On Healthy, Constructive Criticism

Ronald Rolheiser
October 22, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

Liberals and conservatives both pride themselves on speaking out for the truth, on thinking critically. But too often both are deluded as to what it means to be critical. Generally we think of a critic as someone who debunks what's false, heretical, naive, inflated, or superficial. Partly that's true, but it leaves too much room for us, liberals and conservatives alike, to criticize others according to our own image and likeness.

What does it mean to be critical? The word comes from the Greek word kritus, which refers to a judge. A judge (a critic) is someone who hears the evidence and then tries to make a judgement concerning guilt or innocence. What's important then is not to debunk, bash, or challenge, but to tease out the truth without pre-judging as to where it might lie and then to make sure that it gets a fair hearing.

A good critic, therefore, is someone who agitates for fairness, objectivity, depth, wholeness, and aesthetics, without first self-defining himself or herself as belonging to one camp or the other.

But this is difficult to do because too many things derail objectivity. Our minds and hearts simply have too many subjective crevices.

This is one of the insights given us by many of the great minds of the recent past, Einstein, Heisenberg, Durkheim, Freud, Jung, Lonergan, and Habbermas. All of these concur on the fact that virtually all of our judgments are shaped and colored by perspective, temperament, ideology, self-interest, and historical conditioning. It's not easy to criticize something on anything other than self-interest. Most criticism is a form of autobiography. It tells us more about the critic than about the issue. Sadly, too, the same is often true too for much of what passes for research.

Given the truth of that, it's fair to ask whether it's even possible to think a truly critical thought.

Perhaps that's overly sceptical, given that there is within our conscience a critical faculty that has a grounding in something beyond temperament and historical conditioning. Be that as it may. What all of this suggests is that we should be more humble, more careful, and more self-critical in what we consider to be critical thought. Our criticism must be much more self-scrutinizing if it is to be based upon anything more than ideology and private likes and dislikes.

True criticism starts with the admission that we, like everyone else, are far from objective. All of us think and feel through a certain software, a pre-ontology, a bias (in common language). It is never a question of "Are we biased?" but only a question of "What are our biases?" And that is true for everyone.

But this doesn't mean we can't attain truth. The task of being critical is not to rid oneself of all bias (an impossibility, even if it were desirable). The task of critical thought is instead to have the correct bias, to think and feel through the right software. But what is the correct bias? What kind of thinking makes for true criticism?

Jesus tells us "the pure of heart will see God", that there is a certain internal attitude that will make us see straight. What constitutes this attitude?

I like the answer given by the medieval philosopher and mystic, Hugo of St. Victor. His axiom for objectivity was: "Love is the eye!" For Hugo, we see things properly and objectively only when we see them through the eyes of love because then we see them the way God sees them. This is the critical eye: We see straight, objectively, when we look out at the world with the eyes of love. When we see things with sufficient compassion then, and only then, are we good judges, critics in the best sense.

John of the Cross says essentially the same thing when he suggests that we attain purity of heart when our motivation is the same as Christ's, when our reasons for interacting with others and the world issue from a real desire to help bring about a permanent community of life among all people and all things. When we think and feel like that, which is how Jesus felt, then our thoughts and actions are genuinely critical and we will criticize the status quo or try to conserve it on the basis of whether or not it is aiding or hindering this community of life, and not on the basis of temperament, personal neuroses, or the adolescent urge to "kill the king".

True criticism, unlike so much of what tries to pass itself off as criticism today, is, first of all, marked by a deep compassion. Beyond this, it is recognized by its openness, its respect for those with whom it disagrees, its self-criticism, and its keen sense of the importance of aesthetics and enjoyment. True criticism does not radiate panic, pompousness, elitism, dogmatism, or cynicism, but rather charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, faith, mildness, and chastity - and, not least, a good sense of humor.