Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.
Most of us would agree that a hallmark of maturity is the ability to give and take constructive criticism without getting defensive or provoking defensiveness in others. Proverbs 9:8 and 17:10 commend people wise enough to profit from correction. If we must criticize others, Ephesians 4:15 reminds us to speak the truth in love.
Unfortunately, what some people call “constructive criticism” isn’t really all that constructive. Sometimes criticism can be a form of abuse. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than with the “critiquing” so characteristic of the culture wars in recent years.
In a previous excerpt, I shared my theory that the extreme polarization in our society – along with the constant vitriol – has rendered many of us more defensive than we used to be. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of fragile egos. How many times can we hear words like “moron” and “Nazi” directed toward ourselves before the most thick-skinned among us shuts down?
When we react defensively to criticism, are we being overly sensitive, or is our reaction a signal that we’re being abused? When we deliver the criticism, are we speaking the truth in love or are we abusing others?
Here are some of the guidelines I was taught by parents, teachers and various mentors about giving and receiving constructive criticism. I invite readers to compare and contrast these examples with the “criticism” so often dished out by our society’s culture warriors on both the right and the left.
Constructive criticism stems from a genuine desire to help the recipient. The motive might be to help the recipient resolve a problem, be more successful at work, gain a different perspective on an issue or improve relationships with others.
Abusive criticism stems from less than honorable motives. The moral grandstanding so prevalent among culture warriors offers a prime example of criticism designed to help participants look good at other people’s expense in order to gain approval from their identity group or tribe.
Constructive criticism attacks the problem, not the person. Criticism focuses on the recipient’s actions or ideas, rather than on the recipient as a human being – for example, “I feel like I must challenge what you just said” vs. “anyone who thinks the way you do is a moron.”
Abusive criticism attacks the recipient personally. Examples of personal (ad hominem) attacks include the name-calling, ridicule and demonization of opponents so characteristic of our culture wars. People don’t just have wrong or misguided ideas. They are stupid, crazy or downright evil.
Constructive criticism respects the recipient’s dignity. The critic may take the recipient aside or raise concerns in a private message, thus allowing the recipient to avoid embarrassment.
Abusive criticism disregards the recipient’s feelings. The critic “calls out” the recipient in a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter, and may get others to join in and pile on. For culture warriors on both sides, public humiliation is often the whole point. Some folks actually make loud pronouncements like, “I don’t care about your hurt feelings.”
Constructive criticism is even-handed. The critic notices strengths as well as weaknesses, and offers praise for things the recipient does right.
Abusive criticism is unbalanced. In our polarized society, we’re discouraged from acknowledging that someone perceived as an opponent might have any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Constructive criticism happens only occasionally. The criticism might take place in the context of a workplace performance review or a private discussion in which the recipient has asked for feedback.
Abusive criticism happens too frequently. The critic finds something wrong no matter what the recipient does, and the criticism is relentless. On a societal level, the “criticism” sounds more like a steady drumbeat of bashing than an honest critique. “Gotcha” games abound.
Constructive criticism is fair. The critic targets things the recipient can realistically change, such as a faulty idea or an inconsiderate action, rather than things beyond the recipient’s personal control such as race, gender or someone else’s behavior.
Abusive criticism is unfair. Culture warriors on both the right and the left often resort to stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups of people, blaming individuals who belong to these groups for all of society’s ills.
Constructive criticism is stated calmly and respectfully. The critic speaks in a normal tone of voice and treats the recipient like a reasonably intelligent person.
Abusive criticism often feels condescending or threatening. The critic yells, constantly interrupts, stands over the recipient, makes threats, or talks down to the recipient in a patronizing manner. These behaviors have been on frequent display by members of both parties during political debates in recent years.
Constructive criticism is specific and relevant to the situation at hand. Criticism focuses on current issues or concerns, and the critic offers concrete suggestions or solutions for any problems raised.
Abusive criticism resembles a fishing expedition. Culture warriors may dredge up everything an “opponent” has done in the past 30 or 40 years, including mistakes the individual has long since atoned for. The goal is not so much to resolve a problem, but rather to demonize, discount or destroy a perceived enemy.
Constructive criticism is a two-way street. The critic understands there are at least two sides to most issues and is able to look for their own part – or their own side’s part – in any problems being addressed.
Abusive criticism is all one-way. The critic can dish it out but can’t take it. Culture warriors often dodge a gentle invitation to look in the mirror by offering up accusations of “false equivalence” or “whataboutism.”
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 reminds us.
I truly believe the heat generated by our society’s intense polarization could be turned down several notches if people on all sides of our culture wars could learn how to distinguish constructive criticism, which builds up, from the abusive variety, which tears down. We could all profit from more building up and less tearing down.
Questions for readers: What are some examples of abusive criticism you’ve encountered? What would make the criticism more constructive? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).