Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Distinction: Critical vs. Cynical

Cynicism as we commonly use it refers to the idea that every person is inherently selfish and that all altruism is actually selfishness in disguise; it is the automatic tendency, for whatever reason, towards a negative conception of the other. Criticism historically has been free of this leaning towards negative judgment and simply meant an evaluation of something (usually literary or artistic work) based on a standard of aesthetics (e.g. a movie critic) with the purpose of revealing faults constructively and opening a space for reflective self-consideration. In English, criticism has taken on the denotation of a negative judgment—hence "why do you have to be so critical?" implies almost "why do you have to be so judgmental?"

Some may say that criticism is observing, interpreting, and appropriating the observations into one's framework in order to entrench current viewpoints. I think this is an inherently cynical perspective and actually too generalized (I think the determination of how an observation was appropriated should be evaluated by the case rather than generally; our experiences may however lead us to generalize that most people appropriate their observations uncritically). I'm not satisfied with it; the critical aspect could conceivably fall under only that last stage of appropriation, opening up the twofold possibility: 1) either to challenge one's beliefs, or 2) to confirm one's beliefs (if one views this confirmation as always negative, one might use the connotatively laden word "entrench" as I did above, but I suspect one would agree that sometimes the confirmation of an already held belief is not necessarily negative but simply always possibly dangerous).

Reflecting on criticism, I realize that it is a form of judgment, where judgment is simply, when stripped of its contemporary negative connotations, that function of our intellectual capacity to determine something either to be or not to be the case with respect to some explanatory principle or standard; in other words, to conclude whether something is or is not this or that way. Criticism implies a certain form of judgment. Off the top of my head, I distinguish different qualities a judgment may take on, in the form of binaries, and this list is by no means exhaustive:

A judgment may be:

reflective or not
thought through or not
positive or negative
informed or uninformed
self-oriented, other-oriented, or inclusive

I distinguish between reflective and thought through. Even if someone thinks something through, they may not be in a place of reflectivity, the capacity to see oneself, to bracket one's 1st person viewpoint into a 3rd person viewpoint or even a 2nd person viewpoint; reflectivity leads almost immediately to empathy, whereas simply thinking something through may just be the fodder of a tirade. A reflective criticism is that which opens the space of reflectivity, either towards myself, for others, or for all of us; the space of reflectivity is where we can truly begin to face our strengths and weaknesses in honesty and mutual support. It is a "democratic" space of rational, informed dialogue and public application to put it pragmatically.

I distinguish also between positive/negative and constructive/destructive. By positive/negative I mean something like affirmative/disapproving. We can affirm/praise and be constructive or destructive, destructive if what we affirm really ought not be affirmed. We can disapprove in a way that is constructive or destructive. Usually a destructive form of disapproval is shaming another person. I think shaming is one of the worst things a person can do to another person.

A judgment can be informed about its subject matter or not. We see people talk about things and make judgments based out of ignorance and out of information; we appreciate those judgments made out of information even if we disagree with them because at least the judgment is less likely to be coming from a place of bigotry or in other words non-reflective, unconscious prejudice.

Self-oriented/other-oriented simply refers to the direction of the judgment—is it directed to myself, to others, or to all of us?

I think criticism in its best form should be inclusive, reflective, thought through, informed, and constructive. It may be positive or negative depending on the context, but if negative, at least sensitive to the other. Criticism as it usually is referred to, however, is other-oriented, non-reflective, uninformed, destructive, negative, etc.

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