Criticism – Accept, Stifle or Ignore?

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As a child, I remember feeling puzzled when reading about people being referred to as critics. I wondered why anyone would want to criticize something, and more importantly, why others not only allowed the critic to make unpleasant remarks, but actually paid him for doing so.

As I grew older, I understood that the critics role also included pointing out the good as well as the bad, and also the need to see criticism as a tool for growth and improvement.

As someone who has been in the Information Technology domain for a number of years, the importance of critics, or Testers as they are called here, cannot be praised enough. While coders claim all the glory, these backroom warriors ensure that the bugs in the code are caught before the application is released to users.

Which is why, it is both surprising as well as disturbing to see the vehemence with which criticism, even to something mildly pointing out that something is not working the way it should, is being met. Especially if there is even an imagined hint of a political bias in the criticism.

The first step in solving any problem is to recognize its existence. And this recognition is most often triggered by criticism of the existing circumstances.

There are three basic charges used to stifle criticism – it demoralises people who are working hard at resolving problems, creating awareness of an existing problem would help enemies in pulling us down, and finally, saying that instead of finding faults, find solutions.

Take the example of the District Magistrate of a North East state who was caught on video stopping a wedding ceremony that had gone beyond the curfew hours. Shared widely on social media, it primarily evoked two responses – one group of people applauded the DM for ensuring that the law was followed, and saying that criticizing his actions would be akin to promoting lawlessness, while the other group criticized him for his uncouth behaviour saying that this was a brazen display of might by an official drunk on the power at his disposal.

While both groups argued their hearts out, I could not help feeling that both were right. It was the DMs duty to ensure that the curfew was respected, at the same time, it was also necessary for him to maintain the dignity of his office by behaving with courtesy and respect towards the citizens of his district.

What remained unsaid was that ultimately, he too is a human being and unlike most of us, has been saddled with huge responsibility. At the fag end of what must invariably have been an exhausting day, seeing what appeared to be a flagrant violation of the law must have caused the disturbing display of power abuse.

But does that mean he should not be criticized for his actions? The jury is still out on this.

It is also true that whenever criticism is expressed, it could be used by those seeking to harm us.

However, there are two assumptions being made here – one, that those who wish to do us harm were not aware of the problem, and secondly that those in charge are already aware of the problem and are working to fix the problem, and hence, the criticism should not have been made.

Both these are dangerous assumptions – the first indicates that we are underestimating our enemies – for all we know, they may be pretending to not know of the problem so that they can use it to their advantage later. Secondly, assuming that the faults are known and are being fixed does not mean they actually are – and if by not pointing out the problem there is a chance that it is not recognized and resolved, it is always safer to bring it to attention.

The rise of social media has made it so easy to criticize – people, products, services, politics – everything is fair game. And this is the reason those opposed to criticism say that instead of criticizing, people should try to find solutions. The thrust is to emphasize positivity instead of the negativity that criticism arouses.

However, what this implies is that unless one has the ability and authority to find solutions to a problem, one cannot point it out.

This approach effectively silences everyone, for if it is a problem that is my responsibility to resolve, I will not make it public – and for all other problems, since I cannot resolve them, I have to keep silent!

There are also many who espouse the ‘ignore‘method of handling criticism. The hope is that with the passage of time, criticism – even if it is valid and needs an active response, will be forgotten. The reason for this is simple – acknowledging the criticism means admitting mistakes have been made. And in a society where failures are frowned upon, it is always better to pretend the criticism does not exist and thus live in denial till such time the problem is forgotten or resolves itself. Of course, this can cause tremendous pain and suffering to those affected, but then, that’s karma.

At a governmental level, traditionally the media has played the role of critic – pointing out mistakes and praising good work. As the fourth pillar of democracy, it ensured that through it, citizens could give feedback to the government about the effects of its policies. This feedback, both critical as well as complimentary, helped the government fine tune its work.

Today, thanks to social media, the common citizen too has a chance to have his voice heard directly. While there is no issue with praise, when it comes to criticism, it tests the strength of the nations democratic values.

It was with wonder, interspersed with a little bit of envy, that I watched former President Donald Trump being grilled by correspondents during his press meets. For me, this was the pinnacle of democracy, where the head of the state could be asked uncomfortable questions without fear of consequences.

Which is why, the recent statement from the Supreme Court saying that FIRs against appeals for help in combating Covid on social media would be treated as contempt of court, and that the voices of citizens need to be heard not clamped down, is so gratifying.

Hope exists still for Indian Democracy.

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