Promiscuous Praise and Credible Criticism

The old Cult of Positivity post by Venkat Balasubramani keeps coming back to me, as people new to social media reinvent the old wheel. It happened again when lawprof Carissa Hessick twitted that she would try to give more praise than criticism.

I know that #Twitter is often used as a forum to criticize others. I certainly use it that way.

But I’m going to try and use it more often to praise people—especially people with whom I ordinarily disagree—for doing things that I perceive as positive.

As Carissa regularly offers some very interesting and thoughtful ideas about criminal law and reform, and is one of the smarter voices in the legal academy on issues dear to my heart, I offered a warning in reply.

Promiscuous praise is also cheap on twitter. Entire communities are built on it.

She appeared somewhat confused by my message, unclear what “promiscuous” was doing in that twit, but more importantly, unclear as to my message. Neither is her fault, as it was my job to communicate to her in a way that would be comprehensible, and I clearly failed to do so. And the engagement then went a bit orthogonal, as Walter Olsen joined in.

And I’d also be curious to know whether there are entire twitter communities built on praise of “people with whom [the speakers] ordinarily disagree.” Those sound like communities worth checking in on.

The irony of Walter’s question is that there may well be, but you would never know it since a community praising people with whom the speaker disagrees would appear no different than a community where nobody disagrees. The only way one would know, from the outside, about disagreement is if it was expressed. If no one openly disagrees, then it looks like every other choir, singing hallelujah to each other.

“Promiscuous” is a great word, unfortunately associated in many minds with sex. its primary usage. But its secondary meaning is “indiscriminate.” While criticism is rampant, there are many who praise too often. They praise anyone because the outcome is agreeable. They praise their friends to show support. They praise the banal. Sometimes they praise the dumb, even the flagrantly wrong, if it serves a goal they prefer.

Offering encouragement by way of praise has become a ubiquitous tool, particularly in academia, I still have flashbacks about being “instructed” when teaching cross-examination to law students that all criticism of their work had to be prefaced by praise. What if they did nothing praiseworthy? Come up with something. Make it up. But under no circumstances could there be criticism without praise preceding it.

This was taken for granted as the preferred pedagogical means to get students to accept the criticism. Without praise, they would feel they were being attacked. With praise, they were encouraged. But this had two side-effects, that it cheapened praise to the point of meaninglessness, as it was given constantly, often effusively, for the most trivial things. “It was wonderful how you didn’t drool when you began cross!” Except the words, “When you stood up to cross, your demeanor was very professional. Well done!”

The praise was, for the most part, empty and cheap. It was unilluminating. But it had two negative side effects. First, it bred students who were praise-dependent, who needed validation, even if they realized it was empty. Second, anything that wasn’t praise was seen as an attack. It became difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some students why their compound, open-ended question wasn’t good, because what they heard was “you’re stupid and a failure.”

Praise, particularly from someone who ordinarily disagrees with you, can be a very powerful tool in persuasion and reaching consensus across the divide. But only if the praise comes in response to something really praiseworthy. That someone you disagree with said something with which you didn’t particularly disagree isn’t praiseworthy. They didn’t drool. Woo hoo!

Used sparingly, praise means something. It can mean a lot. And when given, when deserved, it is a potent means of finding common ground. We should praise people with whom we disagree, but if we do so too often, or for too little, too promiscuously, it’s reduced to meaninglessness.

On the other hand, we tend not to notice that we are part of communities that Walter thinks are “worth checking in on.” People who agree with our views follow us, “like” us, retwit us and praise us. Except sometimes, they do so for the wrong reasons, bad reasons. They like our outcomes, but their reasons are emotional, irrational and, on occasion, completely wrong.

Do we respond with, “Well, thank you for agreeing with me, but you’re doing so for a reason that I disagree with, that I find to be very misguided”? Not too often. After all, why criticize people who agree with you? That’s no way to spread the love and build up a community of support, even if the support is based on a shared outcome with entirely different reasons.

