This has been one of those interesting days where one theme keeps recurring no matter where I turn. A gentleman stopped me this evening to tell me how displeased he is with my blog — that he has, in the past, found value in my writing, but that my blog is “too critical.” All day today I have been following an email conversation by many of my colleagues about the importance of criticism, and what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable criticism. I received a phone call this evening from a radio talk-show host from New York asking me to share some of my opinions on the “limitations of contemporary religion to reach younger people.” The interviewer told me, “It is so refreshing to talk to someone who isn’t afraid to honestly criticize organized religion instead of mindlessly defending it or irrationally attacking it.” Tonight I received an email from a pastor pointing out that ” who don’t have anything good to say should keep their mouths shut.”
What this says to me is that the state of honest, open, critical analysis is in a sorry state. Granted, there is too much nasty, unhelpful, and even destructive criticism in the world. There is a toxic cynicism and corrosive competition that reduces much criticism to personal attack and outrageous insult. These types of “criticism” are indefensible — and a natural and normal part of our American landscape. Shock radio masquerading as talk radio is a fine example. But cheap shots and name-calling are merely signs of low intelligence and lack of imagination. There is plenty of room for real criticism that doesn’t sink to these petty levels.
We are in real trouble when we get to a place where analysis of strengths and weaknesses is unacceptable. An example: “The leadership of the Obama administration is failing to provide the kind of recovery most Americans expected.” A critical comment. It voices an opinion. It is based on an interpretation of evidence. It offers a valuative judgement. What it lacks for me is an objective viable alternative. These are the four elements of fair criticism in my view — and it is what I try to do here. Make a personal observation about something I feel is working well or poorly and offering ideas about what could be done differently.
Look at these four comments — all, I think, saying approximately the same thing:
- our leadership sucks
- our leaders are idiots
- I am not impressed by the performance of our leaders
- If our leaders could stay focused on the larger issues and not be distracted by minutiae, we would probably all be better off.
Broad, general attack offers no grace. Personal attack is completely unhelpful. Vague dissatisfaction and focusing only on what one doesn’t like doesn’t lead anywhere. Identifying specifically where the dissatisfaction rests and pointing to a different way is at least a starting point. Now, many criticisms blend all four (as well as many other) approaches together — we tend to frame our feelings in emotion-laden language — but what brings people to a table to explore options is a cool objectivity around the issues, not the personalities and people involved. The national healthcare issue has been much less about healthcare and much more about political agenda, personalities, power, and posturing — all less helpful than stepping back from winning a political debate and seeking a solution no matter what. (Opinion, interpretation, valuative judgement, alternative.)
At its essence, criticism is either active or reactive. Active criticism is looking for ways to improve and be better. It assesses what is and asks what if? It looks at the current reality and analyzes ways to increase value and positive impact. Reactive criticism is simpler. It basically asks “how do I feel about what just happened?” If I like it, I praise it; if I dislike it, I criticize it. If my emotions are strong and I don’t like something (or someone) I will attack it. Reactive criticism takes no responsibility to engage in actually improving anything — it merely states discontent. This is why so much negative criticism is dressed up as “constructive criticism” — we know what we’re saying is out of line, personal, and reactive, but we want to justify it.
Very little improves without criticism. Until we assess how well something is producing positive results, it is impossible to determine what to change in order to make it better. Critical analysis lies at the heart of all improvement. We need to freely express our opinions — but as opinions, not fact, knowledge or truth. We need to interpret the world around us — but with the best evidence available to us, being careful not to impose assumptions or ascribe intent. We need to evaluate — to determine not only if something is good or bad (or liked or disliked), but what makes it good or bad. And we need to explore alternatives and offer suggestions on how things might improve. With this freedom and encouragement to criticize, everyone can engage in a process of becoming something better, something more.
The Christian life and the discipleship journey — by definition — are processes of continuous improvement. There is no “good enough” in the body of Christ — in our limited human capacity, there will always be room for improvement. We can never become all that God calls us to be if we make “criticism” a dirty word and an unacceptable process. The burden falls to us to find healthy, productive, civil, and loving processes for criticism that build community and do the least amount of destruction possible.