Wrong: Can You Give a Little Grace?

This post is in response to Monday’s post, put up by the ever-talented Nathan Bennett. You can check it out here.

I could be wrong, but I believe this is the first post on this site that is a direct response to another blog post. Not only is it that, but this is a response to (and continuation of) a post from this very site. Maybe this will be a start of something new, or maybe it will be a lonely post in the category of ‘Responses.’

Many of the concepts that Bennett advocated were right, and deserve to be applauded. We often take criticism more personally than it is intended, we are bad at separating our intellectual selves from our personal selves, and we must not surrender every related idea when one of our ideas is beaten. This is perhaps the most true thing Bennett said, and so I will repeat: Victory in one area is not victory in all.

This post will take on two primary tasks. The first is to continue Bennett’s discussion by discussing how to give criticism. The second will be to provide a bit of (hopefully constructive) criticism concerning his post.

Since receiving criticism is so often taken in a personal manner, we must be careful when giving criticism that we do not intentionally make it harsher than it need to be. There is, of course, the need to be harsh at times, but if our purpose is to provide criticism that is useful, we must make sure the other person feels as though they can use it. Once you offend someone deeply, you also make them stubborn and closed-minded towards your thoughts. This isn’t to say that you should sugar-coat everything, since that doesn’t tell them the gravity of their mistake, but if you cannot find a helpful way to say something, you probably should not say it at all (or wait until you have found a helpful method or means of communicating).

In order to give criticism, there are two primary things to consider. The first is the person or idea you are criticizing (this is often the same consideration). The second is how you will appear, which I will refer to as your personal context.

In regards to the first, you must consider how an individual will take your criticism. For example, when I criticize a few points Bennett made in his blog on Monday, I will do so in a way that I believe will both be helpful for Nathan and that will reflect my concern for both his intellectual and personal pursuits. I know what might offend him (though I can only think of maybe one or two things, like saying that the bagpipes are Satan’s instrument or something), and will avoid talking about that unless necessary. Likewise, he and I have a relationship that is close enough that even some offensive criticism would not harm it. After all, we started a blog together because we trust and believe in the other person academically, so any intellectual scrutiny is not only asked for, but welcomed.

When considering an individual, then, you need to consider them as a person, whether or not they are asking for criticism (are they saying something in public, or is it in private? are they hurting, or are they intellectually exploring a concept? etc.), and whether or not you have a relationship with them that would make criticism appropriate.

The second major consideration is your personal context. In what light will your post be read or your words be heard? For example, if you get into a debate about something like predestination, and you are advocating it, the other person will, unless they have reason not to, likely assume that you are a Calvinist. They may think you are a 5 point Calvinist or something less than that, but you will suddenly be carrying some baggage that isn’t your own. You can make your position more clear either by stating some things you agree with, or by expressing more of your viewpoint than just the directly contrary thought. Much like I praised Bennett’s article at the top of this post, and I will be responding to the portion I disagreed with (or rather, want to nuance, since I’m not sure he would disagree with my nuance), it seems wise to remind the other party that you are not strictly their opponent, but want to discover the truth, even if you are wrong. Keep in mind that when you criticize, you might still be wrong, no matter how sure you believe you are.

Now, on to the disagreement.

N. Bennett said, in his post, that

If you are offended, do not feel victimized by disagreement. The person challenging you may be trying to help you, but even if you are facing brutal criticism, self-proclaimed victimization hamstrings discussion.

On this point, I disagree with my colleague. I do not think it is inappropriate to feel victimized, though that depends on what the individual meant. Sometimes, people do intend to attack a person, even when they do it in an intellectual manner. I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism, and while it usually devolves into a personal attack rather quickly, I’ve seen it take the form of intellectual disagreement that was meant to cause pain and not growth. I do agree with Nathan that even if you are the victim, proclaiming yourself as such does nothing to further the discussion, and is not a helpful way of dealing with the situation. It is not fair to say that one should never feel victimized by disagreement. I’m not sure if that was what Nathan was going for (which I suspect will make the weight of this post drop a little, if there was not actually a disagreement), but I still wanted to make the point. If that was not what he meant, then he communicated insufficiently (does that count as criticism? weight returned.).

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  1. James, I agree with your nuance.

    In combat, you can use a shield as protection or as a weapon to push your enemy back to give you room to stab with your own sharp and pointy objects. While there are many parallels between academic discussion and combat, they are not the same thing.

    The main thing I argue against in my post is the practice of using hurt feelings (or the proclamation of hurt feelings) as a weapon to undercut genuine arguments. For instance, when Christians and Muslims disagree over religion, perhaps it is not because of hate! If someone lays hate speech charges against a Christian minister who preaches messages about Islam, they do not bring counterarguments, rather they declare the preacher’s messages to be invalid.

    In the combat analogy, the shield blunts the attacker’s force to allow the defender to turn and attack. We have to protect ourselves from abuse, but at the same time, protection from abuse can also become a weapon for malicious individuals to subvert respectable debates.

    In response to your nuance, then, perhaps at times our feelings are disproportionate to the perceived offense. Often times, our feelings have to catch up to our intellectual perception of truth. Our feelings are real and factually true (i.e. we really feel what we feel), but feelings are not reasons or arguments and they bear interpretation.

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