TCS Daily

Constructive Criticism

By Lee Harris - October 6, 2003 12:00 AM

When I was young, I used to hear a lot about constructive criticism, normally from my teachers, and I always wondered how such a thing could exist. If you are criticizing someone, you are, after all, finding fault with him -- indeed, you are actively engaged in the challenging project of bringing this fault sufficiently to his attention that he might actually amend it. You may choose to do this gently and subtly, or callously and cruelly, but the message you are sending him is the same in either case: he is wrong, and you are right.


Criticism is essentially destructive, not constructive. It is an assault on our normal mode of behavior and/or thinking; and, as such, it always comes as a severe shock to our system.


Unless, of course, you write short essays that are posted on the internet -- because in this case the shock that is normally achieved by criticism is so dulled by repetition that it loses most, if not all, of its normal shock value. A person who knows that he is going to be criticized, and who even knows what his critics are going to say in criticizing him, will eventually become inured to such criticism, in the same way that a man working a jackhammer becomes deaf to the noise it makes.


Yet this natural process, while a blessing to the man with the jackhammer, may not be a blessing to the writer of short essays on the internet -- or, indeed, any other kind of essay. This is because there is a tendency for anyone whose vocation involves continual criticism to adopt a set of prefabricated responses to the criticism to which he is routinely subjected, so that, over time, he may come to rely far too much on these standard, and increasingly, glib answers until finally he ends by becoming so utterly immune to criticism that he no longer takes any notice of it at all.


For some of us this immunity is so quickly acquired that it is tempting to suspect that it is not so much acquired as innate. For others, however, it seems not to develop at all, or at least by such tiny increments as to be imperceptible to the person who is in need of such psychological protection.


I fall into this latter group. Perhaps because of my lack of experience, or more probably due to my inherent makeup, I find that I am still quite far from having achieved the requisite immunity to criticism, and that, if anything, I am one of those unfortunate souls who is "overly sensitive" to it. So much so that, until just recently, if you had suggested a remedy for this psychological curse, I would have at once seized the chance of curing myself of it, even if it required my attendance at expensive seminars hosted by obnoxious charlatans in Italian made suits. But I no longer feel this way -- though not because I have overcome my over sensitivity, but because I no longer see it as a curse.


My change in attitude began after a couple of my essays appeared in TCS's new format, during that brief period when there was no way for my readers to pass on their judgment on the pieces that I had written. I felt much like a tenor who had sung his heart out at La Scala, only to discover that, owning to some oversight, it was the wrong night, and the opera house was utterly empty.


Had I been more resolutely philosophic, I could have consoled myself by observing that along with the lack of applause came the lack of hisses and boos; and that, while no one handed me a bouquet, no one tossed me a rotten tomato either.


Yet there was more involved here than mere ego gratification, as I discovered for myself when TCS restored the feedback and comments, and for the first time in several weeks, I was able to read over what readers had said about one of my essays.


It was with genuine amazement that I recognized that what I had truly missed were not the generous comments, but precisely those comments that were critical of what I had written, and, above all, those negative comments that managed to penetrate whatever little bit of thick-skin that I have so far managed to acquire -- those criticisms, in other words, for which I lacked even the rudiments of a glib response. These were the criticisms that made me scratch my head and wonder to myself, "Maybe I wasn't quite as right as I originally thought I was."


After having been deprived of such criticisms, I was suddenly able to see their true worth as I traced their curiously paradoxical effect in my own thinking. At first, it appeared as a gnawing resentment at the blindness of my critics -- "How could they think such a thing?" But gradually it transformed itself into an equally gnawing self-doubt at the adequacy of my own thinking -- "They could think such a thing because there was an element of truth in what they thought." From which point it was a relatively painless step to enter into an imaginary dialogue with my critics, out of which emerged an insight that I am quite certain could not have been achieved if I had not elected to take seriously the adverse comments that had been leveled against me.


Admittedly such imaginary dialogues are a poor substitute for face-to-face give-and-take; and yet they are not to be altogether despised. And that is why I want to take this opportunity to thank my readers for their comments, and not merely those who say kind things, but those who do not. Yes, they can be annoying and irritating -- but what a small price to pay for the privilege of becoming a bit less sure of one's self.


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