The Value Of Criticism

The Value Of Criticism

The concept of ‘love it or leave it’ is antithetical to the principles our country was founded on, not the least of which was the expressed intent by the Founders to subvert the status quo.

By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, August 25, 2020

You’ve seen it on t-shirts, bumper stickers and rally signs favored by Trump supporters, Conservatives, NASCAR fans, and gun-rights activists. It says everything they want to say, including an implicit nod to white nationalism, as well as their adamant repudiation of all dissent. Six, simple words that encapsulate their entire world view: “America: Love it or leave it.” 

The message is clear. Do not criticize America in any way. If you don’t like it, get out. The idea being that Republicans, and conservatives of all stripes, view criticism as disloyalty at best and outright blasphemy at its worst. Even liberals often view criticism as divisive and a serious threat to peaceful unity and cohesion.

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist; and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.”

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee, August 10, 1824

So, ironically enough, one of the things that seemingly all Americans are in agreement about, is that criticism is bad and disruptive. But if history has shown us anything, it is that the American spirit of independence, individuality and innovation, are the direct byproduct of vigorous dissent from the status quo, and a desire to improve on our past. But that seems to be the prevailing wisdom in our current society, even from the field of psychology.

“There is no such thing as “constructive criticism,’” writes Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist, author, speaker, and self-described life coach. “Criticism never builds anything. It always tears down. It always abrades an idea, a behavior, a feeling, an opinion, or a person. Even when we mentally criticize ourselves, it tears at the target of our critical self-talk.”

Dr. Thomas’ blanket evaluation would appear to discount all forms of criticism, from hurtfully snarky comments in a damaged relationship, to decades of Roger Ebert’s columns in the Chicago Sun Times. So not only petty grievances, but all opposition to leadership in any social structure, all political opposition, and all criticism of art, music, theater, literature and sport.

It’s true that no one likes to be criticized, and almost invariably, the critic doesn’t appreciate the full complexity of the problem at hand, or the effort put in to achieving the object of their criticism. There are different kinds of criticism of course. There is the common criticism of daily life, about anything and everything, from Wawa Coffee to the weather. There are the expressions of criticism that are common in intimate relationships, that clearly psychologists find distasteful, but have built a substantial industry around. There are the professional criticisms of art, film, architecture and literature. Even sports have whole magazines, thousands of blogs, entire sections and newspapers, 24-hour cable stations and call-in radio programs devoted to nothing more than criticizing the local sports teams. These all tend to be examples of a one way conversation, where the critic is speaking, often after the fact, about a thing that they have no real interaction with, and no hope to affect change in.

Trump supporters counter-protesting a march in Wildwood. Photo: David Todd McCarty

For centuries artists, inventors, and writers have complained about professional critics as simply those unable or unwilling to create themselves. Those who are inspired to forge original work can certainly feel distain for those who sit on the sidelines and criticize, with a fair bit of justification for their position. But beyond the egotistical nature of it, that isn’t fair either. You can have a great understanding of, and even great appreciation for, a work of original art without being able to create it yourself. It’s also probably true that it can sometimes take another person with a different perspective to fully articulate what the artist may not be able to. You don’t have to put the criticism on the same shelf as the art, but it is not without merit.

As a writer, designer, photographer, filmmaker and all around creator of things, I can tell you that criticism is not pleasant, and mostly met with derision by the artist, both for its lack of understanding of the effort involved, but also for causal inference that the critic could have done better themselves.

When it comes to creative expression, as painful as criticism is to hear, if you’re honest about it, and willing to grow, you can take the parts that are valid and let them inform your work. What about when it comes to government? What about institutions? Organizations? Are they somehow beyond reproach? Are they not supposed to be in service of the people? Is the work of thousands of bureaucrats meant to be held in the same regard as Rembrandt? Is it possible that the DMV should be held to a different standard than Mozart?

There is an important distinction one needs to make between complaining, because you are being difficult, and offering criticism because you are discerning. This points to a broader notion of criticism that rises out of a desire to actually change the outcome. 

