Criticism as a Responsibility

If I had something caught in my teeth, I’d want to know about it ASAP so that I could remove it, avoiding future embarrassment. Were I eating with a friend, I would expect him to alert me to the offending piece of food so that I could remove it. Indeed, I would be miffed if he knew about it and said nothing.

We usually think of criticism as a right, but it’s also a duty. Presumably, everyone wants to be the best possible version of himself. If this is the case, then everyone should welcome others to help him in his quest for self-improvement. Criticism is how that happens. When you say or do something stupid, you don’t always know it. You need someone to criticize you in order for you to realize what an idiot you are, and then you can stop being such an idiot.

In fact, we are all idiots, as we are all prone to say and do idiotic things. When this happens, the best-case scenario is that someone informs you of your idiocy in a polite fashion. The worst-case scenario is that the people around you praise your stupidity, making you an even more awful person than before. It would be almost as bad for no one to say anything, leaving you completely oblivious.

Understandably, people sometimes wish to avoid criticizing others. In some cases, this is because of a prudent sense of “this is none of my business.” In others, however, it is a result of fearing the other person’s response. The extent to which something can be regarded as your business is up for debate. But fear of the response of the person you’re criticizing is not a good reason to refrain from offering criticism.

In other words, some people need to be freer with their criticism.


However, there is a right way and a wrong way to criticize. You don’t want to be a troll. Provocation for its own sake is unlikely to be helpful. Criticism should be aimed at getting others to carefully consider their own deficiencies, not at making them angry or ashamed. Moreover, self-righteous dogmatism isn’t likely to win any hearts, either.

I think it’s helpful to think of criticism as a mutually beneficial exercise. When you criticize, you are effectively expressing a disagreement: “You behaved in such a fashion, and I don’t think you should do that.” It is possible that the person you are criticizing was wrong to behave in the way that they did, but it is also possible that your criticism is misguided. In any case, there is tension between your view and that of the other person. In order to resolve this tension, the disagreement needs to be brought into view. The resolution of this tension is in the interest of both parties (as well as other parties not directly involved).


Of course, people don’t always like to be challenged. Nor do they like changing their behavior or admitting that they were wrong. But if we are committed to becoming better people, then it’s not like we can avoid changing our behavior.

My hope is that I will offer criticism that is helpful, and that others will offer similar criticism to me. If everyone were honest about their thoughts and humble in the way they expressed them, then the world would surely be a much better place. So let’s do that.


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