The Role of Criticism

Find the Truth
Someone once asked me “How can we increase people’s willingness to accept criticism and enhance their ability to find the truth?”

Personally, I do not believe that human nature can be changed. For example, the idea that another banking crisis can be prevented by people calling for less greed, does not make sense to me. There must be a definite consequence or a benefit for change to happen. Are laws, rules, procedures, and rituals that were designed to reduce the avoidance of criticism and encourage the search for truth working as intended?

Criticism has a function
First, criticism has its own purpose and function. It prevents people saying stupid or untrue things. It is the possibility of criticism that makes people careful and forces them to use logical thinking. So it is good that people are sensitive to criticism and strive to avoid it.

But there are disadvantages to avoiding criticism, given a culture where people derive their self-esteem from being able to think intelligently and independently. This is especially true in the United States and Northern Europe. Both cultures owe their prosperity to the presence of criticism. The development of technology, medicine, and economy would not have been possible without criticism of existing concepts and ideas. Hegel rightly observes that dialectical thought was the dominant reasons for exceptional Western progress. That is why the ability to review, test, and correct thinking is fully institutionalized in the educational systems and professions of these cultures. A drive to avoid criticism is what causes both social and legislated rules to exist.

Better Thinking
The ability to correct reasoning has become a dominant part of defining how to think, commonly in the term “critical thinking.” It is supposed to be built into the “rigorousness” of college level courses. There is an assumption that college level study will automatically lead to better thinking. In these cultures, a person’s status and ability to think is primarily evidenced by their education. The admonition, “To get a higher status job, students should do their best in school and especially in college,” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As a consequence, all well-paid staff positions requiring thinking have a prerequisite of higher education credentials. To apply for a well-paying job, a person at least needs to have a college degree because this implies they been qualified for thinking.

However, it appears that educational systems have gradually evolved to produce professors. If a person has only a master’s degree, they can be considered to be a failed professor.

Finally, regardless of the rather sloppy assumption that years of scientific study will automatically lead to real better thinking; the ability to correct reasoning has become a dominant part of the self. However, as an alternative, you might also derive a sense of the self from being able to paint.

It is interesting that most people are not concerned about the fact that they have moderate skills in painting, sports, or in raising children. These skills do not determine their self-image as much as the ability to think.

The answer to,”what do you do for a living?” is the most common determination of a person’s cultural identity. Someone could just as well derive a sense of their identity from being a painter, excelling at sports or being a parent. It is interesting that most people are not concerned about the fact that they may have inadequate skills in those areas. If you want to pursue study to become a recognized musician or artist, you still at least need to have a high school diploma to qualify for admission to a music conservatory or art college, as well as having completed college prerequisites before taking studio classes in your discipline, regardless of your previous experience.

In these cultures, none of these skills or situations determine socially recognized value as much as the ability to think.

Thinking and self-image
There are many compelling reasons to avoid criticism; avoiding personal insult, avoiding consequence from disagreeing with those in authority, social pressure to conform, or avoiding the assignment of blame or extra work. To avoid criticizing others about their thinking seems to avoid many repercussions and “keep the peace.” Even though anyone can clearly note “the Emperor has no clothes,” appearances of agreement can easily become a higher priority than being truthful, reasonable or offering ideas for improvements.

Because the primary role of criticism is to eliminate, it leads to uncertainty, which in itself can be uncomfortable. Uncertainty reveals there is a risk being taken by answering unknowns. Uncertain situations where answers need to be found that are coupled with a time pressure can exceed a tolerance limit for finding the best answers. This situation may justify extreme reactions, especially when having to presuppose social opinion. A phenomenon of second-guessing an extreme version of conformity is likely to emerge as a coping strategy. Groups will tend to decide on a priority need to follow badly designed solutions based on insecurities, fears, or radical reactions, in spite of clear signals of incorrect reasoning.

Disastrous in practice
One can see the disastrous consequences of groupthink in situations where  under time pressure decisions are made, such as in police investigations that are broadly in the social spotlight, the management of football clubs  or political parties which are under  criticism of public figures or in company’s boardrooms where the losses are piling up.

Photo:  By 143is (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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