Why do we criticise others? Is it because we genuinely believe that criticism is, in some mysterious way, good for the soul? Or is it a sign of an inner insecurity and inferiority which needs the oil of others’ imperfections as an important component of the Balm of Reassurance?
I suspect the latter is nearer the mark, though many of us – brought up in the good old Christian tradition of sparing the rod of criticism and, thus, spoiling the child of big-headedness – soothe ourselves by lying, and claiming the moral high ground when we find ourselves chuntering inside about our friends’ faults (whilst privately blowing our own brightly-polished trumpets because, of course, we don’t have those particular character lice infesting our metaphorical hair and causing everyone around us to itch!) or coming right out with it, chapter, verse and tedious appendices – in order, we are privately sure, to make the other a better person.
Very often, spoken criticism includes the following disclaimer, ‘No offence!’ – or one of the series of, ‘I’m only saying this because I care…’ type of comments.
But why are we so obsessed by this notion of hunting down, and then confronting them with, other people’s failures and flaws and fuck-ups? Why is it that, all too often, we reach outwards to criticise another, rather than looking inwards and facing our own less-than-perfect traits, our selfish motives, our thoughtless acts and cruel thoughts? What gives us the right to be the moral arbiters of anyone else? To decide – often on the flimsiest of evidence – that they are wrong and that we have an God-given right to tell them this…
Would it not be better, when a critical thought rises inexorably from the subconscious depths, to question it, to look at our own reasons for fixating upon that particular aspect of another’s personality? Would it not be more honest to ask ourselves what we get out of reducing others to silence, tears or anger when we rip into them critically – and why we have such an insatiable need to be thought of as brave, blunt and morally superior? Is criticism at times perilously close to a power trip, I wonder?
Certainly, the habit – for habit it is – is addictive. It triggers the adrenaline; it can create anticipation and excitement and drama and quarrels and all manner of Soap Opera scenes! It is far easier, and less personally confronting, to criticise, to see the negatives, than it is to praise, to accentuate the positives – especially if those positives in another are lacking in us and make us feel inferior, threatened and insecure. How much easier to destroy another’s self-confidence than to face one’s own lack of same!
They say that those who love you most are the ones most willing to criticise you. I have always been uneasy about this saying. I think it is allowing power into the hands of people who may well have an alternative agenda. I say this because most human bonds have an element of competitiveness within them – and pointing out another’s mistakes can easily segue into an enormous ego boost for the critical one!
But also there is this: I have long believed that, in life – as in education – the best way to teach, whether it be English or self-knowledge, is to draw out and not to cram endlessly in. And I think it patronising for the uber-critical to assume that their ‘victims’ are so lacking in perception and intelligence that it has never occurred to them that they are imperfect; that they are so insensitive that they cannot see their own flaws; that they lack the ability to self-criticise and to learn from their mistakes to such an extent that they need to be shocked into learning.
I often ask myself the following question: Those in life who make what almost amounts to a career criticising their friends, family, neighbours and acquaintances – how the hell do they find the time and energy to work on their own bad points?
Or is incessant critical attention upon another a very convenient form of denial?
Our support is most useful, I think, in encouraging those we love to face their own short-comings by a gentle drawing-out process. We don’t have to confront all the time, or shout, or start a feud. Self-knowledge uncovered by the owner – in caring conversation with a friend – is far more valuable than the kind of barking nastiness which our society seems to feel is the only legitimate way of making someone else learn. You cannot bully someone else into changing – whether it be their inability to do Maths or their bad habits; what you can do is to draw out the positives and the strengths.
Of course there are times when we have to criticise others in life – but I think it behoves us to be sufficiently self-aware to question our own motives for taking someone else to task, especially if it is becoming a regular habit.
If we are continually asking another to, as it were, see the light, are we not, in fact, implying that they are living in a state of almost-constant and wilful darkness? Are we not treating them as lesser beings? Are we not acting as if we were right, good and normal and the other wrong, bad and abnormal?
Do we, flawed as we are, have the right to judge?