letters. But, for some reason, none of them were willing to do everything on that list of perfect boyfriend behaviors. They’d ask me to text them when I got home safely rather than offering to walk me back. They’d tell me that they had plans with friends on Saturday night, but could maybe hang out on Sunday. When we ordered food, they’d quietly let me pay for my own stuff, which I gladly did. Sometimes, to my initial chagrin, they even admitted that I wasn’t the only girl they were interested in.

Of course, there were two possibilities. Either, as traditional wisdom would indicate, these guys don’t “really” like me that much, or traditional wisdom is simply wrong.

Luckily for my love life, I decided that the truth lay in the latter.

But that makes it a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? I can’t rely on these clear-cut categories to figure out who’s really interested and who’s just passing the time. If there’s something I’d like a potential partner to do for me, I have to actually ask rather than assume that they’re just going to do it.

If I truly believed that a guy has to be a paragon of masculinity in order to be an acceptable boyfriend for me, making decisions about dating would be easier, because I’d just ditch all the guys who didn’t fit that mold. But of course, in the long term, I’d only end up ditching my own chances to find someone who’s right for me.

Conventional dating scripts are being challenged all the time, but they still cling to life in the form of movies, TV shows, Cosmo, and many other bits of culture. They also continue to drive the actions and desires of many people, albeit not of me and the people I hang out with.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that they make things so deceptively easy. Dating outside of the conventions seems riskier, scarier.

But in reality, it’s not. There’s so much joy and freedom in writing your own rules, or forgetting rules altogether. It opens up the possibility of meeting someone who likes to play by the same rules, or lack thereof, as you do.

Don’t Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing http://www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.

“Shit Girls Say” Isn’t Funny

Or, perhaps, it’s only funny if you don’t consider the context.

Check it out:

This is the first episode of the wildly popular web series Shit Girls Say, which draws its humor from portraying stereotypical (white) (middle-/upper class) women in quick bursts of cliched speech. And I can definitely see how many people, even many women, would find it funny.

But let’s deconstruct it a bit.

Why do women talk like this and men don’t? No, seriously, try to answer that question. Is it because they have two X chromosomes? Is it because they have more estrogen? Is it because they have tits? Is it because their bodies produce eggs?*

Or is it something cultural?

Except for those of us who had the most progressive of parents, most of us were raised in a viscous sludge of “boys do this/girls do this/boys don’t do this/girls don’t do this” remarks. As my gender studies professor recently remarked, hang out near a parent with a toddler at a store sometime and you’ll hear a barrage of comments to the tune of “You’re not getting that, that’s for girls!” and “Don’t you want to wear something prettier?”

Right, so. Part of the education that most of us receive is how to properly relate to both same-sex friends and to members of the opposite sex. The basic lesson is, of course, “Boys don’t cry,” which can be extrapolated to mean that girls can cry, if they want to. From this basis, the entire structure of normative ways of interacting develops–women can be very emotional with each other; men cannot.

Eventually, girls who don’t display this “relational” style of behavior come to realize that they’re acting wrong somehow. I would know, because I was once such a girl. From early childhood onward, it was always “You’re so insensitive. Why can’t be you be more considerate? Why can’t you think about someone besides yourself? Why can’t you realize that I need your help? That wasn’t very nice of you to say that to your friend. Have you thought about what present to get her for her birthday? You really think she’d like that? Don’t say things like that, you’ll hurt someone’s feelings.”

I don’t think many little boys are told such things.

What the women in the Shit Girls Say videos are saying are more evolved forms of the things I was expected to say as a little girl. They relate to each other. They ask each others’ opinion. They want to share the details of their lives with each other. They want to commiserate, open up, engage. I could analyze the language of the videos in detail if anyone were interested in hearing it, but I think it will suffice to say that the stereotypical ways in which women behave–the gossiping, the complaining, the requests for help–are all designed to help them connect with each other.

(As for one of the girls’ constant need for help with the computer, I would hope I don’t need to explain how women’s supposed lack of technological expertise is not only a huge overgeneralization, but also entirely attributable to a culture that still values girls who play with dolls over those who tinker with electronics.)

Recently I noted that in our society, women are considered ugly if they don’t maintain their appearance, and vain if they do–unless, of course, they manage to wind up in that magical sweet spot where they always look flawless but make it seem like they haven’t expended any effort to look that way.

Well, this is similar. Our culture trains women to be relational, and then pokes fun at and belittles them for being so. Shit Girls Say succeeds in its comedic endeavors by noting and exaggerating stereotypes about how women behave, but women don’t behave that way because they’re women. They behave that way because they’re taught to behave that way.

You can’t really win as a woman. If you don’t act in a relational way, you’ll be a loner, like I was for many years before I learned how to wear a mask of friendliness and approachability. But if you do act in a relational way, you’ll find yourself the target of jokes about how frivolous women’s conversations supposedly are, how overexcited they are when they see each other, and how they apparently ask their boyfriends to do everything for them (don’t even get me started on the fact that many men still buy into antiquated ideas about how they’re supposed to be the “providers” and whatnot).

So I don’t think Shit Girls Say is funny. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sexist or misogynistic. But I would say that it’s ignorant in that it ignores the cultural origins and meanings of women’s behavior, and it’s insensitive in that it disregards the burden placed on women to act in those ways.

Cheap-shot comedy like this favors easy caricatures over meaningful critiques and analysis of our culture. (Try this for a still-funny but socially conscious parody of Shit Girls Say.) Go ahead and laugh–it’s funny in a way–but educate yourself, too.

*I’m defining “men” and “women” very generally here for the purposes of making a point. Needless to say, I don’t believe that any of the traits I listed are necessary for being a man or a woman.

Sleep: Forgotten Martyr of College Life

See? It's even on a shirt.

Academicssocial life, and sleeppick two.” -popular advice given to college freshmen

I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. Most college students, it seems, pick the first two.

What surprises me isn’t so much the fact that they do, but the fact that sleep deprivation is considered such a routine part of college life. Nobody seems to see anything wrong with this idea that getting through college necessitates depriving oneself of sleep.

I have a different way of looking at things because I have a different body. More specifically, living with depression means that sleep takes on a central significance in my daily life. Get too little, even by an hour, and I’m facing the sort of fatigue most people experience only after an all-nighter. Get too little too often, and I’m significantly increasing my chances of relapsing.

Most people don’t have depression (though many do, especially in college), but everyone knows, in the backs of their minds, that sleep is really, really important. Lack of sleep is implicated in all sorts of health problems, from susceptibility to stuff like colds and flu, to obesity, diabetes, attention and memory problems, and, of course, depression. Fatigue also makes the other two items on that list, academics and social life, nearly impossible to handle.

What’s strange is that sleep is probably unique in its complete invisibility as a college health issue. Dining halls increasingly provide healthy options, including full salad bars at each of Northwestern’s. Campus medical centers provide free condoms and cheap STI testing. Campus gyms are open from 6 AM to 11 PM each day and provide plenty of free (or cheap) classes, intramural sports teams, and what have you. Counseling centers provide free counseling and stress management workshops (though of course there’s much to be desired in that department). Anti-binge drinking initiatives abound.

But sleep is that subject that nobody ever seems to touch. After all, exercise makes you look good and can be fun, grabbing a free condom is easy, and getting a salad instead of a pizza is no big deal. Getting enough sleep, meanwhile, requires actual lifestyle changes–and, sometimes, actual sacrifices.

Ultimately, though, I think that the whole “pick two” joke is a false dichotomy (trichotomy??). I know that having all three is possible, because I have all three. I have great grades, I have great friends, and I sleep a solid 8-9 hours a night.

(A few weeks ago, frustrated by the fact that I’m usually exhausted by the time I come home from classes at 6 or 7 PM, I called my mom to complain. She said, “Of course you’re tired. It’s normal to be tired after a long day of classes.” Until she told me this, I’d never realized that. Because the campus culture I’m steeped in tells me that I should come home in the evening, go to meetings and do homework until midnight, and then engage in a social life until 2 or 3 or later–or, if I’ve been procrastinating with my homework, I should just stay up all night.)

What worries me most is that people wear their sleepless nights like badges of pride. You never hear anyone say, “Dude, I’ve legit been eating three slices of pizza EVERY DAY this week,” or “Man, guess how long I’ve managed to go without working out!” or “Guess what, guess what? I totally didn’t use a condom last night!”

But they make those comments about their lack of sleep. The only comparison is the way people talk about binge drinking.

Why is sleep deprivation cool? Probably for similar reasons as binge drinking is. It’s a mark of physical endurance, in a way, and it’s a way of displaying that you have the “right” priorities–socializing, usually–and not the “lame” ones.

Yet colleges actively try to combat the culture of binge drinking, but they ignore the problem of sleep deprivation. Why?