The Role of the Critic (and an appropriate response)

Throughout history there have been those who argued against the status quo; who railed against the dominant paradigm; who were willing to point out that the emperor had no clothes. These range from Socrates, Isaiah and others anciently to Marx and Chomsky more recently to current political characters like Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The question I pose is: how do we react to the words of the Critic?

Of course, our reaction to the critic depends on our biases and on what the critic is blasting. What I want to discuss is how to react when the critic is attacking our way of thinking and our assumptions. Isaiah attacked the materialism and corruption of Jewish hierarchy, reproving those who were getting rich by grinding the faces of the poor and taking advantage of the widows and orphans. This likely went over well with those being oppressed, but those in power likely didn’t respond in kind. Isaiah had a powerful religious community to protect him from repercussions. Socrates, however, was killed for his criticism of Athenian governance and accused of “corrupting the youth of Athens.” He pointed out the problems of power without virtue and inadequacies of the dominant Sophistry, attacking those in power for only desiring to maintain power and not wanting to govern in a virtuous manner that seeks for truth. Most laud these two ancient critics for their forward-thinking, progressive ideas and methods but at the same time, there are many today who, in their attempt to conserve and preserve power and the status quo, would have lashed out at these powerful ancient social critics as “radicals,” “subversive,” “disloyal,” “unpatriotic,” etc.

So how do we react when people like Marx attack capitalism mercilessly, pointing out the deficiencies of a system that created the dramatic economic inequalities he saw in 19th century Europe? (Dickens used literature as his tool of criticism and is much more easily swallowed, although his portrayal of capitalism is as stark and brutal as Marx’s). However, just because one disagrees with Marx’s solution to the problem with capitalism, should he ignore the problem? Of course not. Noam Chomsky’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy is biting and brutal. His tenor and tone are aggressive and abrasive. His solutions are radical and problematic. However, that doesn’t mean his criticism is wrong or off-base. Can we be intellectually and politically humble enough to accept the accurate criticism that is leveled and not discount based only on political bias? Can we allow truth to break through our shell of comfort and expose us to our expecations of others? If we cannot we have no hope of resolving the problems facing the U.S. and the world.

Chavez and Ahmadinejad are vitriolic and very anti-American. Their motives are not likely to be as pure as they present them and their hatred and prejudice are pronounced. However, have they anything important to say? Do Americans need to consider their criticisms of U.S. policies? Yes, to both. The hypocrisy of U.S. relations in Latin America pointed out by Chavez and the lack of Christianity demonstrated by the U.S. in its policies in the Middle East as stated by Ahmadinejad need to give us pause and should force us to consider what we do and why.

I propose that the appropriate way to interact with the critic is to engage in a dialogue. The Sophists of Socrates’ time would answer his questions with long, tiresome rhetoric and mythology, ignoring the question posed. How often do we react similarly to criticism of us individually or as a nation?? Only through interactive communication can we come to an understanding of truth, which is hopefully what we are all searching for.

One Reply to “The Role of the Critic (and an appropriate response)”

  1. I enjoyed this post, Mike.

    Starting from your final statement:

    “Only through interactive communication can we come to an understanding of truth, which is hopefully what we are all searching for.”

    For many who pursue and attain power, such power is truth and nothing more. One could even take this argument to the realm of philosophy and religion where the hallmark of truth is bound to ultimate power…and I point his out simply to make clear that I do not think less of folks who find the limits of truth in political power. So whether ones truth is in the power of political, philosophical, or religious the result of criticism is likely the same: it’s taken as an attack on truth.

    I think the only way to expect criticism to be taken any other way is by a general presumption of ignorance vis-à-vis truth. This is probably asking more than most who cherish the power of their assorted claims to truth are able to give. So the role of critic and gadfly, though extraordinarily important to progress, will I suspect always be unwelcome; particularly in the moment of its greatest need.

    This is where what you say about the sustainability of criticism is most important, I think. We who criticize would be wise to operate in systems that protect and shelter us. The internet, and the networks of support we weave here, appears to be a very good system for now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *