Psychology

Coping with Criticism



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Criticism is the most important form of evaluation available to a human being. In whatever field, it is the risk and the test, socially, personally, and professionally. There is no monopoly on the office of critic. There are six billion of us at the moment. Try to imagine a human being who never criticizes. How could you possibly trust someone like that? It's just not believable that anyone could possibly spend a life on this Earth and have nothing to criticize. Either that person is an idiot, or the most unobservant thing ever to be described as a human being.

Criticism is natural. It's an exercise of judgment, pretty much the same kind used in avoiding traffic. "I don't like this." "This looks wrong." "I don't believe your evidence." Or maybe something a bit more prosaic, like "That car's traveling too fast." From an observation to a criticism is a logical step. It might well even be a survival mechanism.

Not too surprisingly, one of the things people are quite ready to criticize is other people's judgment. Personal appearance, tastes, professional decisions, and a dictionary full of other attributes and actions are all matters of judgment. That process extends through the arts, sciences, politics, and most other human activities.

Yet, a dichotomy arises, and it's a very human dichotomy. People do routinely criticize, but they also fear criticism. Some hate it. Some criticism hurts. Some does real damage. Self respect gets knocked around. Socially, it can hit like a nuclear weapon. Professional injury through criticism isn't at all unusual. It can get so serious that people consciously evade it as much as possible. In some cases, it's a close relative of bullying. Criticism can drive people to suicide. A defence is required.

FORMS OF CRITICISM

1. THE SOCIAL WEAPON.

Used as a weapon, it's a truly blunt instrument. The most hurtful criticism is rarely subtle. Sometimes it's positively showy, proof of the critic's own status, a sort of primitive big stick approach, aimed at destroying the social position of the target. It's no wonder that those on the receiving end get nervous. Partly through apprehension, partly through the stress of their own reactions.

Let's not downplay the significance of criticism as a way of socially damaging people. The damage can be horrendous. It's an established part of the arsenal. I'm not going to make any statements about being a sort of politically correct martyr to criticism, simply turning the other cheek, because the ferocity of some social criticism isn't to be taken lightly. It's intended to do damage. One of the more fundamental coping methods is to recognize criticism of this kind for what it is.
This is the toughest sort of criticism to cope with, it's malicious, and it needs some thought. Criticism can be countered, even in its most insensitive forms. The specifically, guaranteed, wrong way to react is emotionally, blindly hitting back, and not hitting anything, not actually defending the position. Wasteful, and adds to the problem.

What is relevant is the nature of the criticism. That's the real source of the problem. Criticism when shown to be wrong is a self inflicted wound to the critic. Their own credibility is hurt. You'll find that professional social critics in the media tend to work a lot more carefully than they seem, not exposing themselves to flak. The most vitriolic tirade is based more on working to an established audience, rather than making a substantive point. That's playing safe.

Similarly, social critics play to their audience. Another weakness in criticism as a weapon. If it bounces off, the weapon is seen as ineffectual, and so is the critic. It's used because it can work very effectively. But if it misses, or ricochets, the critic loses. To cope with it, refute it. Let it be seen to fail. Make it your weapon.

2. PROFESSIONAL CRITICISM.

I think that if you're in creative media, criticism is what you're asking for, by default. In any art form, judgment is required. Art is something the artist or writer or musician inflicts on other people. They do have a right to criticize.

As a matter of fact, in the arts, the professional critic can be the most useful person around. They usually do know their subjects, they have a lot of exposure to the medium, and they do have their own opinions. Arguably, there are few things more damning than praise from an ignoramus, so a real critic isn't the worst of the bunch.

This is where some honesty has to come into the equation about coping with criticism. You don't have to like it, or agree with it, but you do have to understand it. In any profession, the professionals have their opinions. What you get from professional criticism is a genuinely qualified opinion. It might be that the critic has simply missed something, or in some cases, everything. It might be that the mystic ability of the human being to deduce the exact opposite of what you meant is once again being exercised. It might also be that the critic has made a valid point. That's what you must understand, in order to be able to correctly assess the value of the criticism. After all, who's more wrong, the person criticizing, or the person refusing to evaluate criticism?

You can't really cope with criticism at all, if you don't understand it. I care very much if someone criticizes my work and comes up with an angle that just didn't occur to me. It means that even if the person has missed my point completely, on all levels, I didn't think of their viewpoint. If someone likes or dislikes my work, I can live with that. I think, though, that I should pay attention when some perspective I hadn't even considered is derived from it.

That's one of the more important functions of criticism. It exposes weaknesses, blind spots in arguments, and creates different interpretations. It's extremely useful in that sense. "Coping", in this case, means dealing with those situations. In science, verification of findings is one of the most stringent forms of criticism in existence. How many theories have been blown out of the water by critical analysis? Must be a lot.

3. OBJECTIVE CRITICISM.

Criticism, of itself, as an objective thing, rather than personal, isn't the enemy. Well, it shouldn't be, anyway. What's the best defence against shoddy goods, dangerous products, and deathtraps on wheels? Criticism, from those in a position to get their concerns heard. Consumerism was originally one long critique of the way the consumer society was treated. Most consumer law is based on those criticisms.

If you are being "objectively" criticized, what's the objective? You see some judges on reality shows brutalizing people, in the name of the "object" of their show. So some kid is reduced to tears by objectivity that's not objective criticism, it's useless, unkind, verbiage for the sake of presentation.

It's also the least effective form of criticism, as criticism, in relation to any possible objective. What's notable about it is that it's always superficial, and generally the least productive way of making a critical point. It happens often enough. Some talent or ambition has found itself the target of this method of criticism, and if it's ever achieved anything other than understandable resentment, I'd be surprised.

For example, say someone's musical talent is being criticized. The content of the criticism is that the technique is lousy, the execution execrable, and the result appalling. Opinion, not substance, is what has been given. A real critic is a person able to make penetrant criticisms. These aren't penetrant, just hurtful, and largely meaningless without further information. An objective music critic, attempting to provide something productive, would deal with keys, modes, and accuracy. Playing a glissando that doesn't exist on the score would rate a mention. Slurring every second note might come up, too.

The real objective critic sticks to the point. The other kind sticks to general abuse. That's easier to cope with, because the abusive critics effectively miss their own points in the onslaught. It actually denigrates the criticism. The technique might well need work; most people's technique usually does. The execution could have been better; show me a musician who's never loused up a piece of music, and I'll show you a liar. The result may perhaps cause emigration to other planets, as anyone inflicted with the two track toneless wonders we get so regularly could agree.

In this case, the criticism has coped with itself. It's just abuse, in that form. Even if warranted, it's no longer as credible a form of criticism, because it's no longer objective. The fatal weakness of this form of critique is that it has obviously done nothing for the objective, which was a piece of music, played properly.

"Objective criticism" is almost a tautology. All criticism has a purpose. Identify that, and you can't really avoid understanding the criticism.

Just remember that when you're coping with criticism.

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