Generous Reading On The Internet

There is this idea in literary criticism (also writing education and peer-to-peer creative writing) frequently called “generous reading.” The basic idea is that you assumed the best as you read something. You don’t ignore flaws or pass over opportunities to provide the writer with suggestions on how to improve, you just lead with the assumption that the writer is being satirical rather than an idiot. That someone writing about a topic that is typically deeply personal has knowledge of that topic in their own lives. The basic idea has started to creep into some of the more positive social media spheres I’m in, and I think there’s a lot to be said by reading the things people post and say on social media in a generous way.

I won’t deny that generous reading can be abused. It absolutely can and a lot of the worst elements of the internet rely on at least a fragment of it as a tool to bludgeon people who called them out for their clearly shitty opinions. As a result, practicing generous reading on social media can be dangerous if you’re not caught up on all the latest dogwhistles and trolling techniques. Even at my most hopeful, I always suggest taking the time to review a social media user’s history to make sure they don’t have a track record of awful behavior before extending the such generosity if you’re unsure whether or not they’re being an asshole while trying to pretend they’re not an asshole.

Most of the time I think it should be more liberally applied is in the lengthier writings of people on the internet. Blog posts, super long twitter threads, articles, and the various other places media is shared should all get a bit more generosity than most social media, since posting those places requires a good deal more effort. Which isn’t to say people don’t abuse those platforms to hide their dogwhistles and assholery, just that it’s usually easier to tell when they’re actually being awful and someone is less likely to build a whole website around the idea of being able to dogwhistle while flying under the radar.

There’s no hard and fast rule on whether or not you should read something generously, unfortunately. It is difficult to detect satire when it is done well and the longer the internet survives, the more it seems like the people being satirized are just taking the satire as a challenge. I’ve seen articles from The Onion that have passed from “clear satire” into “barely scraping the surface of the awful things we’ve seen in reality” in just the last decade. I spend a lot of time trying to decide if I’m willing to be generous in a reading on social media and I frequently find myself deciding against it. After all, it has been abundantly clear for years now how any attention is good attention on social media, so sharing things in order to dunk on them only helps the thing or person you’re trying to dunk on.

In longer-form media, though, I find it a lot easier. So often, readers know almost nothing about the writer of a work they’re enjoying. Only in recent decades has information about an author become readily available, and that looks like it might not last much longer as more and more writers turn toward anonymity and pen names in order to protect their identities from trolls and the various mobs of the internet. I feel like it is worth giving people the benefit of the doubt by default and only changing my mind when I find a reason they don’t deserve it rather than making them earn it in the first place. After all, we’ve seen countless examples on the internet of people being hunted down and castigated for something a group of people decided was inappropriate only to eventually learn that this person had every right to say what they said. Or that maybe they were right the entire time and people shouldn’t have been so quick to cast judgment.

I just think that trying to feel superior to other people is not a great way to use the internet, even though it seems to be the way most poeple use the internet. I prefer a bit of empathy and extending everyone the grace and generosity I hope they’d extend to me in turn. I just think that maybe most people trying to share something they thought important enough to make a specific statement about should maybe be given the benefit of the doubt about what they’ve said. I know I mess up and stick my foot in my mouth sometimes so I generally like to assume that other people do it as well.

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