Criticism as an end in itself

A colleague once said to me, “The phrase constructive criticism is an oxymoron. Criticism is inescapably destructive:  it involves tearing something down. We tell ourselves, ‘My criticisms are constructive’ to make ourselves feel better — but it’s bullshit.”

Judging from what goes on in the blogosphere, he had a point. Too many bloggers are devoted exclusively to destruction; to attacking other people’s opinions.

But I continue to believe there is such a thing as constructive criticism. This is a case where the end sometimes justifies the means.

Chris Tilling, whose biblioblog I much admire, has picked up a critic whose raison d’être is to relentlessly attack the Christian faith. Chris is presenting an original and informative series (now up to part 4) on Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, plus an interview with the author.

Original content! — good stuff! But he has a critic who chimes in with a half dozen comments on each post, refusing to acknowledge any validity to anyone else’s point of view, or any weakness in his own position. He serves up a constant diet of attack, attack, attack!

I came across this advice back in May of 2005, and I’ve never forgotten it:

Wear this dickhead with pride, you’re no-one until you’ve got a single-issue lunatic on your back.

There you are, Chris:  such a critic is a perverse status symbol among bloggers.

Another example is a blog called Debunking Christianity. It’s a team blog, and many of the bloggers are former pastors who have lost their faith.

I was immediately interested because my experience is similar. I used to be a pastor; I suffered a crisis of faith; and although I continue to affirm Christian faith, there’s a lot of doubt and even scepticism mixed in with my beliefs. I know how painful it is to lose one’s faith:  maybe these guys had something compassionate and edifying to offer.

Hah! As if! The blog is just what the title advertises:  it’s devoted to attacking the Christian faith. It’s a hatchet job, purely destructive, a constant tearing down.

I wonder, Why do they bother? If I had nothing constructive to say, I would give up blogging immediately. As the Preacher puts it, there is “a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build up” (Ecclesiastes 3:3).

Folk wisdom says something similar:  it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

There is such a thing as constructive criticism. Criticism can be like pruning:  clearing away the deadwood to establish the conditions for new growth. With that sort of criticism, the end (new growth) justifies the means (tearing down errors).

That’s the only kind of criticism worth pursuing. If it’s all killing and tearing down, why bother? Come up with something constructive to say, or shut the f*ck up!

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ann
    Nov 22, 2006 @ 10:03:31

    Well said! I think most people just like to argue to either demonstrate their own “superior” opinion/knowledge or to convince another of their own rightness. Most debate between believer and unbeliever is fruitless, it rarely convinces either side and most cannot engage in debate with open minds or without resorting to name calling.

    Reply

  2. Mary P
    Nov 22, 2006 @ 10:45:22

    It has long been my conviction that good conversation is best typified as two people standing on each side of a chasm. Through their dialogue, they build a bridge. If both parties are willing, the process of conversation can always be constructive – even when the topic is conflictual. Sadly, too few people are really interested in coming to an understanding of the other position, and even fewer are willing to entertain the possibility of a paradigm shift. Most, as Ann comments, are only attempting to show off and/or change the other.

    Reply

  3. JewishAtheist
    Nov 22, 2006 @ 13:25:51

    You seem to contradict yourself. On the one hand, you write, “Criticism can be like pruning: clearing away the deadwood to establish the conditions for new growth.” I agree. But then you go on to write, “Come up with something constructive to say, or shut the f*ck up!” I don’t get it — isn’t pruning constructive by itself? The tree’s already there.

    Reply

  4. thywordistruth
    Nov 22, 2006 @ 15:51:43

    Constructive criticism will occur by nature as we fulfill the Biblical command of testing all things and holding fast to that which is good (or correct). It’s to the degree that we pursue it that to me is the where many believers reveal their own opinions and eventual self-righteousness.

    We are commanded to preach the truth in love and respect (to those who have not yet heard it)!

    Blessings, Jim

    http://thywordistruth.wordpress.com

    Reply

  5. Stephen
    Nov 22, 2006 @ 18:13:02

    • Ann:
    I think most people just like to argue to either demonstrate their own “superior” opinion/knowledge or to convince another of their own rightness.

    That sounds about right to me. I would take it one step further, and argue that people feel personally vindicated when they have shot the other guy’s position full of holes.

    But it’s easy to criticize; it’s much harder to think creatively and put forward an original, constructive solution to a problem. People who can do that are clever. Any fool can criticize; it’s nothing to be proud of.

    • Mary P.
    Conversation is best typified as two people standing on each side of a chasm … building a bridge.

    In that very spirit, let me build on your metaphor.

    The bridge is, understanding of the other person’s point of view (as you implied). The interesting thing is, I have to use the materials you supply to build such a bridge.

    If I reject every stone or plank that you pass across to me, I’ll never complete the bridge. Likewise, you have to work with the building materials I pass across to you.

    The criticism I decry is the sort that rejects every piece of information the other guy offers in the course of a dialogue. We won’t make any progress that way!

    • JA:
    I don’t get it — isn’t pruning constructive by itself? The tree’s already there.

    It’s just a metaphor. Like any metaphor, it can only be pressed so far before it becomes absurd. But if you want to take that approach, note that you can kill a healthy plant by over-pruning it. And taking a chainsaw to the trunk of a tree cannot be passed off as “pruning”.

    But let’s not get sidetracked by my metaphor. The point is straightforward. Some people expend all their energy on picking apart other people’s positions. That may have limited merit, but they’re leaving the heavy lifting to someone else. They aren’t problem solvers, so they can’t claim to act constructively.

    Surely you don’t disagree?

