When we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical. – Attributed to Winston Churchill.
Spiritual philosopher Emmet Fox once said, “Criticism is an indirect form of self-boasting.” Which is another way of saying that the only way some people lift themselves up is by tearing someone else down.
With the passing years, I’ve tried to recognize and avoid this very human frailty that exists to some degree in all of us, especially as it applies to column writing. The easiest thing in the world is to sit down and pound out a column ripping apart someone or something. It requires little creativity and almost no thought. So, even when I am critical, I try to balance it with some positive comments.
Endless criticism soon loses its credibility. The constant critic quickly becomes known for nothing but his or her negativity. It’s why most radio and television political programs hold no interest for me, whether it be Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck on the right, or Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher or Lawrence O’Donnell on the left. They are too predictable.
When I worked at the Marion Star in the early 1990s, there was a reader who called regularly to tell me how much she disliked my columns. Whatever the topic, I could always count on a phone call from her telling me in detail why I was always wrong. Her criticisms soon went in one ear and out the other, because of her predictability.
One day my phone rang, and it was the lady in question. As I put my brain in neutral in anticipation of the usual series of put-downs and negative critiques, I instead heard her say, “I just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed your column this week.” She went on to very sincerely describe the points that she had appreciated, and wished me a good week.
She continued to call almost every week, and for the most part kept expressing her disagreement with nearly everything I had to say. But that one phone call of praise and appreciation changed my opinion of her at least enough for me to continue paying attention to her comments. I was able from then on to consider the merits of her criticisms, because she had demonstrated that she was not completely devoted to being critical.
Years ago, as a workplace manager, I was not practiced at praising people. I was good at criticizing them when necessary. I assumed they knew that if I did not criticize them at the end of the day, they were doing a good job. The result, of course, was that if they were called into my office, or if I stopped by their desk, they knew the conversation was going to be about something they had done wrong.
I finally learned that it was just as necessary – more so, really - for me to take the time to tell them when they had done something well. Then, on those rare occasions when criticism was necessary, they were able to accept it more constructively, since that was not all they ever heard from me.
Public meetings often provide an arena relevant to this topic. The public comment portion of most meetings of governmental bodies is typically a parade of blame and condemnation, often from the same people, meeting after meeting. As such, the criticisms quickly lose their bite.
This is their right, of course. But it doesn’t take long before the effectiveness of their criticism loses whatever impact it might have, because they have defined themselves as being constantly critical.
Government and politics bring out the negative and the critical in people. Part of it is human nature. People who are content or happy do not show up to address public meetings. People who are upset, do. And there are people who appear dedicated to being upset.
An indication that things are running pretty smoothly in Hillsboro right now is the fact that among city council’s recent actions, the item that has been identified by some as our biggest controversy is the subject of yard sales. Yes, yard sales. In fact, it is a sign that all is well. It is also evidence that controversy must exist, even when nothing really qualifies.
Criticism is occasionally necessary. In government, politics, the workplace, and life in general, it is sometimes important to point out things that are wrong in an effort to correct them. Looking at the world through rose-colored glasses is to live a lie. But just as dishonest is the constant critic who fails to spend as much time identifying the positive as dwelling on the negative.
And at the end of the day, the criticism that will sting the most, and be taken to heart, does not come from people who criticize endlessly. The most meaningful criticism, and the most effective, is delivered by people from whom criticism is rarely heard.
Gary Abernathy can be reached at 937-393-3456, or on Twitter @abernathygary.