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CRITICISM AND WISDOM

In my last blog post we began to take up the question, “Is criticism bad?”  There, we concluded with a King Solomon proverb that declares that if you criticize the wise man he will love you and become even wiser.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

Now I understand that for many people the idea of criticism is joined with the way criticism has been presented to them over the years.  For many, criticism has come along with shouting, name calling, threats, punishment, a slap in the face, or even worse. It is therefore understandable that for many the whole idea of criticism includes such actions and how they feel when they meet up with such actions.  This blog will soon be addressing the various actions and feelings that too often show up alongside criticism and what can be done about them.  But, for today, let’s see if we can look at criticism without these complicating issues.

John Stuart Mill wrote back in 1859, a brilliant little book titled On Liberty.  There he declares, like the Solomon proverb, that there is great value that comes from criticism.

Illustration by Jack Star Rubin

According to Mr. Mill, if people criticize us, even for holding an opinion we are very sure of, “let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice…”  Mr. Mill does not merely declare that this is so; he spends many pages explaining the reasons for his position.  For example:

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so?  Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct.  Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious.  Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.  No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.  The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it:  for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—fie has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.”

I suggest printing these words of Mr. Mill out and sticking the printout on your refrigerator door.  Let this be an aid to remind you to reread Mill’s words three or four times over the course of the following week. Deepening your understanding of the principles that exist in these words is an essential step toward becoming a master at dealing with name calling, insults and teasing.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

IS CRITICISM BAD?
WHY IS CRITICISM SO HARD TO BEAR?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

7 Comments

  1. I really like these words by John Stuart Mill. It is definitely a practice in not being consumed by our egos to take criticism to heart. I’m a musician, and I realize that I’m a far better musician than I’d ever be due to some phenomenal criticism I’ve received since I began playing. However, often I still notice a pang of anger and defiance when someone criticizes something I play. I am getting better and better at observing that angry voice that arises inside of myself, but it is still there…I think the key is not that it is necessary to shed that inner voice of anger, but that you should practice more and more realizing that you do not need to identify or be attached or consumed by that voice. More and more I am able to notice the anger, and then breathe, and then choose to look at the voice objectively to see if there is merit behind the words and whether or not they can help me become a better musician. Obviously, for someone to become the best they can be, they must learn to accept criticism and be willing to look for the wisdom in the words.

    • JSR, thanks for your comment. It’s great to get the perspective of a musician. Getting up in front of an audience and then dealing with the emotions that comes from the audience’s reactions has to be either challenging or overwhelming. It sounds like you are making some real progress in dealing with this. Please keep us informed about your reactions to other posts and how your experiences further develops.

  2. UNSOLICITED CRITICISM: GOOD OR BAD? « Name Calling, Insults and Teasing
    February 17, 2013 - 11:20 am

  3. Isn’t the basic problem that people take ‘criticism’ to mean ‘critical’ when it really means ‘critique’?

  4. Hi Randy. Thanks for your question. I think that it would indeed help people to understand that ‘criticism’ means ‘critique.’ But I also think that two other basic problems with criticism has to do with people having a strong desire to be liked and having a strong desire to avoid having anyone pressure them to give up their own freedom to choose how they live their lives. That is, many people have had the experience of someone framing the provided criticism in a way that seems to suggest that disagreement with the criticism would lead to a loss of respect. Others have had people provide criticism coupled with coercive efforts to get people to comply with the criticism. Both of these types of experiences can become so associated with criticism that as soon as any criticism is heard, people become defensive. By learning to separate criticism from these two problems, and learning how to become empowered when these two problems arise, we can become far more comfortable with criticism and come to understand that it has the potential to lead us toward wisdom.

  5. RESPONDING TO INSULTS BY IGNORING | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing
    November 24, 2013 - 8:42 am

  6. WHY IS CRITICISM SO HARD TO BEAR? | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing
    December 26, 2013 - 12:11 pm

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