From the Editor’s Keyboard

When We Should Criticize, or Should We?

25 April 2018 at 04:05 | 5072 views

Editor’s Note: This article was written several months ago. It has been re-published by popular request.

By Dr. Charles Quist-Adade, Guest Writer, Vancouver, Canada.*

Should we criticize or critique? Should we invite criticism or critique? Personally, I welcome and encourage critique and not criticism. And you should. Critique from the social scientific perspective means an objective look at an issue and “objective” is used here to denote a balanced look at an issue. Critique means a careful analysis, looking at both the merits and demerits and more of the issue or phenomenon at hand. It means studying the nature of something in order to determine its essential features and the relation between them. In critique, we try to separate facts in order to make decisions or judgments.

Criticism as it is used in everyday parlance, political discourse, and popular culture means to negatively evaluate an issue, behaviour, attitude, or even a personality. It implies to dismiss, demean, devalue, or belittle the opinions and actions of others. Criticism as a discursive practice leads to “tearing down” the other person’s position or action in order to score points or settle scores, be they political or ideological. In some cases, it can degenerate into ad hominem attacks. The consequences of what I will call “uncritical criticism” are dire.

“Uncritical criticism” demoralizes, rather than promote improvement or encourage learning from mistakes. It stunts, rather than stimulate growth, be it personal or intellectual. It often breeds defensiveness, apathy, and aloofness, which can be detrimental to both the individual at the receiving end, the group, and society as a whole.

Objectivity versus Subjectivity

We must strive to avoid criticism as it is deployed in everyday discourse. Instead, I submit that we should adopt a different approach. This approach is anchored in the principle of balance and it can be expressed in this mathematical equation (formula): “Objectivity=subjectivity-bias,” where subjectivity equals stating your position honestly and openly after accounting for (bracketing) your own biases or preconceived notions and giving the other side the benefit of the doubt. It counters mainstream “objectivity”, purportedly built on the principle of balance, yet used as a façade to furtively promote the ideology of the dominant group.

From a dialectical perspective, progress stems from the unity and struggle of opposite ideas. In the same way, critique takes into account the synergistic fusion of opposite sides—the negative and positive sides of an issue, a person’s actions or behaviour. Critique accounts for both the obvious and the less obvious. It’s a human tendency to judge individuals based on their actions or inactions. This is understandable. We often see those individuals in action; as they engage in one action or the other. For example, when a student walks late into the classroom, we see him or her in action and we may be tempted to blame him or her for her action. What we do not readily see are the invisible factors that impinge on the actor. We rarely stop to ask what possible factor or factors caused the student to be late to class. Social psychologists call the former (blaming the individual) dispositional attribution and the latter (the invisible, external factors) situational attribution. For example, if you see someone break a clock (made of glass) on the wall with a stone, it is easy to blame this individual as the culprit. But what is missing from the picture is the fact of the nature of the clock. The clock is brittle; it is made to break. The nature of the clock is as much a culprit as the thrower of the stone. It takes two to tango, doesn’t it?

Critique encourages a holistic and nuanced look at issues, behaviours and actions, informed by the Shakespearean saying “Give the devil his due” or the Ghanaian (Akan) proverb “ “Even if you hate the bush cow so much, it is prudent and fair to acknowledge and praise it for its lightning speed.”

About the author
Dr. Charles Quist-Adade is a faculty member and immediate past chair of the Sociology Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada. He is the author and co-author of several books, including In the Shadows of the Kremlin and the White House: Africa’s Media Image from Communism to Post-Communism, Social Justice in Local and Global Contexts, The Intellectual and Political Legacies of Kwame Nkrumah (with Frances Chiang), Africa’s Many Divides and Africa’s Future: Pursuing Nkrumah`s Vision of Pan-Africanism in an Era of Globalization (with Vincent Dodoo). His research and teaching interests are: social justice, globalization and global inequalities, racialization and anti-racism, media and society, and social theory. His other areas of teaching and research interest revolve around Global South issues and religion.