The Rules of Engagement: Or, There is No Peer-Review in Popular Culture

Earlier this morning, while scrolling through my typical line-up of news sources, I happened across an article whose basic gist had to do with the validity of art criticism. In short, the article was a reasonably standard polemic against the existence of art critics. The author took the position that there was no standing for any critic or layperson anywhere to judge an artist’s work and, therefore, no one should ever be criticizing art. It went on to ground this argument in a series of statements about historical and cultural contexts and so on and so forth but the part of the article that caught my attention had to do with one particular conclusion: the idea that no form of individual expression should ever be criticized by the social collective. Now, I’ve written on issues of cultural versus moral relativity before but I was taken aback by this argument for another reason. I’ve seen it before. In the previous case, however, it had less to do with someone’s personal rendition of an abstract bowl of fruit and everything to do with identity politics.

This got me thinking, as it often does, on a similar disconnect which is prevalent between general academia and the public. It is not uncommon, for example, for academic terms and ideas to be picked up by journalists, blogs, and opinion writers. It is also not uncommon for these terms and ideas to then be siphoned off into broader public forums and to enter common vocabulary. Unfortunately however, when I see these terms and ideas brought up again and again, they are quite suddenly very different in meaning and in usage than the way they are understood in the social and empirical sciences. I lamented. This is a well-known issue and one that academics have struggled with for a very long time. But why should this be so concerning you might think? Well, you see, there’s no peer review in popular culture.

When it comes to science (social or otherwise), communicating with the public has always been a challenge. It might surprise you to learn that there is something of a Catch-22 involved whenever a member of the academy addresses laypeople outside their discipline: If I talk about my work in a way that gets general interest, I’ll have to oversimplify and sensationalize. If I talk about my work in a way that is true to its nature, no one will care (think about click-bait headlines for example). And quite unfortunately, the end result of this Catch-22 is almost always the same: scientists don’t bother communicating with the public, pseudo-science fills the gap, and then science is blamed for poor communication when things ultimately get muddled up in the translation. In the end, what we have is a situation where academia and popular culture are trading thoughts but are no longer effectively communicating.

Even in writing this blog post, I’m facing the exact same problem. I need to simplify and apply what is a pretty broad reaching and complex idea and I need to do it in a way that both does justice to the thinking behind it and ensures it still makes sense to a general public. So, to put it as succinctly as I can, there is a problem in the way that terms and ideas are used differently in academia than the way they are used in popular culture. Let me explain further by way of example.

The term “safe space” is pretty ubiquitous at this point in time. For many people, this term carries negative connotations. It has come to mean a space wherein the people present must not be subjected to any form of criticism or be exposed to ideas that might make them uncomfortable. It is a space where, quite literally, everything is permissible and the “rules” don’t matter but only as long as it conforms to individual sensibilities. It is, in other words, the epitome of the “special snowflake” insult typically lobbed against young college students. “Safe space,” however, at its inception, never meant that and in current academic circles, still doesn’t. “Safe space” in these contexts refers to spaces free of persecution, where all ideas can be expressed, weighed, and discussed without fear of censure or violence. Hence, an LGBTQ safe space is one where non-normative gender and sexuality can be lived, experienced, and expressed without threats of harm or fear of hate and devaluation. A safe space for people of color is one where white voices and white desires are not afforded automatic power or platform and aren’t presumed to be authoritative. It’s not that uncomfortable ideas and thoughts can’t be expressed but only that they must be expressed with a mind towards not reproducing historical and cultural marginalization and exclusion. “Safe space” isn’t alone in this problem. In a number of other recent news articles, “speech as violence,” “trigger,” and “tolerance” have been getting similar play.

I chose to use “safe space” as my example because it also helps to highlight another context where I see this problem continuing to rear up: gender and sexuality discussions. It pops up every time a Gender Essential Feminist argues that the experiences of ciswomen and transwomen are different and require different solutions, and is called transphobic for it. It slinks in every time a community forum member attempts to redefine what the word “gender” means for them but then also for society itself, and lashes out in anger because they experience push back. It’s a problem when an anthropologist or sociologist publishes research about gender as a spectrum (or, conversely, gender not as a spectrum) and is screamed at for being bigoted. This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with the aforementioned positions, but you should also be seeing a secondary trend in the responses.

