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The Dartmouth
February 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Gart: Control the Criticism

The pandemic has served as a harsh reminder that being completely uncontroversial is an impossible feat. It’s time we readjust our standards.

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This article is featured in the 2022 Winter Carnival special issue. 

I despise peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 

Honestly, I just think they’re terrible. I don’t like the flavor combination, I hate the slimy texture… I just don’t want anything to do with them. As I’ve progressed through the years, this truth has come out a number of times. And while a precious few share this opinion with me, the vast majority of my friends and family instantly recoil when I inform them. For some reason, people react to this news like they just found out I’m the Zodiac Killer, in spite of the fact that I’m literally just sharing my distaste for two spreads put together. And yet, this visceral, over-the-top reaction extends far beyond the world of PB&Js. Pineapple on pizza, the endless (and pointless) disagreement on whether a hot dog is a sandwich, and so many more debates rage constantly around topics that just don’t hold any weight. 

As far as controversial opinions go, my hate for PB&Js is pretty tame. But in today’s world, every small preference we indicate becomes a statement; a moral bellwether for our inner beliefs. Something as simple (brave?) as declaring pizza to be an open-faced grilled cheese creates shockwaves of disturbance. So, when people subliminally show support for touchier subjects, especially political and ethical issues, the response can be disproportionately deafening. 

At the moment, the most prevalent display of this effect is COVID-19 and its repeated waves of cultural impact. The pandemic has only wrenched the already-fragmented factions present in our country even further apart, and the actions of every individual have been put under intense scrutiny because of it. On one side, people who wear masks and behave carefully regarding the pandemic are considered unscientific worrywarts without any hope or desire to return to pre-pandemic life. On the other, any individual who neglects to wear their mask correctly or socially distance properly is a biohazard to society who must be contained immediately. As much as I’d like to think that a middle ground is slowly pushing its way into existence between these camps, we’re still as separated as ever. 

The Dartmouth campus is experiencing this as intensely as anywhere else. I’ve witnessed countless encounters — some where students are mocked for their mask wearing, and some where students are berated for their lack of it. People are angry, and only getting angrier. 

For better or worse, we’re now equipped with an immense arsenal of facts at a moment’s notice. The issue is, these facts are usually tailored to our own beliefs, even before we read them. People looking for evidence of COVID-19’s receding threat to humanity will find it as readily as people searching for statistics of its damage, and the harder we look, the more the internet adapts itself to provide us exactly what we want to hear in a classic case of confirmation bias. Facts are no longer just facts — they’re looping black-holes of anger and self-righteousness. 

In fact, this phenomenon isn’t new, and it sure isn’t unique to the pandemic. Long before the days of panic-buying toilet paper and disturbing Nicki Minaj anti-vax tweets, people have been volleying criticism toward others at a moment’s notice. Of course, celebrities usually end up bearing the brunt of these jeers. I may not be the biggest Taylor Swift fan (although I will dance like a maniac to Blank Space), yet I’ve still watched the American public turn against her for virtually every finger she lifts. Nobody is safe from hate comments — be it Donald Trump Jr. or Adele, people will look for any excuse to take someone famous down.

Conversely, the same could be said of unconditional support for celebrities. Fans are all-too-often willing to look the other way when their favorite athlete or singer fails to live up to even a semi-decent moral standard. Kyrie Irving has somehow turned his unvaccinated status into an outpouring of support, and Kanye West’s stomach-churning comments on slavery were ignored in favor of spiky-faced months-late album drops. Just as people rush to criticize the quizzical actions of some celebrities, they rush to defend the genuinely problematic statements and activities of others.

This problem also inevitably spills into politics. Democrats and Republicans are historically far apart on every issue in the book, and their respective affiliations have split communities across the country down the middle. Each side is so convicted in their own opinions that they fail to see any logic in their counterparts. The result, unsurprisingly, is a deeply hate-fueled political scene. Instead of interesting, productive political debates, the only interaction I’ve witnessed between Democrats and Republicans are raw, accusatory remarks made purely out of anger. Of course, politicians are probably all guilty of something, but that’s an entirely other article (probably several). Yet, this extends beyond those on Capitol Hill. By association, someone’s political affiliation now indicates that they support every single issue that party stands for. And as a result, this hatred has infiltrated everything from water cooler conversations to flirtatious encounters gone horribly wrong (no, I don’t speak from personal experience. At least not yet). 

So, what to do? This is an age-old problem that seeps into every aspect of our lives, and shows no sign of losing momentum in any discipline. How do we even begin to solve something that’s woven itself so completely, so inseparably into our society? 

Here’s what I’d suggest: Get into an argument. The next time you see something that really ticks you off, instead of flying to Twitter or loudly complaining in ’53 Commons, go up to that person and ask, civilly, to chat about it. Badmouthing people through a screen or behind their back is alarmingly easy — but doing it to someone’s face is much, much harder. Avoiding “the strawman” is key here: Instead of addressing a dummy argument constructed specifically to be torn down, dialogue must occur between two fully-fleshed schools of thought, each with their own merit. As long as this is done in a non confrontational manner, a potential silent spat of hatred could be potentially metamorphosed into a genuinely productive conversation that both sides can take away from. 

Here’s what scares me the most: I’ve begun hearing a new line of thinking from critics across all issues as various views get pulled further and further apart. Instead of offering criticism, people are stating that any engagement at all with their counterparts simply “isn’t worth it.” The alternative, of course, is retreating even further into recursive echo chambers of support. If we remain on this trajectory, withdrawing ourselves from anybody with opinions that differ at all from our own, we will find ourselves in a fundamentally shattered civilization. And while I don’t believe we’re over the precipice yet, if we don’t start readjusting the way we criticize, our society may be past saving. 

So please, give me an itemized list of exactly why I’m wrong for despising peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

I’m still not gonna eat one.