On critics and criticism

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Related to (and in many places overlapping with) this article, the piece below appeared in Rapport this past Sunday. Again, it is on criticism and critics, but it does have something aditional to say about pessimism and how it relates to critical comment. From those interested in the Afrikaans version, it can be found here.

On criticism and critics

By: Gareth van Onselen

29 January 2012

The politically correct often take much satisfaction from associating criticism with pessimism. Criticism, they imply, is the pessimist’s weapon of choice and those who are critical are in some way tainted or, worse, their ethical code compromised. And by association they smear an important intellectual exercise with the moral outrage the self righteous and indignant are so quick to generate.

In truth though, there is no relationship between these two ideas. Criticism is a judgment, an evaluation of something’s strengths and weaknesses which, when found wanting, can only ever lead to a critical conclusion. As such, it requires argument and logic. It is a rational response to a given reality. And the strength of the case it makes will determine its veracity. That is the cornerstone of objectivity. Pessimism, on the other hand, requires nothing more than an emotional impulse. It is not based on reason but one’s disposition. Thus, it is unfair to suggest valid criticism is nothing more than the product of one’s pessimism.

Critics themselves are therefore also important, an invaluable part of any healthy democratic culture. And, like it or not, their contribution significant. No one likes to hear bad news but any culture unable or unwilling to engage in critical reflection for that reason, will just as surely regress as it is likely to engender authoritarianism. For what better environment to take advantage of others than one where that very process unfolds without question?

At the same time, it is just as possible for critics themselves to be poor or incompetent. The upside of requiring reason and logic is that those two things can be evaluated. And, if a critic fails properly to utilise them – resorting instead to subjectivity and bias – the quality of their contribution can be measured. In turn, the greater their bias, the weaker their ability to master reason and logic (and, with those two things, language and meaning), the more likely it is their criticism will not be criticism at all; at best personal pessimism, at worst unthinking vitriol and invective.

So, the ultimate test for any critic is a simple one, and can and should be employed by anyone who reads or values their opinions: Do they use reason and logic to arrive at a conclusion? Is it based on evidence? And, as a result of these two things, is it objective? Objectivity does not mean one does not have an opinion – only that it is a view supported by sound argument.

How do South Africa’s critics hold up to this test? Not well.

Open a newspaper or listen to a radio news bulletin and you can be sure you will hear any one of a small group of, often self-referential, ‘celebrity commentators’ giving their ‘expert’ opinion on pretty much any issue. In order to help create in the public mind the perception they are objective, they place great emphasis on their self-styled titles: ‘independent political analyst’ being the most common; as if the title alone washes magically away all subjectivity and confers upon them some innate wisdom. Of course, it does not.

It is a sad fact too that many of them have not mastered those basic requirements set out above. Indeed, their designation often contradicts rather than complements the nature of their actual contribution. On the one hand, you can be sure there is little they are not ‘experts’ on (and so their ‘expertise’ are diluted) and less still about which they are unwilling to proffer an opinion. On the other hand, their wisdom turns out to be little more than a platitude and their opinion either wrong or wrongheaded.

The combination of these two things – their all-encompassing insight and their willingness to express themselves on everything – is no doubt a contributing factor the mediocre nature of South Africa’s public debate; as is the space afforded them. But perhaps even that could be forgiven, were they not to take themselves so seriously. Alas. When you stake your reputation on the validity of your public opinion, you are acting on the belief that the world at large is better off with yours views, than without them; and, unfortunately, egoism renders any real self-appraisal inaccurate if not extremely rare.

All of this, as I have alluded to, is to the detriment of our public discourse. And it is a curious fact that one of the very few things these ‘experts’ are not willing to comment on, is the quality of their own contribution. One might well ask: Who critiques the critics? The answer is, the public.

There is a special obligation on each and every person who consumes the news not to take criticism at face value. Not because criticism is pessimistic, but because someone who says they are independent is not necessarily any such thing. Look to what they say. Ask the questions above. You will be surprised at how often they are found wanting.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development.