The Importance of Criticism & Critical Thinking

12 July 2021

What is criticism?

Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something. It is the simple expression of an object or person (without discrimination) no matter positive or negative. Ideally, criticism is aimed at achieving an improvement in good faith and assumes the critic has a positive intention in making the criticism.

We express criticism by initiating a dialogue when we see something that we perceive as incorrect or wrong. Criticism is feedback, sometimes involving a request to correct the criticized behavior.

Being prohibited from criticizing someone due to their level of authority is a symptom of a power imbalance. For example, in families, a child criticizing a parent is seen as disrespectful and "talking back" and, at work, an employee criticizing their boss puts their job at risk.

Interpersonal criticism

In its ideal form, interpersonal criticism is a two-way dialogue that depends on the self-awareness, trust and openness of all participants.

When receiving criticism of any kind, it is important not to become defensive and react. We are in control of our actions, not bound to acting upon any criticism we receive. We can proceed to start a dialogue about the story behind the criticism, which allows us to learn the intentions behind it. Learning the why behind criticism, allows us to see more clearly if it is good or bad criticism. It is important to understand that the criticism reflects on the critic.

Good criticism is thoughtful, and has clearly defined information on how the behavior can be changed. Bad criticism is given hastily, thoughtlessly and may have misguided intentions.

Criticism of all types can and should be counter-criticized by its recipient, in order to identify whether or not it is valuable. For example, someone might make a criticism out of frustration because they were upset about something else. This type of criticism can be countered by asking questions and getting to the root of the issue.

Important criticisms are given with good thought behind them, meant for the well-being and growth of its recipient. They may sound and might even feel like attacks, which instinctively make us want to turn ourselves off to it. When we are criticized, we might develop assumptions behind that criticism. Assumptions are quickly dispelled with dialogue, questions and answers.

It's important not to criticize others for personal characteristics (for "being who they are") that may be impossible for them to change. However, if such criticism arises, it means that the critic does not yet understand that this characteristic may be impossible to change. This is a problem that has to be resolved with counter-criticism or critical thought. Regarding personal characteristics, there are clearly things that can't be changed but there is a grey area where things can be changed but people might not believe it's possible to do so, especially if they do not understand its root causes.

Before we criticize someone's actions, we must make sure to understand why we are doing so. It helps to have a clear idea of what the corrected behavior or corrective action would look like.

To accept no self-criticism is to close oneself off to growth, and to hold back on criticism is to bottle up discontent which leads to misunderstanding or worse, resentment.

Criticism vs. hyper-acceptance

Especially in social situations, desiring and working toward acceptance and unity is admirable. Some mistakenly believe that acceptance and unity is possible through reducing or disallowing criticism to take place. This is due to criticism being equated with negativity and nitpicking.

Criticism might be prohibited in an attempt to prevent wrong ideas from being spread. A better way to look at this is to see criticism as an avenue to correct wrong ideas. Actively applying our criticism to wrong ideas and those who hold them allows us to open a dialogue about why we feel those ideas are wrong, and allows the recipient the opportunity to explain why they believe in them. This dialogue allows opportunity for a back-and-forth communication that resolves itself based on good-natured conversation.

We must remember that being wrong is not shameful. Changing our minds with good reason is not a sign of weakness, but one of growth.

Because good criticism at its core helps to resolve conflict and promote unity, any space that prohibits criticism implements a hard growth limit on its community's interpersonal development.

We must fight against the censorship of criticism, because it allows room for communication, growth and understanding. To shun criticism is to encourage stagnation.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgment. It is the rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis or evaluation of factual evidence.

It is the ability to think about the way we interpret information to recognize our perspective's strengths and weaknesses and, if needed, re-evaluate our conclusions.

To improve our critical thinking skills, we can question commonly accepted truths and remain open to changing our opinions. We can be aware of how information has been framed, and how that might change our understanding. We can think from and seek out other perspectives, especially those who disagree with and think differently than us.

We shouldn't assume that our perspective is the correct, right, or only way to see something - we must study all sides of an issue, the arguments for and against, and gather as much information and evidence as we can to make an intelligent and informed analysis on the whole. We can fight confirmation bias by seeking out counterarguments and disconfirming evidence against our beliefs, instead of only looking for arguments and evidence to reinforce our beliefs.

Balance

It is important to strike a careful balance: we can be too critical, but we can also be insufficiently critical. Those of us who are too critical focus only on the downside may be perceived as too negative. It can alienate us or make it difficult for anyone to take us seriously. Those of us who are uncritical are regarded as naïve and superficial. Without proper criticism, we lack discernment and are prone to being deceived and tricked.

Critical Thinking Resources:

List of cognitive biases

List of logical fallacies

A guide to using the Socratic Method

50 Critical Thinking Tips

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

Fallacy Files - Learn about Logical Fallacies

Arguments: A Guide to Critical Thinking (Full Text)