Part of the problem here, as I see it, lies with a couple of issues. The first, as I mentioned above, is that there is no peer review in popular culture. In academia, we are trained to and expected to evaluate one another’s work. There is a general expectation of criticism and disagreement where ideas are honed, added to or pared down, experimented on, or discarded entirely. This is how The Conversation continues. Secondly, there are several assumptions at work when academics engage in debates and discussions. The first assumption is that you are arguing in good faith. No one in the room is presumed to be your enemy and all are generally expected to follow the rules of civil discourse (participatory, engaged, polite, critical of bias, willing to evaluate dispassionately, and aware of argumentative fallacies). And above all, it’s about the idea, not the person (Criticizing your idea is *not* criticizing you). The second assumption is that there is value in the collective voice along with that of the individual. No single person gets to decide how the group thinks or what the group does, but nor does this mean that the “norm” of the collective is allowed to tyrannize the individual. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one we are usually continually committed to. In popular culture, however, we see areas where scientific ideas are present but scientific discourse is not. It’s out of context, a free-for-all of interpretation. This then produces a fundamental flaw in the system. The authority of science is made to uphold the authority of the individual voice and as a result, the entire roundabout of discussion begins to break down. Individual relativity, if there is such a thing, writ large.

Again, I am being overly simplistic, though I have good reason to. The reason is that I want to put forth a new kind of conversation out there into the digital ether. One where we start critically engaging with identity politics (or really just politics at this point) in a more productive manner. Where we can criticize without insulting, re-imagine without marginalizing, and begin to look carefully at troublesome acts of identity “gate-keeping,” at the problems of oppressive normativity, at the sectarian divide between political parties, and save the real claws for actual acts of bigotry and injustice.

So, what would Popular Peer Review look like? For a start, and just a start, let’s see if we can put forward some rules of engagement:

  1. Argue in Good Faith – This means with actual intent to learn and exchange. Without insult to another person or single-minded dedication to simply expressing one’s own opinion. Be open to change. Apologize for mistakes.
  2. Focus on the Idea, Not the Person – Evaluate and critique the idea or term presented and give evidence for both agreement and disagreement. Avoid Ad Hominem.
  3. Participate and Be Engaged – Be responsive to the ideas and voices of others. Include viewpoints not similar to your own. Join the discussion with intent to continue it to a logical end. And importantly, keep in mind that the point of discourse is to reach a collective conclusion or to collectively evaluate something. If you are not willing to engage in criticism or have your ideas criticized, do not join in.
  4. Be Polite – This doesn’t mean you can’t disagree. It doesn’t mean you can’t find something offensive. But the continuation of discourse is founded on mutual respect and the presumption that the other participants are also following the rules of discourse. It’s adherence to a social contract of conversation. Assume the best in others until you have specific reason not to. Your fellow discussants are not your enemies.
  5. Be Critical of Bias – Both your own and that of others. Be aware that your viewpoint is subjective. It comes from your experiences, your culture, your particular moment in time and is therefore subject to a variety of pressures, perceptions, and blind spots. This is also true of those with whom you debate. No viewpoint is universal.
  6. Be Willing to Evaluate Dispassionately – This means that you do not view criticism of an idea as someone being critical of your specific identity and that, conversely, you do not criticize the ideas of others with a view towards personal affront to them. Collective discourse comprises individuals but is not specifically focused on any one particular individual. In other words, it’s about the idea, not about you personally (even if you have significant personal stake in the idea).
  7. Be Aware of Argumentative Fallacies – This is a tough one but not for the reasons you might think. Overall, I see too many people who tend to overuse logical fallacies as a way to simply shut down discussion rather than have to engage with something they find disagreeable. This is not about working down a checklist of rhetorical rules in order to “allow” a discussion to continue but to acknowledge where a particular failure of evidence or of argument is present.
  8. Lastly, consider a position of Radical Indifference when it comes to certain points. There are a great many things in the world that people feel passionately about (and that’s great) but an equal amount of them are likely to have absolutely no effect on you. If something doesn’t personally affect you or if you have no stake in the possible outcome, think about whether or not you need to go to battle for it. Do not define yourself by the things you dislike.

Like I said. It’s a start.