“In the hospitality business, especially in the luxury hospitality business, we teach employees to learn the difference between the difficult customer and the discerning one,” explains Gustavo Serbia, an industry consultant who once directed Learning and Development for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City. “The difficult customer is complaining because they get some sense of satisfaction out of feeling superior. There is nothing you can do for the difficult customer, no amount of compensation will suffice. They are not interested in the outcome, only in the exchange. The discerning customer, on the other hand, knows what they want and they are frustrated because they believe it is in your power to give it to them. They are trying to help you, help them, have the experience they desire. If you have please the discerning customer, they will not only be thankful, they will become loyal. The difficult customer will always be unhappy.”

A difficult customer complains. A discerning customer offers criticism.

Despite the overly simplistic viewpoint of Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D, there is indeed such a thing as constructive criticism. For instance, I would posit that his definition of the word is not only infantile, but dismissive of the entire fabric of our society, in which innovation and forward progress takes place only because of those who look critically at the work of those who came before, and discern that there is a better way. That is constructive criticism. Anything less is regressive and an example of the worst sort of conservative thinking.

Larry Hamm, People’s Organization for Progress. Wildwood July, 2020. Photo: David Todd McCarty
Crystal Hutchison and Cassandra Gaitlein, Cape May County Indivisible. Wildwood, July 2020. Photo: David Todd McCarty

The Black Lives Matter movement began as a criticism of the institutional racism that exists, and the violence that is prevalent, within police departments all across the country. People are not protesting because they want to complain, they march because they are demanding change. That is a form of criticism, not simply a complaint.

When India demanded their own independence from the British Government, they were not asking, they were not complaining, they were demanding an end to colonial rule, and they criticized the British government for the very system they employed. It was eventually constructive and they won their independence relatively peacefully. 

The truth is, criticism does not present any danger to a healthy organization. Whether you are a school district, charity, hedge fund, or a political party, you can’t assume everything you do is without need of improvement. The lack of transparency is so much of the power structure is designed to suppress dissent. Those in power are not interested in your opinion, let alone your criticism. In a private company, that is their prerogative. But in a public sectors, not only are you subject to criticism, you are required to consider it and act accordingly.

“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”

Benjamin Franklin

This should hold true for an institution you call yourself a part, just as it would for one you oppose. What better way to express your loyalty to the cause, than the desire for your community to change for the better. We should not therefore, be resistant to those calling for change within our own communities, but find the ability to listen, love and learn who are fighting along side of us.

Cape May County Democratic Committee Reorganization Meeting. Photo: David Todd McCarty

The founders of The United States of America believed strongly in the concept of dissent and were wary of any attempts to quash it. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Samuel Adams said, “For true patriots to be silent, is dangerous.” George Washington urged us to, “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” Samuel Adams said, “If ever the time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” Thomas Jefferson advised that, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” 

Years later, it was Theodore Roosevelt, himself one of the Presidents immortalized on the face of Mount Rushmore, who warned, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people.”

Despite the dogma professed by Republicans and Donald Trump, blind allegiance is not patriotism, and should never be confused with love of one’s own country. Blindly following any one person, single idea, philosophy or ideology is critically dangerous. Even when it comes to religion, there have been many infallible leaders who claimed to speak for God, only for us to find out they were charlatans and cheats. Despots and dictators, autocrats and tyrants, despise dissent and move to crush opposition before it can foment. They fear criticism because they know their authority is not legitimate, and if the curtain is even thrown back, they will be revealed.

Dissent, therefore, is honorable, just, responsible and necessary to the advancement of democracy, innovation, progress and knowledge. Criticism is simply the culmination of that dissent into word, thought and deed. We most vigorously criticize that which we love and cherish.

Those who would prevent criticism, are those who would have us follow blindly; they would encourage us trade our voice for theirs, our will for their own. Tradition is important. History is critical. But we must not let our past define who we are. We must not be restrained by the chains of our past. We are under no obligation to the debt of the failures and successes of yesterday, and they should not solely inform our plans for the future.

The President of the United States, Donald J Trump, in speaking about four, duly elected members of Congress, once said, “If you’re not happy in the U.S., if you’re complaining all the time, very simply, you can leave. You can leave right now.”

The short answer, on behalf of those four women, and all true patriots, is this: 

We will not.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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