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A Critique Of Criticism

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One of the most dominant forces on our scene today is that of “criticism.” You find it everywhere–in education, religion, business and commerce, entertainment, and countless other facets of our society. But nowhere is it more prevalent than in all the branches of our government.

Criticism or dissent is an important element of a democratic society. But is it possible, or even likely, that it can be overdone? Lyndon Johnson once observed, “We all invite criticism, but our needs are easily met.” Are there consequences for going beyond the “needs” of society for healthy debate? I firmly believe that there are adverse consequences to the slash and burn tactics of some of today’s critics.

Perhaps the most obvious consequence is the deterrent effect unbridled criticism has on the willingness of talented people to offer themselves for public service.

Some years ago one of our local universities conducted a study to determine who among our state’s citizens were the most credible. Interestingly, the single most credible citizen turned out to be a local merchant–far more credible than any of our political, professional or educational leaders. The merchant also happened to be one of our policyholders. When this research was made public he immediately became a target of both parties encouraging him to run for governor on their ticket.

He promptly and forcefully turned down all such overtures. In a way it was too bad because in all likelihood he would have been an excellent choice.

In discussing this with him on a later occasion I asked him why he had declined such an opportunity for public service. His answer was very simple; he said he was not prepared to have his name and reputation smeared and dragged through the mud of hardball politics. He said the price to pay was too high for either himself or his business. There is no question in my mind that this is a scenario that has been repeated many times over in all parts of the country.

I take some comfort in the fact that the diatribes emanating from political circles today are not new. Having read several of the recently published biographies of some of our founding fathers (Adams, Franklin and Hamilton) I have learned that such conditions also prevailed in the country’s formative years. It would be hoped that over the years things would improve and that we could govern ourselves and run our businesses in a more civil manner. I suppose the lack of improvement in this area proves the thesis of historians that “human nature changes with glacial speed.”

My own observation has been that criticism most often comes from those with personal agendas associated with their own ambition or those who suffer from a paucity of ideas of their own. Our business has, on a number of occasions, been assaulted by regulators more interested in running for higher office than guarding the public interest.

By rights the overuse of criticism should not work. One of the first lessons that I learned as a new salesperson was “never knock a competitor.” The rationale being that when you run down your competition you place your prospect in the position of defending the competitor. Such backlash has killed many a sale. But the same reasoning does not seem to work in politics. Many strategists insist that “negative does sell,” and so, unfortunately, we are stuck with it. I remember an interview with a political ward boss in one of our large cities wherein she stated, “Our people never vote for anything, they always vote against someone or something.”

Another problem with critics, business or political, is that too often they are “down on what they are not up on.” In former times a popular lament was “it is too bad that the only people that really know how to run the country are cutting hair, tending bar or driving a taxi.” Today one could apply that same lament to late-night television hosts and other comedians who, according to reliable studies, provide large segments of our population with most of their political education. What a travesty!

There is no excuse today for the kind of ignorance that permits overzealous critics to exert such a powerful influence on the conduct of business and governance. True, there is bias that one must cut through, but it exists on both sides of most issues, and a person should listen to both and then decide. But I believe the best rule of thumb to use is to judge whether or not the level of criticism is matched by an offering of constructive ideas. Too often raw criticism is nothing more than a weak defense. It reminds me of the preacher who made a marginal note in his sermon, “weak point–shout like hell.”

The right to dissent is precious; dissent itself is not. Society loses when this distinction is compromised.

I believe the best rule of thumb to use is to judge whether or not the level of criticism is matched by an offering of constructive ideas. Too often raw criticism is nothing more than a weak defense.”