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Katie van Schaijik

What is criticism?

Mar. 26, 2010, at 12:45am

Many and many is the time in my adult life I have tried to wave the banner for criticism—tried to rally fellow Christians to do it more, accept it more.   Socrates explained why way back: The one who proves me wrong is my greatest benefactor—because nothing is worse and more damaging to the soul than to commit wrong. It follows that those who show me where I’m going wrong do me great good.
Christians—so conscious of our imperfections and enjoined to be humble—should recognize that reality all the more, shouldn’t we? Don’t we know we are blind to our own faults? Don’t we see how many good works and good institutions have gone awry because they have shut their ears to honest criticism?
Yet, endlessly, those who criticize (I know because by vocation I’m one of them) are rejected for being “negative” and accused of “attacking” when we mean only to challenge or correct or admonish. The mention of an offense is received as an outrage—proof of non-friendship: “Obviously, you don’t like me”. The pointing out of a substantial flaw in approach is treated as Satanic persecution of a “good person” or a “work of God”. I’ve never understood this. I’ve been shocked and depressed by it. I’ve lost friends, and had to sever ties with certain causes and institutions because of it.
And, being a self-critic too, I sometimes suppose the break must be my fault. And sometimes it is. (I criticized without grace or sensitivity perhaps.) But sometimes it’s not. Regardless, criticism itself remains highly called for.
I have just come across a quote from a film critic (in a First Things article) (hat tip Arts and Letters Daily), Pauline Kael, that captures the point perfectly: “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising.” That’s it!
The critic plays in community the role of conscience in personal life—abuse-stopper, bogosity detector, discriminator, prophet. Without him we’re too prone to sensation and manipulation. Also, without him we’re all too likely to be content with mediocrity.

In this connection, I have to say that Roger Kimball’s Notes and Asides in the current issue of the New Criterion is worth the price of a year’s subscription to that excellent journal. Here is a sample paragraph (referring to Anthony Daniel’s critique of Ayn Rand, which I mentioned and excerpted in a post below.)

The New Criterion is primarily a journal of criticism. Anthony Daniels’s essay on Ayn Rand is a percipient exercise in that art. This is something that Rand’s acolytes cannot abide. Never mind that, early on in his piece, Dr. Daniels enumerates what he takes to be Rand’s virtues: “She was highly intelligent; she was brave and uncompromising in defense of her ideas; she had a kind of iron integrity; and, though a fierce defender of capitalism, she was by no means avid for money herself. The propagation of truth as she saw it was far more important to her than her own material ease.” The fact that he goes on to dilate on her limitations and vices puts him beyond the pale for the Randian faithful. Dr. Daniels has assured us privately that the followers of Virginia Woolf are even more intolerant of criticism than the followers of Ayn Rand. Perhaps. If so, their intellectual sclerosis must be complete.

I am sorry to say that in my experience the brittle intolerance-of-criticism of Ayn Rand devotees is not unlike what I have found among many Christians.


Matthew Chominski • Mar 31, 2010 - 11:33 am

Good post, Katie, it’d be interesting to see you develop your thoughts on criticism, the need for it, and the hostility found in Christian circles towards it, further.

Along these lines, and more personally, I appreciated a critique of a point I made in a talk I recently gave. The one critiquing did it in an entirely humble manner, yet had the respect to state the criticism and not remain silent on the point. The manner in which the criticism was delivered was, in a sense, even more appreciated than the criticism itself.

There is much to think about here, I gave Jules a copy of the recent edition of The Publican, my article entitled ‘On Arguing’ may have some similar themes. If you get a chance to read it, I’d be interested to get your thoughts on it. The Publican

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