Style of criticism

I’d like to turn to the subject of being critical. I have no desire to pour rain on the good intentions of others. Yet many of my posts take on a critical tone and some are even snarky. But they are always accompanied with a certain guilt. Critical thought has a place. It’s a perspective missing in much public debate. The web especially tends towards an echo chamber.  Why does this happen? Lots of reasons: we live in an era of concerted marketing, an inability to respond critically (especially for heavily technical areas), the lack of confidence to publicly express criticism, social desirability which suppresses it, and so on. The problem may be worse within communities working on humanitarian matters where normative stances tend to be similar. Additionally, the dominance of soft money, a limited set of funders, and frequent career jumps edges us towards caution. I’m reminded of a scene from a TV show (edited some for brevity and mostly for foul language):

If only half of you at the district attorney’s office didn’t want to be judges, didn’t want to be partners in some downtown law firm… If half of you had the balls to follow through, you know what would happen? A guy like that would be indicted, tried and convicted… But no, everybody stays friends. Everybody gets paid. And everybody’s got a future.

– The Wire

But thinking critically and expressing it are different matters. The former is desirable and essential. The second of questionable utility and perhaps taste. I came across this somewhere:

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

– W. H. Auden, “Reading,” The Dyer’s Hand, And Other Essays

I’ve heard it another way – it’s easier to clever than it is to be kind. What’s the alternative to critical expression then? I don’t think there is any per se but I’m trying, struggling, to apply two points. First, being generous with one’s criticism. Second, thinking appreciatively. These are not unrelated. The former allows us to retain the benefits of the critical approach and in fact, enhances it by upholding a higher standard. The latter makes sure we don’t get overwhelmed by it. I won’t elaborate more because the links are excellent. Another term ‘steelmanning‘ (hat tip: Andrew).


4 Responses to “Style of criticism”

  1. 1 Andy McKenzie December 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Great post. I’ve heard this called “steelmanning” — the opposite of strawmanning.

  2. 3 Liz December 22, 2012 at 12:28 am

    I disagree about the internet piece. Rather it allows easy and unbridled criticism with a cover of anonymity. The criticism may not be lacking, but the generosity certainly is

    • 4 naman December 22, 2012 at 6:01 am

      In general perhaps true. But I rarely find anonymous criticism of public health matters anywhere… I do see press releases and their summaries everywhere though

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