A Critique of Criticism (and PDA)

A quick disclaimer: few phrases frustrate me more than, "Don't judge me". The sentiment itself, whether a fear of criticism, a plea to be affirmed or a childish defiance of disapproval, is naive and pathetic. Naive, because people just judge. Right or wrong, it’s what we do, it’s how we make decisions. A blanket statement that judgment itself is wrong, flippantly disregards all of those who prudently avoided doing something stupid, hurtful or self-destructive by judging another person’s actions. It’s pathetic because it shows no self-assurance. If we don’t have the wherewithal to make a decision and shrug off judgment or defend it, we won’t get very far at all. For your own sake, be judged. People will never be pleased.

In lieu of this, I hope my intentions are clear. I aim, in this post, to criticize the method and motives for criticism itself. It comes, not out of a fear of judgment but a desire to explicate the underlying reasons for criticizing other people and hopefully better myself along the way. We live in an atmosphere akin to a field polka-dotted with landmines – hypersensitive to any critical or ignorant step. Don't worry about that here. Trust me when I say, this is a free judgment zone. Judge away.

Some things beg for condemnation like a puppy for dinner leftovers. A hipster patting himself on the back after finding the most esoteric band; the type of band with one EP collecting dust in the mausoleum of Myspace. A college kid after a backpacking trip through Europe still lugging her Osprey across campus and namedropping countries like roll call at the UN.

A couple, so lost in gooey, month-old puppy love that they can’t keep from slobbering over each other in public.

Isn’t that fruit all a bit low-hanging though? Surely, there are dark, sinister, genuinely significant ideas and misdoings that actually deserve our vigilance and condemnation. Perhaps. If we’re being honest though, our inner William Wilberforce seldom has cause to show his face in the prosaic exercise of daily life.

It is much more realistic to assume that those examples – a hipster, a backpacker, a PDA couple – effect a small but still fiery ball of consternation in us. And it is those small things, those annoying, prideful, inconsiderate habits that reel in criticism from within us. A scathing thought, a whispered exasperation, an eye rolled, a passive-aggressive aside of disgust. Criticism in its day suit.


Let’s take the couple, for instance. And keep in mind, I'm only using this example as a model for those times when criticism actually plays a significant part in a situation. I doubt you're all knotted up about overly-affectionate couples all day. It is a useful example, however, for how we can shift our paradigm when we encounter something of actual weight and significance.

That said, I don’t need to produce reasons why this imaginary couple's mawkish, affirmation-starved affection warrants our slight disdain. No need to mention that their oozing, sugary endearment boasts like it is mature when it is naïve, unique when it is cliché, pure when it is self-appeasing and true when it is untested. No need to mention it makes it awkward for the rest of us.

Couldn't my criticism of the couple be dulled by simple maturity? There are two ways, it seems, maturity would handle the situation. First, a simple shrug and smile. Who would deny young lover’s a honeymoon phase? Let them have it and be glad for them. It's not promised to last but it’s doing no harm. This, keep in mind, is starkly different from airs of condescension: the subtle criticizer, who covers disgust with a paternalistic shake of the head. This is actual maturity: glad that even this joy - a bit loud, a bit showy - is still showered on others. Begrudging nothing, because it wishes only well.

Second, if the couple's behavior is truly ridiculous, maturity would take them gently along and show them where they went wrong, genuinely hoping for growth. This too is very different from the criticizer who voices their complaints only to denigrate, with little concern for development on any side.

I would like to stop here. None of this is of very much consequence it seems and all will pass away in due time when maturity is reached and grace and a little bit of self-depreciating levity is freely given. Nothing harmed, nothing broken, just life as usual.

I believe if I stopped here, however, I would genuinely miss the main point; the point where criticism originates and the potential for self-improvement is great. This is not about a couple or a hipster or a backpacker. We have all been them or their equivalent. This is also not about whether something deserves to be critiqued.

This point is truly significant. There is no sneakier hiding place for insidious motives than rightness of argument.

I will go so far as to say that the correctness of my criticism is no badge of honor. No one’s reasons for doing or saying something are absolutely reasonable. Even if I won an argument with this overly-affectionate couple, I would miss the whole heart of the issue: the psychological, emotional, experiential depth of why they would do or say such a thing. Logic won't touch them intimately enough to actually effect change because it's not a logically motivated behavior. Here is where the first opportunity for growth knocks at my door: if true motives are at the heart of the issue, what are mine?

