How does one tell the difference between illegitimate and illegitimate criticism? This is a question that many people probably do not think to be all that important to have consistency about but which is a subject that I find myself always having to deal with in one way or another. In many ways, my own personality and interests lend me to continually find myself involved in debates over the legitimacy and efficacy of criticism. Why is this so? Well, I am someone who spends a great deal of effort writing criticism, mostly of books but also of movies, music, restaurants, and a great deal else besides. On top of that, I tend to be a person with a fairly analytical/critical approach to societal trends and institutions as well. And, on top of that, I am not someone who particularly welcomes receiving criticism from others who are similarly inclined to be analytical and critical towards me. I find that this general mixture is not an uncommon one, as there is a great deal of enjoyment that people have in making criticisms but very little enjoyment of receiving criticism from others. Whether or not that means that I and those others who are like me in liking to dish out critique but not welcoming towards receiving it are hypocritical or not depends on the charity of the judge.
Yet it often comes to my knowledge that this question of the legitimacy of criticism is something that only I think about, even if it is hard to gain consistency in our approach. For example, yesterday after Sabbath school I came in to listen to most of the sermon and it appeared as if our pastor was spending a great deal of time seeking to delegitimize the sort of fault-finding attitude that one sees in many critiques. But how does one know that someone’s criticism is fault-finding rather than just? It is clear that ministers in general view themselves as possessing the sort of institutional power that allows them to find fault with others. And those who are ordained as deacons or elders, even if they are not in charge of congregations, still view themselves as having the freedom to criticize and find fault with others whether they are invited to or not (and I speak from experience here). The ability to criticize others freely by virtue of one’s institutional power may in fact be one of the main benefits that people seek from institutional authority, as it is certainly something that tends to be used with impunity. But is it just to seek and to use institutional authority to criticize others while at the same time finding fault with the critical attitudes of others?
After all, one of the key scriptures used in yesterday’s message to attack a critical and fault-finding attitude was Isaiah 58. Yet the prophets in general offered a non-institutional way by which corrupt priesthoods and political figures, including kinds and other officials, were subject to criticism for their moral failings. The prophets were ordained by God but not by any recognized civil or religious authority, and as such they present the possibility of non-institutional but godly criticism where it is due. The question, of course, is whether such criticism is due. Is it just to be able to seek to criticize others while trying to make oneself immune from criticism? How do we know what criticisms of others (or of ourselves) are just or not? These are not easy matters, and given that we all have a strong preference to want to criticize others while remaining free from it ourselves, perhaps we ought to reflect on what it is about receiving criticism that we do not like, and reflecting, based on the golden rule, on the fact that the standard we apply to others will be applied to us. The wider the scope of criticism that we seek to possess when it comes to others, the wider the scope of just criticism that will be applied to us. Even if we manage to acquire the power to shut down criticism of ourselves in this world, we remain accountable to God in the world to come, although it does not appear that this reality tends to deter abusive behavior by contemporary authorities who do not fear God or respect His ways in general.
If it is too difficult to answer the question of what sort of criticism is just, then let us ponder an easier question, and that is what sort of criticism is wise. When we criticize others, what is our aim? When I review books or something else, a great deal of the goal of criticism is to provide a public airing of my own thoughts and also to inform other people as to what sort of material would be worthwhile for readers who have particular purpose. This sort of public purpose provides legitimacy for public communication, as it can provide useful information for third parties. Whether it is wise or not to criticize depends on our goals. If we want personal respect and not merely to throw our supposed weight around, then we need to make sure that our opinion is valued by the people we want to influence and that we choose a way to provide counsel and advice that does not offend them. This is not always an easy task, but no one ever said that seeking to influence through “constructive” criticism was an easy thing to accomplish in a world full of sensitive and thin-skinned people. And if our criticism seeks to build up ourselves without serving the interests of other people, it is probably unwise and unjust anyway, especially if we are not showing care and concern for others.