On Being Critical

It Isn't Always Hating

criticHave you ever stared at a word on the page until it lost all context and began to move around or just seem silly? That happens to writers. Consider the word “critical.” It’s a word we use frequently and in a variety of ways and yet it is not clear that we understand what it means in some important uses.

For example, we use it to refer to something that is essential, in a state where, if something isn’t done quickly, something bad will happen as in, “She is was taken to the hospital in critical condition” or “it is critical to the success of this mission that you arrive and the rendez-vous at 18:30 hours.” In this use, critical means essential or “without which nothing” (sine qua non). People generally understand this sense of the word.

There is another sense, however, that is less well understood by Americans (it seems to me) and particularly among evangelicals: critical in the sense of critical thinking or evaluating the merits of an argument or claim. When the adjective critical is used in this sense it is frequently confused with critical meaning “negative” or “hostile.” The colloquialism “hater” captures this sense of the word critical. Being critical in the best sense does not make one a “hater.” These are two distinct things. It is quite possible to evaluate the merits of an argument or claim without being hostile or negative.

That these two senses are frequently confused, however, is a matter of genuine concern. If we lose the ability to evaluate claims for fear of being labelled a “hater” we all will suffer a great loss. Let me explain. Recently a friend passed along a quotation ostensibly from a very famous intellectual, who, because of his fame and accomplishment, has a great credibility in our culture. It was a pithy quote apropos of a talk I gave a few weeks back. As it turned out it was too relevant. It probably didn’t come into existence until ca. 2012 and the great thinker to whom it was attributed was long dead by then.

Investigating the source of the quotation was a critical act. It would have been uncritical to accept the attribution without investigation. Questioning is the essence of criticism: is this really so?  How do we know? Who says? Where did this happen? When? If every internet user asked these questions regularly our in boxes would have fewer spurious emails and snopes.com would go out of business. As it is, however, many folk seem to assume that if something is on the internet, it must be true.

Some of the naiveté may be generational. Those internet users who began corresponding via postal mail, often with hand-written letters, may tend to regard email as if had the same credibility. After all, who would go to the trouble to passing along an unsubstantiated rumor or a falsehood in a handwritten note? Certainly it has happened and probably happened more than we realized but if someone took the time to write out a note by hand and sign it, there was a certain presumption that the writer at least believed what he was writing.

There are degrees and kinds of criticism. E.g., text criticism is the study of the textual variants of an ancient text. Some copies say one thing and other copies may say something else. Text criticism seeks to find out which reading is more likely. The text critic assembles the various copies of a text and evaluates them on the basis of their probability. Which reading fits the flow of the text? Which reading might a scribe be tempted to change, to improve? What is the provenance of a copy? Biblical scholars and historians do this work every day.

Higher critics, however, approach texts not from below, as it were, but from above, i.e., from a position of authority over the text. They are less interested in what the text is trying to say on its own terms and more interested in judging the accuracy of the text by some supposed standard of universal rationality (“all reasonable people know x”). Higher criticism is less valuable because almost without fail it tells us more about the critic than about the text. This sort of criticism is thus less valuable than other sorts of criticism.

Sometimes we speak of a “critical spirit” by which is meant “a negative person” or a person who seems unable to see any value in anything or anyone. Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh, is typical of this character.

Christopher Robin: “It’s a lovely day isn’t Eyeore?”
Eeyore: “Looks like earthquake weather.”

By critical I mean “thoughtful.” Eeyore isn’t thoughtful. He is reflexively, thoughtlessly negative. In his own way he’s just as uncritical as the naive person, who doesn’t stop to think whether a Nigerian prince really does want to give them a million dollars (if only we send them our banking information). In the best sense of the word, a critical thinker will ask himself, “how likely is it that a Nigerian prince wants to give me a $1,000,000?” A critical thinker will ask himself, “Does this sort of thing really happen? What sorts of things might happen to me if I send my banking information to this Nigerian royalty? A critical thinker will do a little investigating to see if anyone else has been similarly contacted? This last step will almost certainly answer most of these questions and this experience will provide a basis for negotiating similar circumstances in future.

Being critical isn’t being hateful. Saying what is true and what isn’t true is not an act of hate. Done graciously it’s an act of love, of charity, of kindness. It is done out of regard for one’s fellow-man, out of concern for their well-being and that care must extend to the manner in which questions are investigated and truth is announced. There is truth. We should seek it and we should reject the lazy identification of the search for truth with hate.

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  1. There’s a world of difference between criticizing, and being hateful. We do it out of love for the truth.

    And we judge no one. Not even ourselves. (when it comes to someone’s eternal destiny)

  2. Aimee, it’s hard to read those on charity and reasonableness who package themselves in fire. Is that mean?

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