When Abuse is Called Criticism

Recently, a beautiful young woman who I admire greatly has been getting more than her fair share of harassment from someone online. Out of respect for her, I won’t provide links to her page, unless
she’d like me to, but it does bring up an ongoing issue in the creative world. Abuse being called criticism.

Even if the costume’s
as shoddy as this one,
it at least takes courage
to run around in it.
(I still wear the shirt
and bag from time to

I’ve seen it all over the internet, and sometimes in person. People tear into other peoples’ personal lives in the name of “criticizing their work”. It’s always done as a way to get a sense of control over another person. Not only does it wear the target down, but it also gives something that’s required to become better at whatever you’re working on a bad name. That makes it devastating on a personal level as well as artistic and professional levels.

I don’t talk about my learning disability much here, but I’m dyslexic. (I do write about it here, though.) Because of the issues it brought me, I’ve had lots of negativity heaped on me since childhood, usually by well meaning people, but often by bullies. The bullies get defensive when I tell them to quit picking on me, and shoot something like “You need to learn to take criticism” right back at me.

What they’re giving is not criticism. Over the years, and in part thanks to my writing tutor job, I’ve learned how to differentiate between real criticism and plays for control. Here are a few key points.

Criticize Only When Asked For
If you’re in a competition, class or creative group, the desire for criticism is implied. In public places like the internet or conventions, unasked for criticism can easily turn the corner into bullying. Frequently, that’s exactly what happens, too.

A cosplayer wandering around a convention, for example, is usually there to express their love of the character they portray, enjoy the activities offered and have a good time with like minded people. If you want to give them pointers on their costume, ask politely if they’d like some first, and always compliment them on something you like beforehand. The same goes for commenting on any creative work.

Mix of Positive and Negative
The first lesson I learned at my tutoring job was to lead with a positive trait of the work before going into what needs more work. Keeping a healthy base of positivity in your words is what makes criticism easier to handle and, thus, more productive.

When it’s only negativity spouted, the person who did the work naturally begins to wonder if there’s any point to continuing on with the process. This is especially true when the creator in question is just getting started on learning the skill at hand. Odds are, they already know the product as it is has a long way to go, but they may want ideas on how to make improvements on it. There’s no need to tear them down right at the beginning.

No Personal Insults
If the work is what needs to be addressed, only address the work. As soon as personal insults or comments on body types, skin color or anything else the person can’t help come into it, the interaction is no longer about improving skills. This is where things like personal grudges, insecurities and other issues outside of the work take over.

Threats should never, ever, be involved. The same goes for name calling.

Even if the setting isn’t professional, when it comes to pointing out weak spots in another’s work, it’s best to use a professional tone. If someone wants criticism, then odds are they’ve already put a lot of work into what they’ve put together and are willing to put more work into it.

This is all common sense in my book, but obviously it’s not as well known as it should be.

We all start somewhere. This little bag was far from perfect, but that was because of lack of practice on my part, not because I was a bad person

What if you’re targeted? 
So, what do you do if a bully tries calling their abuse criticism? I can’t tell you what everyone should do, but I’ll tell you what I would do and have done in the past.

I first gauge the situation. Is the person well meaning, but misguided? Is it a personal attack right off the bat? Are there safety concerns involved?

If there’s no malice in the comment, I thank the person for taking the time and effort to say something. Usually, I leave it at that. Most of the time, that’s good enough for the person making the comment. If it’s good advice, I might even use it in future work. This type of unsolicited feedback can be useful, after all.

Nasty online comments are generally reported to whatever forum they’re taking place on, recorded (complete with IP address, if possible) and either deleted or left unpublished. If it turns into true harassment, I’ll have a record of what happened, who’s doing it and how often it’s happening. Depending on how serious it is, I’m not afraid to get the law involved.

In person incidences are a bit trickier, because there’s always the threat of physical violence. I take risk levels very seriously.

I do my best to remain firm, but pleasant in an attempt to avoid escalation. If the person’s just heaping verbal abuse on, I clearly let them know I’m not interested in their opinion, and tell them to leave me alone. There’s no asking involved. If they don’t back off, that’s when others in power get pulled in.

On the off chance it escalates to physical contact, which I have faced in non-creative environments, I do whatever’s necessary to get out of the situation and to a safer location. In that case, the authorities will be summoned and an official report will be filed. If possible, I’ll get the encounter on video or audio, so there’s a record of exactly what happened.

I firmly believe that creativity and fan works should be an overall positive experience. Of course it can be used to express more negative emotions, like anger or sorrow, but in the end, it shouldn’t be a doorway to abuse.

On a somewhat related note, since it’s convention season, you might want to check out this entry from last year: Harassment of Cosplayers: A PSA From Your Friendly Neighborhood Craft Blogger.

4 thoughts on “When Abuse is Called Criticism”

  1. In very old days, when I still did not even have an Internet connection, I was an approver of Elfquest fan art on a German forum. I would book a couple of hours at the library and release art done by very fledgling artists. I still, 15 years after, often find fan art more pleasant to look at, because the exuberance it was drawm with often shows. I loved it.

  2. Also,m extremely good point on the “This bag is not perfect, but its state of perfection is not in direct correlation and effect on my personality, and conclusions on my personality cannot be drawn by examining the bag alone. In fact, the theory is, that the bag's crafted quality and my personality are merely co-existing with no exchange whatsoever” -thing 🙂

  3. That's very cool. 🙂 I agree, I really enjoy some fanart better than some of the professional stuff out there. I think it comes down to passion. Even if the skill isn't perfected, you can always tell when someone puts emotion into a piece.

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