Everybody’s a Critic

“Um, excuse me: did you know your zipper was undone?”

In a recent post in this blog I made some comments critical of the Obama administration’s policies toward official transparency and truthfulness in government, comments which have been interpreted as negative toward the administration as a whole. Yes, my observations were critical, but as we move into the silliness and bombast of this year’s general election, I think it’s very important to remember just what “critical” really means.

In our modern language, words such as “critic”, “criticize”, or “critical” are almost always used to imply a negative view of the topic being examined. A “critic of the administration” is someone whose views are in opposition to the powers that be. To “criticize” a practice or policy is to say negative things about it.

This is an error, a serious one, emerging from our tendency in modern English to oversimplify, to flatten out the amazing subtleties inherent in our crazy language. In fact, a critic is someone who examines something (whether an idea, a policy, a work of art, or any human enterprise) critically, which is to say, impartially, scientifically, clinically — as opposed to someone who seeks to promote that thing or idea, or who denigrates it on the basis of some quality not intrinsic to it, such as attacking a government policy not because of the policy’s merits or flaws, but because of the political party it is associated with.

A movie critic doesn’t blast every movie he writes about; an art critic can say very positive things and very negative things about the same work of art, at the same time: his or her job is not to like or dislike the work, but to examine it; to look at it in context and offer observations about its merits or its shortcomings. A good critic has no axe to grind, no loyalty or preconceived preferences, he views his subject the way a doctor views her patient, without prejudice, in the light of education and experience.

In psychotherapy, the term “self-criticism” is often used in a negative sense, to imply negative judgments of oneself. Here, again, the term is being used in an inaccurate — and possibly destructive — way. Legitimate self-criticism, in the sense of assessing one’s own feelings and actions dispassionately, without judgments either negative or positive, can be a necessary part of mental health, allowing the individual to connect more effectively with his or her environment.

In practice, of course, this is never easy. We all approach the world with our own set of expectations and our own priorities. I am frankly addicted to information, so I see issues relating to the flow of that commodity as bearing more weight than my friend the retired Marine, who focuses more on military concerns. For a family facing a health-care catastrophe, the question of secrecy in the Vatican’s public works department just doesn’t get as much traction as discussions about insurance costs or medical advances.

These difficulties don’t excuse us from the need to at least try to think critically about the issues that affect our lives. For some of us, certain topics take on the status of “sacred cows”, unimpeachable, untouchable. Any observation on such a topic that is not completely positive is seen as an attack. Such an attitude makes any sort of constructive dialogue impossible.

I have long questioned the obsessive persistence of the necktie in our culture. The modern tie dates back to around the early seventeenth century, when the traditional knotted neckscarf of Croatian mercenaries began to be copied by fashionable Frenchmen (a mispronunciation of “hrvati” or “Croat” became “cravat”.) Then, as now, the necktie did not never serve any purpose other than ornamentation, no different from earrings or Spider-Man underwear, but it has been required part of male attire in most of the Western world for centuries. Why? A certain type of man in our culture simply cannot view that strip of fabric in a critical way. It’s a sacred cow with pinstripes and a Windsor knot.

This doesn’t just apply to politics or public policy. Art, books, movies, music, styles in clothing, trends in science: all of these are human exercises that need to be examined from time to time, and not just by the professionals. We all need to think critically about what we do and what we believe; all too often, we are guided only by our opinions, without more objective analysis. This leads to an irrational dependence on the influence of others: if I lack the tools to examine my beliefs dispassionately, then I am far more likely to accept, without question, the dictates of anyone whose opinions appears to carry authority and conviction, and which mirror my own subjective outlook. People are attracted to a Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly because they can hear their own opinions being echoed back to them by someone with an appearance of substance and gravity, not because they are being forced to question and clarify those opinions.

Is this a bad thing? Ultimately, yes, I believe it is. Without critical self-analysis we face no pressure to grow, to change, to adapt our view of the world as the world itself changes. Like the Japanese soldier lost in the jungles of the South Pacific, still fighting the Second World War, we risk becoming irrelevant — or worse, destructive — to the evolving world around us.

I consider myself a liberal intellectual — no capital letters — which usually means I vote for Democrats. That doesn’t mean, however, that I feel that I must muzzle myself when I believe, objectively,  that my elected officials are making mistakes.

Oh, and the zipper? Well, if I’m strolling around at a party, feeling all suave and in control, chatting confidently about this and that and tossing back my trendy imported beers, I’d just as soon not find out that my fly has been open for the last forty-five minutes.

Sometimes the critical view can uncover things you’d rather not know, but the alternative — be it at the local cocktail get-together or in the halls of power in Washington — can be far, far worse.

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