Monday, June 23, 2008

Taking Criticism like a (Greek) Man / Woman

A robotic police officer with cap

So hard to take criticism! We are reluctant when it comes to it; there seems to be an automatic mechanism (isn’t all mechanism automatic?) that tries to protect us from any kinds of criticism. Yes, there are various kinds of criticism: the ones that are supposedly good for us, that are constructive and want us to improve and become better at whatever it is we are doing as opposed to destructive criticism that simply has the intention of doing us harm.

However you may look at it, criticism is beneficial, even of the malign sort. Even if it comes from our worst enemies and merely wants to put forth our flaws and weaknesses, we should appreciate it because they are doing us an inadvertent favor. I know it sounds like the new-age-old love-your-enemies type of advice. Anyhow, let us say somebody gives me a blunt comment about my soccer skills, claiming that I suck, maybe even big time, what should my reaction be?

Well, I can analyze it first - known as the open system of thought - and then draw my own conclusions. If the comment is valid, then I need to improve my soccer skills, and I should thank the person for pointing it out to me because I had been under the false belief that I was actually good. Thank you for opening my eyes, and now I can work hard to get better at it.

If the comment is not congruent with reality, and I am indeed very good at soccer, then the comment is invalid and erroneous. Sorry, friend, you have misjudged me on my skills on this one. In fact, I am quite aware, in an objective manner, that I am a good soccer player, and I definitely, positively, do not "suck" as you claim.

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. My reaction is, in fact, quite different and much less rational. I get angry. I start hurling insults at the other person. I take it as an offense to the integrity of my personality, even to my family, my nationality, my religion etc.

I call him an ignorant idiot, racist, or a fat bastard. I would point out his own flaws, whether they had anything to do with soccer or not is of no importance. Why? Because who is he, how dares he to criticize my divine soccer skills! Who does he take himself for?

That is the closed system based on dogmas. What I say or believe is the truth and everyone else is mistaken. I do not need to prove the contrary with aid of reason or evidence, instead I choose to attack you where it hurts you most, or I might even kick you in the balls, figuratively speaking.

This way of thinking has been mostly prevalent in our Western thought and philosophy. We tend to think that we possess truths beyond criticism and improvement. Most theological discussions end at an impasse; at best, you might be called a heretic and, at worst, be burnt at the stake. As one "great" modern figure once put it, you are either with us or with the enemy. There is no in-between, end of discussion.

In fact, about 2500 years ago, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher by the name of Thales of Miletus surprised his students by following a method called “systematic criticism.” He claimed, I am not here to lecture you because I do not know the truth (nobody does, if you want to know the truth) but I am offering you at best hypotheses; nonetheless, they need to be improved and corrected of errors if we would like to progress. In the meantime, the way of reaching this is through free discussions.

I put the stress on free. Free to disagree, we say today. But it is not true. If you disagree with your teacher you will most likely receive his wrath. The problem is this, when Thales spoke in front of the Greek crowd, the time of the polis, every citizen was seen as truly equal. They had the same position as any other. Of course, the Greeks did not include slaves, women, peasants, or foreigners since they were deemed inferior, but then again nobody is perfect, not even our dear ancient Greeks.

Yet today, most discussions are not free. We are all caught up in hierarchies. There are differences in age, economic and social standing, education, nationalities, physical strength, and so on. The list is endless. It is best to shut our mouths and not make the other angry. If your boss makes a mistake, better not mention it because it can cost you your job.

Don’t be fooled by appearances! Even if your boss is the most enlightened person in the world, most likely your criticism will be smoldering inside of her, and she will get even with you at the appropriate time without you even noticing what hit you.

It is an unfortunate truth about human nature. We are just not immune to criticism. We almost always take it personally; we can’t help it. That’s just the way we are. I know it’s wrong but what can I do. And don’t you dare to criticize me or else …


Ethan said...

Wow. Thanks for pointing that out. I think that most people are like that; I would rather react angrily instead of think about it systematically. And whatever happened to those ancient Greeks anyways? Can they help us with today's problems that you've pointed out?

Clare said...

They were kind of eaten up by the Romans. Nom.

Ethan said...

Ha, can the Romans help then?