Critically Speaking

By Jason Menard

Name-calling, turning one’s back to the person, folding one’s arms, picking up one’s toys and going home – these behaviours are common on the schoolyard playground. Sadly, these behaviours, or their electronic equivalent, are just as prominent on the Internet.

The question isn’t “have we lost our ability to engage in and accept criticism?” The question should be, “when did we, as a society, lose that ability?”

Reasoned debate and discussion used to be an art form unto itself. And the critical process is integral to vetting ideas, solidifying positions, and questioning the status quo. To criticise is to explore a proposed idea, while the response to criticism is intended to prove a stance.

None of this is bad.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Greek philosophers standing at a dais, engaging in critical analyses of the times. Now we’ve devolved into 140-character flame wars and playground-style name-calling.

Criticism today? Less Plato; More Pauly D.

The fault lies on both sides: the critics and the ones being criticized. Sadly, there are a significant number of people – especially in on-line forums – for whom their entire argument is built upon two words: usually ‘You’ and ‘suck’. Instead of critiques, they offer attacks; instead of ideas, they hurl insults; and instead of merely dealing with the issue at hand, they’ll frequently bring up the past or make personal attacks.

Case in point, the whole kerfuffle about London’s new “official” theme song. True, there have been a number of inappropriate comments made by people who hate the song. But there have been a significant number of reasoned, honest criticisms (I’d like to consider mine as part of that list.)

Well, not according to some of Jim’s supporters, who took to Carlyn Chapman’s Facebook page, responding to a post asking people to not sign a petition relating to her husband’s song (note the Wall is public):

“You know it’s not about the song, it’s about Jim Chapman who, for many years had the nerve to tell the emperor that he was naked, in a very public way. Don’t get me started!!!”

And

“I’m really impressed with how much time people have on their hands. Too bad their [sic] such angry people :(”

I’m a critic of this song, but it’s not because I don’t like Jim nor am I an angry person. I outlined my issues with the song, praising it for what it was, and I moved on. I don’t like Jim’s song; that doesn’t mean I don’t like Jim.

Fortunately, Jim himself took a more reasoned approach to the criticism. “People are entitled to their opinions…” he is quoted as saying in a London Free Press blog. And that is exactly the thing that people need to understand. They are opinions – not personal attacks. Or, at least, that’s what they should be.

If I write something at work and I’m asked to change it, for whatever reason, I don’t hold a grudge. They don’t like my copy. Fine. It’s not a referendum on me. But we live in such a hypersensitive world that some people can’t separate the personal from the professional.

When I write an opinion, I follow two key rules: one, don’t just criticise – try to offer a suggestion to make things better; and two, don’t attack the person, comment on the idea.

I believe I do a good job of that. And I’m willing to defend any comment or statement I’ve made. It’s easy to sit back and take pot shots at people and ideas, but I hope I do more than that. If I don’t have a solution or a suggestion, I’m not just going to condemn.

Unfortunately, there are people out there who believe that if you or I don’t agree with them 100 per cent, we’re idiots or haters (or both). Whether it’s politics, sports, or lifestyle issues, a certain segment of our society seems to be tolerant to only their own ideas. I prefer to agree to disagree – and I respect people for having their own opinions.

There’s a wonderfully active Twitter community of Londoners: some of whom I agree with, some of whom I don’t. But what I like is that these people are mature enough to respect each other’s opinions. It’s a wonderful way to learn and grow. And who am I to say that I’m right all the time – I can be swayed if my argument proves false. Calling me a moron won’t do it, but I’m always willing to listen to a sound, reasoned argument.

Maybe it’s the Jerry Springer/Jersey Shore-inisation of our culture that’s to blame. We seem to want our conflict loud and obnoxious. No one wants to watch people sitting and reasonably debating an issue – they want bombast. The winner of a debate is the one who more effectively shouts down the other.

And our political leaders are no better. It’s not about political discourse; it’s about political theatre. Unfortunately, the theatre style is less Shakespeare and more Finger-Puppet-esque with all the snide comments, rude displays, and disrespect. So if we can’t look to our elected representatives for guidance, to whom should we look?

I would suggest we look within ourselves. There are those of us who try to effectively and respectfully criticise. There are those who refuse to engage in the name calling and mud slinging. And there are those of us who are fed up with these puerile displays.

We need to recognise and encourage those people who argue the right way. We need to call out those who threaten respectful debates by starting the child’s play. And we need to commit to understanding what criticism is supposed to be – a way for all of us to understand each other, debate our ideas’ merits, and be the best we can be.

Those are ideals for which I’ll argue any day!

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One thought on “Critically Speaking

  1. Carrie Drake

    well said…it seems so much of what passes for criticism of ideas is really personal attacks on the personality. It is much easier to say, “you suck”, than to say why your ideas, products, suggestions etc. are lousy. And of course that is all subjective too.

    Reply

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