As someone fully capable of harsh criticism with an edge of condescension or mockery, let me explain my personal view. There are rules of etiquette for such things. It’s best if you can somehow include yourself through self-deprecation and self-criticism or even, if you can pull it off with sincerity, a bit of humility. Admittedly, that can be a difficult thing to achieve, but a good balance to aspire toward.
This is why, for example, I like to criticize liberals and the liberal class. I am an unrepentant liberal, was raised in a pansy new agey liberal church, and have spent most of my life in a stereotypical small liberal college town. I’ve earned the right and maybe have an obligation to criticize liberals. I know the problems, failures, and weaknesses of liberalism through intimate personal experience and direct observation.
There is always a note of self-criticism in my criticism of my ideological tribe, liberals. And there is a familiarity and love in even my mockery. These are my people. My criticisms are barbed in a way only possible toward those one knows well, but the barb goes both ways and cuts me as well.
Another tactic is to broaden one’s scope. Be more general in your criticisms. So, if you’re an American, make a general criticism of Americans. Just make sure to clarify you’re making a generalization, something that should always be kept in mind since criticisms easily lead to generalizations. If you’re in a particular bad mood or feeling cynical, to be on the safe side you can include the entire human race in your criticisms—and that way it automatically pertains to you as well.
Sometimes there are harsh criticisms that need to be made, even though it is directed toward a group one doesn’t identify with. This is more tricky. It increases the likelihood of projection, scapegoating, and generally being an asshole spouting clueless opinions. Still, it can be done effectively, if taken with care.
Here is a good rule to go by. You should only make sweeping criticisms about categories people choose to belong to. People are free to identify with ideologies, religions, social movements, etc. What you should be more careful about is criticizing vast demographics of people based on traits they have little or no control over: gender, race, ethnicity, intelligence, place of birth, and other similar things.
This is what makes racism and misogyny so offensive. It is also what is so irritating about dismissing Sanders supporters as Bernie Bros or Trump supporters as white dudes (or worse still as white trash), The fact of the matter is that there is a large population of white men, especially those who are poor, who don’t vote at all—many who are demoralized by the system or even disenfranchised because of mass incarceration. It’s easy to forget that most of the poor, the homeless, welfare recipients, prisoners, and ex-cons are white.
Whites in general and white men in particular are not a homogeneous demographic. Among the white working class vote, the majority still supports Democrats and have done so for decades. The smugness of the liberal class might be changing that, though—not a promising direction for the Democratic Party. If as a Hillary Clinton supporter you are critical because so many lower income whites (I might add not just white men but also lower income minorities and women) have supported Sanders (or else Trump) instead of Clinton, where were your criticisms when that same demographic showed great support for Clinton the white woman over Obama the black man?
If you’re going to try to criticize others for perceived privilege, make sure you’re not doing so from a position of privilege. Besides being condescending, it is hypocritical and unhelpful and plain uncaring.
I have no problem with righteousness. Play that righteousness to the hilt and take it seriously on a moral level. Just make sure you’re being righteous for the right reasons. Be honest with yourself in being honest with others. We need more harsh criticism that is also honest criticism. If you feel genuinely condescending or whatever, express it fully. It’s only when we bring it to the light that we can see it for what it is. Express it and take responsibility for it—own it!
Even if it turns out you’re being an asshole, there is no shame in that. We are all assholes from time to time. In that case, just apologize and readjust your attitude.
Let me give some personal examples of what I’d consider inappropriate for being condescending and mocking in targeting particular groups.
As a white man, it would feel wrong to get haughty and self-righteous in relation to the experience of those I can’t begin to understand, specifically that of minorities and women. Or as an American, to think I know what it’s like to live in another society, no matter race or gender. Then again, I feel the same way about other groups I’m closer to in terms of social experience and identity.
My mother’s family came out of a poor white background, but I didn’t grow up around that social world. Even though I’m white and relatively poor, I don’t live in a poor white community and my immediate family is not of the poor white demographic. I can’t speak for or stand above in judgment toward poor whites in poor white communities. My ignorance and unfamiliarity is too great.
As another example, I did spend much of my younger life in the Deep South (the Carolinas, North and South). I was friends with and dated working class whites, including those who could be labeled as redneck or hillbilly. I still don’t think that gives me the full familiarity and understanding to put myself in a position of full judgment, much less condescension and mockery. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that, in the way I’m comfortable more directly and harshly criticizing my fellow liberals and Midwesterners.
There is a difference that matters. It is too easy and unfair to be demeaning and dismissive toward those you don’t really understand. We should always guard against that trap of closed-minded and prejudiced thinking. Condescension and mockery is often hidden in outward humor, but that can make it all the more hurtful. Our words need to be taken seriously. If we are to be critical in whatever form, we should choose our words carefully and consciously. In picking a worthy target, it’s best to err on the side of speaking truth to power, not kicking the weak while their down.