Judging Criticism

“An author places himself . . . before the tribunal of criticism, and solicits fame at the hazard of disgrace.”
–Samuel Johnson

“Some reviews give pain. This is regrettable, but no author has the right to whine. He was not obliged to be an author. He invited
publicity, and he must take the publicity that comes along.”

–E.M. Forster

“A person who publishes . . . willfully appears before the populace with his pants down . . . . If [what is written] is good . . . nothing can hurt him. If [what is written] is bad . . . nothing can help him.”
–Edna St. Vincent Millay

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
–President Harry Truman

Pretty much all saying the same thing, aren’t they?

The One And Only Test Of Criticism

Is it true or is it not? Yes or no?

Who says it is irrelevant. If a homeless drunk in the gutter tells the President of the United States in a motorcade that his fly is open, and it is, it is.

Why it is said is irrelevant. If a member of al-Queda tells the President of the United States in a motorcade that his fly is open, and it is, it is.

How it is said is irrelevant. If someone in the crowd uses a megaphone to yell out to the President, “You f—— a-hole, your fly is open,” and it is, it is.

Yet most people find the who or why or how are more important than the what.

Examine not the messenger, but the message.

If the answer to the question is “No,” then why it is not so should be the response to any criticism. Nothing else is needed.

If the answer is “Yes,” nothing else can help. There is no “Yes, but.” Anything and everything else are but evasions and smoke screens.

Now there are facts, and there are interpretation of facts. A statement can be true, but its interpretation may be false or not the only valid interpretation.

Something can be undeniably wrong, but the implications or significance of that error can be a whole different kettle of fish.

If I say, “This is wrong,” that’s a whole lot different than saying, “This is wrong. Therefore, you are worthless.” A lot of people seem to think it’s the same thing, and therein lies the problem.

In all my writing, I have often said the first. I have never said or implied the latter, simply because I’ve never come to that general conclusion. I ought to know; I wrote them. If you’ve thought otherwise, you’ve just projected your feelings unto my words.

“All Men Err (Except Me)”

Absurd, isn’t it? Yet so much human effort is dedicated to the illusion of perfection.

That illusion is a delusion. Most people have no problem with “nobody else is always right,” but try adding one more particular person to the pile.

Those who would seek to ban criticism really want to ban the reality of human error. Most particularly, theirs. 🙂

They must think, “If no one can say I’m wrong, then I must be right.”

The Emperor really is wearing a suit of fine clothes, so shut up, kid. Be “professional.”

You have to wonder about any definition of “professional” that prefers quiet incompetence to clanging criticism.

Perfection Or Bust

Many seem to go through life as if it were a school where if you don’t get 100% on every test, not only do you fail the test, but you get thrown out of school.

They sure seem to act like it when it comes to acknowledging personal error. Why do people spend so much time and effort denying a law of human nature self-evident to a five-year-old?

Maybe that’s because some people judge them like that. One strike and you’re out.

Using that standard, let’s talk about a real clown: Albert Einstein. Einstein fought for years against quantum theory and especially Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, saying, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

He was wrong. Do you say, “What a useless a-hole! Don’t listen to anything he ever said?”

I think that’s the real reason why people condemn me for criticizing what they find to be “minor” flaws.

They view this like I’m a traffic cop who can only choose between nothing or death whenever he sees a moving violation.

I think these criticisms are more like handing out tickets, and so should you.

Moving violations are not good. They can hurt people and property, but the problem is not my noticing the violations; the problem is how you regard them.

Einstein was a great man and physicist. Despite that, he was wrong on quantum theory. Do we cover that up? No. Do we pretend he was right? No. Do we do the opposite and judge him like he had been the village idiot? Only the village idiot would do that.

No, we tell the truth and conclude that Einstein was a great, though not perfect man and physicist. We should judge others and ourselves the same way.

Who Appointed You Traffic Cop?

In one sense, you, the audience, did. You come here looking for something useful, and you’ve found my opinion is at least sometimes. That makes me responsible, and part of that responsibility is pointing out things I find that aren’t so good which may mislead you.

In a broader sense, though, truth did. That doesn’t make me special, or better. Truth will deputize anybody who’ll listen to it. We’re not saying we’re better, just that truth is, and the closer people get to it, the better.

The great thing about truth is that once somebody brings it out, ultimately it stands on its own. If it doesn’t, it’s not truth.

A great truth about truth, though, is that there’s no monopoly on it. No one owns it. We all make mistakes. We all are better at some things than others.

Like knowledge, truth is not-a-zero-sum-game. If you’re wrong on something, and I’m right, and I tell you, then we both end up right, or vice versa. I don’t become wrong by making you right. I don’t get better than you by pointing out something wrong; I’m trying to do the exact opposite, and if I succeed, that’s what I’ll get.

Any valid criticism is a tool to help you up, not put you down. The great thing about valid criticism is that it is good no matter how bad or ill-intentioned or tactless the messenger is. The President of the United States will always be better off zipping up his fly while in a motorcade.

Notice I said “valid criticism,” not “constructive criticism.” The latter term should sue for abuse. Too many confuse constructive with tactful criticism, again, confusing the what with the how.

Constructive criticism says, “You’re wrong and here’s why,” and then states or implies a better way. Tactful criticism just adds a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down. Either way, you still need the medicine.

If how is more important than what, then you find your feelings more important than the truth, and may I suggest that’s not the best set of priorities.

Destructive criticism is not “you’re wrong.” It has nothing to do with manners. Destructive criticism is that which incorrectly says, “you’re wrong, and there’s no cure because you’re completely hopeless.” It’s the difference between medicine and poison, and a spoonful of sugar won’t improve the end result.

Spend your time and effort on what was said and whether or not it’s true, not who said it or why it was said or how it was said. If it’s true, use it to get better. If not, say why it isn’t, but if you find everything poison rather than medicine, maybe the problem is not the substance but the substance-taker.

Email Ed

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply