Critical Argument – What’s The Best Strategy? – Perhaps Critics Should Keep To Themselves? – Perhaps Alice Roosevelt Longworth Knew Best – 10 June 2012

Here’s a picture of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, with an embroidered pillow showing one of the most famous quotes ever attributed to her – “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Political organisers generally do not live by this rule. Critics do. This is why I have always preferred to be a critic.

It is also a reason that critics aren’t typically very successful at producing results. “Everybody’s a critic,” comes the complaint (even though, generally speaking, that is hardly true – most people follow the Grandmother’s Admonition of “If you can’t say something good about someone, say nothing at all” – the vast majority of people think it is basically _unsociable_ to be a critic.)

But it does have to be admitted, critics aren’t seen as being constructive of results because they play the role of picking apart the work of others rather than fashioning the work itself.

I know that because I spend my time writing critical comments about public events, I come off like someone who types about policies instead of shaping policies. There is some truth in that, but I resist endorsing that notion because I think people have not really considered what the alternative is. The alternative is people leading in bad directions, with no one to lay out the argument for why the directions are bad, and people blindly following rather than evaluating what they are doing.

That I think the world needs its critics should go without saying, but I do wonder sometimes how helpful it is for me to be one, particularly when very large numbers of people seem determined to head off in a direction that appalls me. To criticise in those circumstances sets me up as the arrogant guy who thinks he knows better than the masses. Even should I be proven right later, people will not say “Hey, you know what, we should have listened.” People will say “Where do you come off saying you told us so after we did something we wish now that we hadn’t done?”

I’ve talked about this here before – the “lightning rod” effect where opening my mouth about a certain topic edifies, unfortunately, no one, but does identify me as a target for personal criticism. It’s actually pretty easy to become a lightning rod on the political Left, because disagreeing with someone who is suffering typically conveys a feeling of insensitivity to the sufferer, even if it is proper to disagree with that person.

I’ve wandered into those kinds of minefields before…and I always wonder if there’s a way to make the necessary criticisms, and make sure people take them to heart, while at the same time not making it seem like I don’t care about their feelings or am too arrogant to see other points of view.

Perhaps, I thought today, Alice Roosevelt Longworth could give me some tips. Perhaps what we need is a more passive-aggressive style of criticism.

Okay, maybe that’s overstating the point. But here’s the thing…we may have people who enjoy criticism with whom we can share our views, but perhaps it’s also worth understanding that the world at large doesn’t value critics and will punish critics for being too incisive. It’s a subculture only a few appreciate – Alice Roosevelt Longworth got that. Find your Alices and sit down by them…but then, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Or maybe, don’t say anything until people wander into situations which will prove to them directly the truth of what it is you were going to tell them in the first place – then tell them. It’ll probably be a more effective criticism because it comes from someone “uncritical”.

People have asked me why I haven’t done more to market myself as a blogger…I think maybe it’s because I think this. People might just react to what I write and call me arrogant instead of changing their own views. Maybe I have to wait for reality to change their opinion – and then just point out that, if they go to my blog, I have assembled years worth of commentaries about how I thought exactly what they are coming to think now, and have thought so for years…

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