Criticism’s crucial role in life
Friday, I was privileged to join a group of citizens helping the Vail Police Department contemplate its future. You know, focus group stuff. What’s good? What can be improved? What does the department look like in 2009. How does it get there?
Of necessity, these exercises include criticism, perhaps fair, perhaps not. Warm praise is easy, and of course welcome, and I can tell you this group lavished plenty, justifiably. Discussing inevitable flaws is harder stuff.
Newspaper work, naturally, delves deeply into criticism – some might say dwells on it. In my peculiar role at a small paper as manager, editor and pundit, I’m awash in the kind of evaluation that leads to criticism. I criticize, and oh yeah, boy am I criticized. Comes with the turf.
‘Tis the season of performance reviews in the newsroom. It’s also a period in the paper’s evolvement when I’ve felt compelled to be more demanding, which involves its own swirl of criticism and consequent changes in the grand aim of ultimate improvement.
The assimilation of The Trail by my company comes with its share of criticism, in addition to the usual cacophony of letters, Tipslines, commentaries, columns in other papers, e-mails, phone calls, personal conversations and the always delightful someone said something based on what someone else told them … – gossip, in other words. I’m not suggesting it’s overwhelming, just that it’s there, a part of everyday life for all of us.
I have no complaint about this part of my role. My concern is with whether I am being fair-minded, which is not to be confused with being soft-headed. I can’t control whether the folks who have to deal with me or feel inclined to criticize me are fair about it themselves. They don’t have to conform to my notion of fairness. Simple as that, and no point in fretting over it.
It’s the phenomenon of criticism as a concept I’m mulling this weekend as I think out loud here. The thoughtful stuff expressed in a group session at the invitation of the police chief. The prickly jabs at me in other papers. Harsh Tipslines. The “What’s going on? I heard from …” The formal comparison of standards to performance in an office with the door closed, and the occasionally less formal response. The sidebar bitching out of earshot. My own venting. All of it.
Why do we do this? What if no one criticized anything? Wouldn’t it make life less complicated, more peaceful, happier if we held to Mom’s advice to hold our tongues if we couldn’t say something nice? No doubt. But would we solve problems if we couldn’t recognize them out loud? Taken further, would we even have democracy if citizens didn’t speak out?
As with so much in life, the proper place of criticism – us criticizing and being criticized – is a matter of balance. Yep, another gray middle ground. Sorry. Absolutes can be so difficult to come by.
Too much criticism and tension runs too high, trust too low. The critic becomes shrill, unworthy of lending an ear. The sharp tool that can and does inspire improvement dulls quickly from overuse.
Too little and complacency sets in, genuine achievement fades out of reach, some people take advantage of the others. Lack of criticism leaves a vacuum that’s just as pernicious as constant back-biting.
Limiting criticism to what gentler souls deem appropriate is no good answer, either. Rank gossip is often the catalyst for those high-brow focus groups and other “appropriate” forms of criticism. I think we need our insurgents and gadflies, frankly, irritating and wrong-headed as they can be at times.
Freedom of speech – that right that separates America from every form of government and system of life that came before it – utterly depends on criticism. The First Amendment wasn’t written to preserve praise, after all.
This makes the concept of criticism (low and high) the very plow breaking hallowed ground for a rich crop indeed. This means people sacrifice their very lives so that others may bitch. Amazing.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org