"It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
A Healthy Dose of Criticism
I give myself permission to criticize anything I do or any group I belong to. I don't go out of my way to do this but if there is something a bit off or something worth looking into, I look into it. It is dangerous to criticize harshly and dwell in self-blame, but there is even greater danger in lacking introspection. It becomes cultish, an echo chamber, conformist, authoritarian, arrogant, and ultimately oppressive. I benefit from a healthy dose of criticism, especially when it comes from within.
In the poem "Who Makes These Changes," Rumi writes:
Indeed, "I should be suspicious of what I want." If not I, then who? By then, it may be too late, and the damage is done.
If the rational person doesn't call out the extremists in their group, the extremists will drown out the rational voices. Then criticism can only come from the outside, but by then it can be too late — becoming us vs. them.
You can form an opinion but once you believe your opinion is beyond reproach is when things become precarious. There is this unspoken belief that you should not criticize anything you belong to. That whatever you do or whatever you are a part of needs to be flawless.
W. B. Yeats writes:
Perfection will never be the case. Hypocrisy is about holding moral beliefs you don't hold for yourself. Then holding yourself or your in-group to the same standard as you would for everyone else wouldn't be hypocrisy, but not holding to the same standard would be.
Not Looking Too Carefully, Not Thinking Too Deeply
An in-group might discourage discourse and say: don't ask questions and don't allow any "negative" thoughts. You may even at times say this to yourself. "Negative" is arbitrary, anything including objective feedback and truth can be "negative" if it is unpleasant to hear.
Just because you are offended does not mean you are right. However, outrage can drown out reason when reason is quiet. Critical thinking is about seeing the whole picture, if you are only allowed to think partially, what you see will never be reality — misaligned with wholeness. One can't call this happiness, for happiness just like courage is a mindset that one holds in the face of other feelings, not in their absence.
Even Memory Requires Proof
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus pioneered research in the 70s about the inaccuracy of memory. Now widely accepted as the proper understanding of memory (our minds constantly change and edit memories), but when Dr. Loftus first released her studies, she received threats against her life. Even a bomb threat. Up until then, people believed memory was like the Bible — flawless and perfect, only taking in the truth. (We are now in a less religious but more spiritual era.) Any recalled or repressed memory, then, was considered the absolute truth (unless they were intentionally lying).
Dr. Loftus did not deny that these memories could very well be true, her studies only proved that they were not absolute, they could be up for debate. Memory like anything else was not independent of justification or evidence. (Dr. Loftus' research is one of the reasons why we no longer hear so much about alien abductions and Satanic kidnappings, which were so in vogue in the 70s and 80s. Bringing up repressed memories and activating imagination were one and the same.) And people reacted adversely, not because she said they were wrong, but that she questioned whether they were right.
"How dare you!" For some, memory was beyond question and for Dr. Loftus to challenge that meant she challenged a whole group's belief system.
People could not stand the idea, not that they were wrong, that they could be wrong. That they were human and had to possibly answer for any damage that may have been caused by their fallibility. Does human fallibility need proof? Don't we already know this?
A Priori: Does Not Require Proof
In Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant used the Latin term "a priori," which is a type of knowledge independent of proof, evidence, or experience. It is very rarely to be used, and it is often unreliable. Everything else, except a few conclusions, would then be argued from the perspective of: that this may or may not be right. To assume you are right without proof is known as "begging the question," a form of logic fallacy. (E.g., I am right, take my word for it.)
Now rather than being the exception, this is the norm. Our points justified not by science or evidence but determined by politics, rhetoric, ideology, social reality, political correctness, empathy, and even politeness.
Religion is not the only dogma, we can be dogmatic about anything. We can confuse social reality for reality. Freeing oneself from one form of dogma gives one the illusion that they are free from all dogmas, and that whatever we speak is objective truth. Perhaps their dogma is their race, their politics, belief system, worldview, country, culture, inner circle, or any other in-group bias. Perhaps they have a dogma of the self, an illusion of superiority.
