On the distinction between disagreeing and practicing asshole discord

Criticism and disagreement are essential to keep scholarly endeavours alive. We need it to develop or revise our ideas and arguments. Yet, all forms of attack are not equal in aiding in that respect. When I look back at the times when I have been served the most unhelpful criticism, they always seem to have been developed precisely to hit me hard while not engaging with the idea or position I have aimed to articulate. It has been given as truly condescending treatments felt as intended to belittle rather than to engage.

While this still happens now and again, I remember in particular one such time when I was a PhD student. It was while attending an internal workshop where I was scheduled to receive comments from a commentator who was a full professor. The long and the short of his comment was that he ‘totally disagreed with everything in this paper.’ No help there on how to develop the argument, if you for the sake of argument momentarily accepted its basic premise. No suggestion to develop or revise the premise, provided it was broken. The problem with such critique is not primarily that it takes a conflicting position, since that is a necessary part of any disagreement. The problem is that it is articulated in a way that totally blocks any further conversation and learning. What else can you reply than stating ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ or the less polite remark that you are ‘impressed to encounter such a senior colleague that wears his ignorance with such pride.’ (At the time, I do not think I had the presence to reply at all.)

Asshole critique then, could thus be defined as the non-stick, non-engaging, comments aimed to denigrate and produce discord rather than disagreement. The only difference from the silent treatment is that it aims to maim. Isaac Newton has apparently stated that “tact is the art of making your point without making an enemy.” The opposite, I guess would be practicing asshole discord, which would be the art of denigrating without making a point. Disagreement is far too important to be soiled by such practices.

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