The biggest clue I have is not content but style. Remember that fiery ball of consternation? I grant that it is proportionate to the situation. I’m not saying that any inner demons are summoned every time I feel the need to criticize something. However, you can hear it in the bitter cadence of my voice; see it in the color of my incredulous look; smell it in the aura of my disdain. Something personal has been offended. Disinterested, pure criticism is distinguishable by this: it does not contain the wispy smoke of offended bitterness that is laced through my disgusted attack.

My most sincere confession is that more often than not, when I open my mouth to criticize someone, it is not in a selfless love of seeing rightness upheld and truth and goodness win out, it is because something is lacking in me. If I really wanted simply to help and improve (the logical reason behind criticizing) I would've gone about it in a more constructive, less derogatory way.

The urge to criticize most often and most truthfully betrays a point where I fall short: an insecurity, a prejudice, a jealousy, a nursed grudge, a deep-seated arrogance. It does not matter how justified I am in turning to my friend and criticizing the love-struck youngsters. It is not about them being wrong or right. In fact, it does not matter that I am right. Only I am harmed in that scenario. Only I walk away worse. I spoke ill of someone else and felt great about it.

I coddled whatever inside me begot that bitter emotion: perhaps I am jealous that my last relationship was more arguments than endearments, perhaps I am insecure that nobody has looked at me that way in a long time, perhaps it is the self-congratulation that I would never be so foolish.

This is the most reproachable part: that I do it all with the quiet, smiling self-assurance that comes with being right. And I never have to address the tiny ugliness which peeked, briefly and shyly, from my psyche. It is not that the individual instance is so heinous. It’s not. It’s that a small part of myself that could have been corrected was left unexplored.

Here I think we stumble onto the most significant aspect of it all: fundamental posture. A posture of criticism enables us to lead a life unexamined until, of course, humiliation pulls the rug out from under us. Criticism which covers up for a lack in myself is like a city under siege. I comfortably and self-righteously hurl arrows at exposed opponents. It is a posture of perpetual closing in upon oneself, constantly barricading against the world which shines too much light on our most vulnerable, most insecure side. And as a result our world constricts, our mind narrows and our countenance darkens.

What an impoverished way of life! How much would I benefit from a posture of understanding? Where my open arms, my vulnerability is born in courage. Where I seek to understand what is different because I am sincerely curious, because I am beguiled by the beauty of experience that is not my own. Condemnation is not inherently wrong, it is just so often premature. I have never made a snap judgment about someone that, in humbling felicity, did not end up being proven unfair and incomplete. As stinging as it may be, I have the weighty opportunity to drag out into the light whatever rotten sentiment I held and disinfect it. To let the knowledge of it soften me toward someone else.

Selfishly motivated criticism is like that: I am the only who misses out. I miss out on being dazzled by the strange, unsung beauty of another. I miss out on the hard, painful but endlessly rewarding work involved in sifting through all of the faults to find the hidden virtue. I miss out on the chance to be taught by someone who (surprise, surprise) knows something I did not know. I miss out on the chance to grow more open, more outward, encompassing what is valuable and better understanding what is not.

This is not a denunciation of criticism altogether. It is an argument for self-analysis whenever we feel that fiery disgust well up inside us. It is necessary, I think, to say something of "righteous indignation", here. It is dangerous to patently advocate impassioned anger because it is righteous. Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. - I'm sure these men experienced something akin to righteous indignation on more than one occasion. Although you can find isolated and justified moments of outspoken anger for each one, look at their common characteristics as historical figures: peace, reconciliation and positive growth.

And criticism, when it is not a façade for my shortcomings in character, is so much purer and so much more beneficial. Things that are evil, parading as virtue, can be solidly condemned. Things that are immature can be gently led to learn and change. Only a mature critic looks to understand his subject first, in intimacy, and then to exhort in the most logical, most encouraging way possible. Because courageous criticism doesn’t seek to be correct, it seeks the constructive growth of its subject. It is magnanimous and knows when silence is better than the hard work of voicing truth firmly and gently.

My inclination is to jump straight to defense when challenged by something with which I disagree. Why? Truth is naturally buoyant. Its negative consequences will prove much sharper, more effective rebukes than any lessons I could impart. And if the truth is not in my favor? Then being defensive, being prematurely hypercritical will only keep me from realizing it longer. If I used every negative emotion as a chance to address some fault in myself, instead of evidence for how deeply erroneous everyone and everything “on the outside” is, I believe I would be a much happier, much healthier person.

Here's to looking out for fiery balls of consternation.

Micah Webber is a writer and aspiring teacher looking to learn, read, write and travel while helping others navigate the precarious and wonderful path of self-discovery and life’s biggest questions. He recently backpacked with Jacob through much of Western and Central Europe after studying abroad in Ireland.