And maybe our inner circle will nod their heads and agree with us because we are only confirming their bias. Giving them something they already believe and letting them know why they are right.
Gaming Social Conventions
We can make a point without valid proof, expecting it to be accepted, not on grounds of merit, but due to the unspoken threat that if it is not accepted, there will be repercussions. "I will get mad if you don't accept my personal truth as the absolute truth." A type of logic fallacy called "appeal to force."
Rather than facts, persuasive language, voice, and gestures are used as the foundation. Verification is replaced with intensity and passion. Whoever is loudest and maddest is right. Who needs proof when you can get a good reaction? In pro-wrestling, which relies on primitive psychological tricks, this is called getting a "pop."
In many circles, a claim will be accepted if no one wants to make a fuss. The intransigent person making the point is leveraging decorum in the absence of reasoning. That is not truth, that is strategy. The aim is to win; a game where only truth and discourse are the losers.
It is a rejection of the wholeness of a group, person, or idea when the totality is a mixed bag. We are aware of the dangers of only seeing the "wrong" in ourselves or our in-group. What we don't see are the dangers of denying the "wrong" in ourselves and only seeing the "right." Willfully turning a blind eye, ignoring warning signs, suppressing information, and voluntarily embracing apathy. "It's only bad when they do it."
British philosopher John Stuart Mill was best regarded for his ideals on individuality and nonconformity. In 1867, he delivered an inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews in which he said:
Extreme situations do not arise from an inability to see the "bad," it is the lack of wholeness that leads to extreme situations. This unbalanced view skews our actions and deflects culpability. When we are all good, we do not see the wrong we do. When they are all bad, we do not see all the wrong we do. This can only create ego, absolutism, and a "you must do what I say" mentality. Thinking something can be all good is just as subversive as thinking something is all bad. Classic propaganda is binary when humans are shades of gray.
1984 and Brave New World
See your good qualities, embrace them but do not ignore your warts, they may grow large and infect other areas. Do not judge others by their worst. Do not judge yourself only by your best.
In George Orwell's 1984, the people were controlled by a military state.
Someone will attempt to pass something off as a priori by stating that "this is how it's always been," so it needs no evidence. If we revise our history, we don't need to defend our arguments.
In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, people were controlled by a cult state.
If it's not pleasant, it can't be true. "Happiness" becomes more valuable than free will, but without a choice, how can one call this happiness?
There are many ways to subvert; when we only fear the possibility of one, we run towards the other. A guru says, "Do not criticize, it is not for you to understand." A general says, "Do not criticize, it is not for you to understand." In both instances, we are told we shouldn't think, we are incapable of thought, to neither question nor criticize authority. Autocrats wear many clothes, and a population that thinks is a danger to their authority.
1984 and Brave New World are works of social criticism. Criticism has and will always be the primary weapon for social justice. Throughout history, it has steadily improved the lives of people around the world. Yet criticism is seen as "bad" and that all depends on where you are standing.
If you are criticized for stepping on someone else, then you may consider this a bad thing, and if you are no longer superior to this other person, it may be regarded as an even worse thing. To this other person, however, without any power, all they can do is criticize those in power. It can band people together, possibly persuading some of the ones already in power to join. This is why books that criticize society get banned, burned, or lately, have discretionary warnings put on them by that very society. Yet, when we look back on history, these same books are often considered the greatest of books, as they have changed human history. Hence, their inherent danger, they challenge the status quo.
However, criticism can be used in a way to create more oppression. Don't believe everything you think. There is nothing more dangerous than a group in power with a persecution complex. Then hate arises.
The problem is not criticism, it is when criticism is misaligned with the truth — when it is selective. It plays to our fears and biases. When we believe everything we think. When we flee from self-examination. Even the most intelligent and educated of nations can fall into selective beliefs. History has proven that. But when they do, world wars are fought.
To Grow as a Person, We Must Observe All of Our Nature
Sometimes we militantly deny faults. We just don't see it — but we're not going to see it unless we look for it. And we're not going to look for it unless we think it could exist, that we are fallible. We must fight this self-absolutism; we mustn't allow self-righteousness to defeat self-examination. And according to Socrates:
So sure of ourselves: "I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing," followed by, "What have I done?" Why are we so certain? Where is our doubt? — Our natural checks and balances.
Believe in the possibility that we are unreliable narrators. We must allow for the possibility that things may not be what they seem. We must give permission for criticism. It is the first line of defense for citizens. When we look at any powerful institution with a critical eye, it is called investigative journalism. When we do this with ourselves or our in-group, it is called contemplation.
Imagine a country where no one is allowed to criticize the leader, where journalists are to be ignored, and truth is what the leader tells us. This is not a democracy, but an autocracy; this is not a leader but a dictator. Just as we should be skeptical of criticism, we should be even more skeptical of those who tell us not to listen to critics and to only listen to them. Imagine a world where truth is biased, where it does not need proof, or third party review, but only what someone tells us? Why do we assume this is benevolent? Why do we believe them? Because there is no other truth to believe. And this is the danger.
Novelist Anne Lamott writes:
Being objective gives us a roadmap for growth. Without objective feedback, there can be no progress. Blind to the need. The objective approach begins with unobstructed observation, followed by evidence, then change.
One self-examination, W. B. Yeats writes:
I had a conversation with my friend Rene, a tremendous teacher and overall a thoughtful person. Someone who puts a lot of thought into himself and his actions. In speaking about his methods, he said:
In this context, criticism is a very powerful and helpful tool. How is productivity or any improvement possible without it? How would we not stagnate? If we are all our own first critics, is it not better to tame it rather than silence it? Is it not our built-in alarm system?
The Best Criticism Should Come From Within
Many groups form around the basis of self-improvement yet paradoxically, it is often these very groups that are most resistant to criticism. We, ourselves, can resist criticism when self-improvement is our purpose. (And if the self is the focus, we may only want to hear praise.) This is the chasm between intent and behavior and it must be bridged before positive change can occur. When we choose resistance, we deny resilience and self-reliance. Criticism is a form of evaluation, self-criticism then is a necessary part of self-improvement and group care.
Who really has the most access and insight to you but you? And if it's about an activity or group, then who knows more than its participants? Why is it the job of the outsider to take a critical look? The first burden should be on ourselves. The best criticism should come from within. As a group, our individual efforts should combine into a collective endeavor of continuous improvement.
It's not about being your worst critic, it is about being your first critic. It's a vital step in the learning process. Introspection, meditation, and self-examination have always been the backbone of improving oneself, developing the group, and improving the world. When reason is beyond doubt is when everyone needs to be worried, for doubt is quite reasonable.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- The Essential Rumi - Coleman Barks (Translator)
- For more on Mencius, check out The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
- Since Socrates never wrote anything down, most of what we know of his philosophy comes from his student Plato. I recommend Great Dialogues of Plato translated by W. H. D. Rouse.
- Dr. Elizabeth Loftus speaking about memory on Radiolab
- You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself - David McRaney
- The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – Carl Sagan
- Critique of Pure Reason - Immanuel Kant
- On Liberty - John Stuart Mill
- Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith - Anne Lamott
- The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats - Richard J. Finneran (Editor)
- Thanks to Rene Dreifuss who influenced some of my thoughts in this article. He is not only a scholar of Japanese history from Columbia University, but an accomplished martial arts instructor at Radical MMA.
- George Orwell's 1984, considered one of the 100 best novels ever written and one of the most referenced books in history
- Aldous Huxley is considered by many as the greatest English writer of the 20th century and Brave New World possibly his greatest work
- The Best of Socrates: The Founding Philosophies of Ethics, Virtues & Life - William Hackett
- Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) - Ralph Leighton (Author), Edward Hutchings (Editor)
- A side by side graphic form comparison of 1984 and Brave New World
- Gregory Maguire's Wicked is about the other side of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz
- Philosopher Zlavoj Zizek on the iconic fight scene from John Carpenter's They Live