    • Jim:
    Test all things, hold fast to the good.”

    Whatever sceptics may say, the Bible offers a lot of sound counsel. The verse you quoted is a case in point: exhorting us to be humble enough not to be overly confident of our opinions.

    I understand the verse to mean, Test all things by relying on the Holy Spirit for discernment. I other words, true wisdom is not intrinsic to us, but must be sought from above.

    Reply

  6. David
    Nov 23, 2006 @ 00:07:52

    I think JewishAtheist has a point. You complain that these Debunking Christianity bloggers are “purely destructive” and are constantly “tearing down”. Yet you go on to say that criticism should be like “pruning”, “clearing away the deadwood to establish the conditions for new growth”. I haven’t checkout out those bloggers, but maybe their intent is to clear away the deadwood of your non-evidence based beliefs to aid in the new growth of rational evidence based reason. The merit of what is pruned is in the eye of the beholder. Just a thought.

    Reply

  7. Stephen
    Nov 23, 2006 @ 09:49:17

    Hi, David:
    I think JewishAtheist has a point.

    He usually does. If you haven’t visited JA’s blog before, I would encourage you to do so. He presents a lot of good food for thought.

    In this case, I thought my communication was clear. But, since you echo his comment, let me explain the point of this post again.

    I am trying to walk a fine line between two contrary opinions, both of which I reject.

    On the one hand, there is the colleague I quoted, who says that criticism is never constructive. I disagree. That was the purpose of my pruning metaphor.

    On the other hand, there are bloggers who only ever criticise, and have nothing positive to say. Presumably they think their activities are constructive — but again, I disagree. You set out to defend these latter folks.

    I conceded to JA that their activities may have a limited utility. But I don’t think it should be characterized as “constructive”, because their sole preoccupation is to tear down, to puncture, to destroy. If they sincerely want to edify, they’ve got to acknowledge that they don’t have a monopoly on truth; that the other guy has something worthwhile to say, too. Theists and atheists alike have to listen sympathetically to each others’ points of view — that’s constructive.

    Maybe their intent is to clear away the deadwood of your non-evidence based beliefs to aid in the new growth of rational evidence based reason.

    It sounds like the word “your” is intended as a reference to me personally. But perhaps your critique is directed at a general population — it isn’t 100% clear.

    I acknowledge that the positive evidence for God’s existence is moot. Some people see God’s handiwork in every blade of grass, while others see no evidence of it anywhere, even in the most sublime elements of nature.

    That’s the field of debate; and it is a case where atheists and theists are both mistaken if they think their worldview is the only legitimate perspective.

    On the other hand, I am well aware that theists sometimes refuse to look squarely at the evidence: e.g., for an unimaginably ancient cosmos, or for shared ancestry between human beings and other animals.

    I hope that I personally face facts with intellectual integrity, even where it forces me to reconsider a cherished conviction. If you read some of the other posts on my blog, you’ll be in a better position to form an opinion of me.

    Reply

  8. JewishAtheist
    Nov 23, 2006 @ 21:53:27

    Stephen,

    First, thanks for the kind words! I feel the same about you. Second, I guess what I’m getting at is that while I agree that overall there must be both destruction and construction, I’m not sure I agree that both have to be present in a single person. Maybe it’s helpful to have some people who do nothing but criticize, assuming they do it well, just as it’s helpful to have some dreamers who can open our eyes to new possibilities but will believe just about anything.

    Reply

  9. Chris Tilling
    Nov 24, 2006 @ 08:51:26

    “Wear this dickhead with pride, you’re no-one until you’ve got a single-issue lunatic on your back.”

    🙂

    Thanks for your kind words. My blog has involved discussion with Christian Fundies, the occasional Athiest, ‘liberals’, moderates etc., but this has usually been made in an atmosphere of mutual listening and respect. My feeling is that this entirely broke down recenetly.

    Reply

  10. Stephen
    Nov 24, 2006 @ 11:05:36

    • JA:
    Maybe it’s helpful to have some people who do nothing but criticize, assuming they do it well.

    When you put it like that, I can agree with you. I take my ideas wherever I find them … it’s all grist for an active mind.

    • Chris:
    My feeling is that this entirely broke down recently.

    Regrettably true! This jerk’s comments are a liability to your blog, and I don’t know how you’ll get out of the loop. It’s a challenge!

    Reply

  11. David
    Nov 25, 2006 @ 22:59:13

    Stephen. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I haven’t time for a lengthy response, but I think I take your point, overall, about negativity. I also am repelled by incessant negativity. I heard Richard Dawkins on some American radio show devoted to athiesm, it was a little creepy, like one of those right wing radio shows, just looking for a bunch of yes-men callers and shouting down detractors, a venue I thought should/would be beneath him, and I think he probably thought it was, he seemed slightly uncomfortable. Though I recently heard about some initiative, supported and/or headed by Dawkins to get religion out of schools. I agree with that, but I’d rather a much more positive approach, i.e. get proper scientific education into schools. The scientific method, teach it properly, it’s a good thing, and the rest will fall out from there. I had a classic Christian upbringing, but was also exposed to honest science, I doubted from an early age, pondered for many many years, and only have recently had the gumption to permit myself to call myself an athiest. Fwiw. Thanks, David.

    Reply

  12. Stephen
    Nov 28, 2006 @ 22:14:10

    Thanks, David. I doubt that science has anything to fear from religion. But I live in Canada, and I’m aware that U.S. society is roiled by a very strident version of Christianity — of a sort that we rarely see up here.

    Also: thanks for sharing a little of your personal story.

    Reply

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