It’s easy to disagree with people with whom you ordinarily disagree. That’s the nature of disagreement. It’s far harder to disagree with people who share your views, even if for the wrong reasons. Communities develop based solely on constant validation, even when someone in the group says something unworthy of validation.

But even when they’re completely wrong, no one within the community will take issue, for to be critical in a community where the coin of the realm is tummy rubs is to risk invoking the wrath of the Cult of Positivity. And indeed, any hurt feelings are intolerable, undermining the one thing that holds the community together.

We learn more, think more, when someone criticizes us. Criticism isn’t “you’re stupid and ugly,” but nuanced and thoughtful. Yet, anything shy of validation, of praise, can be taken as an attack, and the natural inclination to respond defensively kicks in, together with the feelings of anger and hurt. The result is intolerance of anything shy of praise compels us to go on the defense rather than consider the possibility that our ideas could benefit from refinement.

To praise more, as Carissa hopes to do, is great, provided the praise isn’t indiscriminate for the sake of positivity, even if what’s being praised isn’t particularly praiseworthy. But at the same time, it’s critical that we not see anything less than praise as being an attack demanding antagonism and a defense, especially within our community where only positivity is rewarded.

We all gain more from critical thinking than empty validation. Sometimes, that means praising your “enemies.” Sometimes, that means criticizing your “friends.” It’s not about favoring one over the other, unless you prefer tummy rubs over critical thought. I’ve managed to make many enemies online, but when I praise someone, they know it’s for real and it means something.

Update: At Prawfsblawg, Carissa offers her argument in support of the “compliment sandwich.”

17 thoughts on “Promiscuous Praise and Credible Criticism

  1. wilbur

    The need for unending praise and commendation is a plague and a pestilence foisted upon the younger set.

    If I hear another “Good job!” directed at a child for doing some mundane thing they were asked to do, I may scream.

    And may I commend you for not calling her a shitlord. Good job!

    1. SHG Post author

      True, but it goes a bit deeper. For example, when I twit something, and others reply with either unilluminating or wrong additions, I won’t “like” their twits just because they’re replies that appear to support my initial twit. Others tend to like them all, promiscuously, even when they are sometimes contradictory, which makes no sense to me at all except that they support a desired outcome.

      I find that disturbing. Others, often perfectly nice people otherwise, do not.

      1. Bear

        I’ve often wished there were other “buttons” besides “like,” because I am one of the offenders.

  2. L. Phillips

    My father was taciturn to a fault. When I reached my teenage years he attempted to teach me his craft, carpentry. One explanation and demonstration of an activity was followed by an inspection of my attempt and a quiet “try again” couped with more instruction. On the rarest of occasions inspection would lead to an equally quiet “not bad” which meant I met his standards and was free to continue with that activity on the job site with little or no supervision.

    Carpentry was not in my future as a profession, but I can still frame a house, hang cabinets or finish drywall if the need arises. Dad is long gone but every time I meet my own standards I hear “not bad” in his voice and that makes me smile because his approval was rare and genuine.

  3. Hunting Guy

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

    “I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

  4. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    The therapist you lovingly sent me to is convinced the complete lack of praise even for my modest accomplishments disrupted my emotional growth and is one key factor in my complete lack of motivation to actually achieve anything in life, if that can even be had. Moderation in everything be praised. But you already know that. You must have learned from your biggest mistake, me.


    1. SHG Post author

      Oh PK, that wasn’t a therapist. That was a prostitute. Why do you think she had you remove your clothing before lying down on the couch?

  5. Miles

    I checked out @CBHessick’s twitters. While I can somewhat appreciate why you’re fond of her, she’s neither a paragon of clarity or brevity. Holy shit, is she long winded. Kind of defeats the whole point of twitter, does it not?

    1. SHG Post author

      Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

      –Blaise Pascal, 1657

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