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Why I'm most critical of the things I love

Why I'm most critical of the things I love


Criticism doesn't mean we hate something — in fact, it's the opposite

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Most writers don't enjoy writing critical pieces. I certainly don't. I understand whenever I open my text editor that the people I cover have their own personal battles happening just off stage. Even someone's worst behavior is generally the result of a series of events I don't yet know, and are rarely a singular and uninspired malicious act.

Which is to say, most people don't wake up in the morning hoping to piss someone off.

Yesterday I wrote about Matt Taylor, a scientist who worked on the Philae spacecraft landing, an amazing moment in which man-made technology settled itself onto a comet. The work of Taylor and other members of the European Space Agency is astonishing and inspiring. They delivered a true historical moment to our planet.

Unfortunately in that moment, Taylor chose to wear a "bowling shirt covered in scantly clad caricatures of sexy women in provocative poses." Despite assuming Taylor to be a brilliant scientist, I couldn't stop thinking about that shirt.

And so, because The Verge had already covered the news of the landing extensively, I wrote my feelings about the shirt and what I feel it represents: an environment stretching across the tech, science, and video game communities that is exclusionary to women and minorities. I included a bold headline, "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing," to emphasize a point I wish I'd expanded upon in the body of the piece: an incredible and important act does not make even casual or unintentional sexism okay.

The reaction to that piece has been strong, to say the least. Some people agree with me. Others think I'm nitpicking, which is understandable. Like Taylor and anyone else, I am not immune to criticism. Looking back, I do wish I'd been a little less passionate and a little more careful about how I reacted, and I think people who've contacted me are correct to ask for a more sober response in a situation like this.

There is, however, one type of reply to the piece that most concerns me and that I want to dissect. It's the belief that criticism is inherently all-encompassing, that disliking part of something means a critic dislikes the whole. And worse, that if someone or something receives negative criticism, it is spoiled for the remainder of history.

These are some of the accusations I've received: I hate science, I hate progress, I hate men, and that now no one will remember this space landing. None of this is true.

Though I wrote a critical piece about Taylor's shirt, I am not excluded from appreciating Taylor as a scientist, or the Philae landing as a profound act of human intelligence. Nor does it mean the landing is forever tarnished by what I wrote, along with the incredible support of my colleague Arielle Duhaime-Ross. Writers can be egotists, but no one is crazy enough to think an op-ed is bigger than this decade-long experiment in space.

The hope of a critic is that their work inspires readers to have conversations. Critics seek to analyze and evaluate what seems obvious and is assumed, to help people rethink things. Matt Taylor himself had a change of heart about the shirt and gave a heartfelt apology today: "The shirt I wore this week," he said, "I made a big mistake and I've offended many people and I'm very sorry about this." Taylor obviously didn't expect to be the person who'd inspire an overdue conversation about sexism in the science community, and he has handled himself with grace and empathy.

I love the science community, so much so that I want it to expand in positive, healthy ways. I hope for it to be more diverse and inclusive. As humans, we criticize because we care deeply about things. We don't criticize because we seek to attack someone, we criticize because we want to make many other people feel welcome.

Or as media critic Anita Sarkeesian eloquently puts it at the beginning of her videos in the series Tropes vs Women in Video Games: "It's both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects."