A continual issue that I run into when speaking with people, especially in nations such as the United States, where anti-intellectual postures, defenses, and attitudes are heavily dominant, is that people identify with their thinking as their own and that it is of the ‘soul’ and of utmost importance. As thoughts become identity, then it must be defended. An idea or thought or view may be defended as a matter of ‘faith’ and ‘strength’ and ‘knowledge-as-power’ in this kind of gathering and creation of identity. This is an aspect of identity-making in the US, where individual lives are thought to be born of our individual souls, created by God, or perhaps by past-lives in the new age way of thinking. Nevertheless, in either case, our ideas and views are not to be undermined or criticized.
Criticism is a cutting-down, or diminishing of a self. That self, is an idea, thought, creation, circumstance, ways of life, a word, a gesture, the way we dress, etc. It is an atom, an individual object. This ‘me’ is/ becomes, in the social realm in the United States and other places, an object of scrutiny compared to a ‘normal.’ To be an anarchist, in mainstream US thinking, is to go against, that normal. The going-against identity, then, becomes created. So either you are one of them, or you’re one of them-others. You’re one of us, or you’re one of us (the other ‘us’. Everything and everyone, every gesture, every nuance, becomes another object. And since being AFFIRMED in life, to be recognized, to be acknowledged, is almost a sacred meaning of life to US Americans, we spend our lives navigating the treacherous terrain of perhaps being criticized for what we do and who we are and it is bad. The world, then, often becomes that of avoiding criticism. This, then, could be linked with my earlier posting on ‘positive thinking.’ Positive thinking is a reactionary form of relating to ourselves and each other and the world, where the constant reality of being ‘negative’ and being’ critical and being criticized or criticizing others, is avoided.
In intellectual life, in the academy, there is a difference between criticism and critique. At least, in the way I have learned them in the circles where social change, social justice, difference, oppression, and transformation is of concern, there is a difference. However, in my everyday interactions with many people who are in the academy in the Western nations, at least, and the wanna-be western nations of the developing world, there is less and less thinking about words and their meanings, and their implications. This is a testament to how homogenized and dumbed-down we are becoming in the globalizing neo-colonial mind-set. We are easier tools to being controlled by memes and discourses and signs and meanings that are already-known and controlled by larger powers and forces that do not have our best interests at heart.
Criticism is meant to arrive at a higher or better ‘truth.’ This means that if one is criticized, whatever that idea was, is put in its place as incomplete, sloppy, immature, ignorant, partial or not-yet. Perhaps even downright stupid. It shuts doors and pathways. The assumption is that there is a single ‘truth’ and it can be accessed through certain thoughts and disciplines and lifestyles. It is a knowledge-as-dominance game. Unfortunately, knowledge, in this sense, is of dominance and is a particular set of frameworks that are rationally organized to present itself as the most rational, the most good, the best, and it delivers the condescending attitudes forcefully and subtly. If we are criticized, it is an indictment of our SELF. It means that we, ourselves, are not good enough. We are insufficient. It is based on identity. It closes the possibility that the knowledge that is supposedly higher or better, relies itself on certain kinds of thinking and structures of thinking, of certain and particular frames of assumptions and presumptions and presuppositions toward particular ends. These ‘ends’ are quite particular and benefit a certain group of people. Words and concepts are used to benefit certain groups and structures. Truth serves this end. Truth and truth-making will always lead to this war, this battle, this diminishing of ‘other’ and propagate its own path. Single universal TRUTH will mean anything–idea, person, thought, frame, position, look, gesture, body, size, color, worldview, place, site, etc. — that is DIFFERENT FROM ITSELF, is false, untrue, lower, not developed, not-yet, immature, childish, dumb. On top of this, when criticized, we feel small.
In addition to this phenomenon is the interaction and internalizing, the normalizing before happening. When someone says something that is not what we said, we feel small and we feel we must say something to make ourselves equal, or at least presentable. We feel we have been diminished. We often hear what other people say in this way. DIFFERENCE is EVIL and UNWANTED. If we explore how EQUALITY works in the US discourse on social harmony, we begin to see an ugly picture that always wants to ASSIMILATE other, while those who do not assimilate, can be controlled and marginalized in certain ways. We do it to each other and with each other. Whether we go our whole lives not ever saying the word ‘normal’ or not, is not the point. There is a ‘normalizing.’ A normal revolutionary, a normal person, a normal woman, a normal alternative person, a normal young person, a normal poor person, a normal American, a normal Asian, a normal….. think to yourself……..there is always this unconscious identity-making of ourselves, our ideas, our look and thoughts, as well as of others.
Critique is not born of identity-making. Critique is not in service of a single TRUTH. It may serve a certain commitment to a certain path (such as social justice), but the assumption of CRITIQUE is that there are many commitments, some contradictory to the self. It understands itself to be toward liberation and its possibilities. Critique opens questioning and makes single-truths unstable so to be more inclusive of difference. Criticism closes possibilities and makes difference ‘evil.’ It serves a singular all-encompassing node and calls the one who knows it ‘truth-teller.’ It is a form, in the most extreme forms, that serves totalitarianisms. Critique, however, does not.
The sad thing I have encountered in the United States often, is that when one presents a different idea, it is taken to be CRITICISM. The other feels threatened, violated, defensive, and perhaps responds with silence, self-disgust, anger, depression, self-esteem stuffs. I have found this to be less true in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, etc., where difference of thought does not mean there is something the matter or that it closes down something else. This, is, in case you haven’t thought of this and are feeling like I am criticizing US Americans, is not about how bad US Americans are and how good Europeans are. What I mean to say is that in the history of the US, identity-making has rested on capitalism, progress, industrialization, colonialism, dominant forms of Christianity, and how this was valorized by referring to the US Constitution’s advertisement as democratic. Because of the US’ s role in the world as an empire and of the most extreme forms of capitalist dominance in the world, it has created a society that is more anti-intellectual, and more valorizing has leaned toward individual dream-satisfaction, goal-orientation toward the self and its fulfillment. In Europe, this extreme has not been the case and intellectual thought is more accepted and valorized. In the US, most young people don’t know what an intellectual is, or even more prevalent is the feeling of smallness and aggression when encountering smart people. The only sphere in which most mainstream US Americans allow ‘smart’ is in the technology and science fields, where inventions and non-human factors can be thought. When we speak of ourselves and our actions, we want–as US Americans– no intrusion. George Bush Jr said after September 11, 2001: “The American way of life is not up for discussion.’ This is a perfect example of our unconscious and conscious assumption of self, and its encounters with difference and thought and analysis.
In our future encounters, please let us explore the intention of the speaker. Is it to put you down, and make themselves higher? Or is the point to open up an array of points that shift attention away from single truths, and toward an open-field where different thoughts could be thought. If there is a thought that enters our ideas, and opens up the challenge of thinking complexly, should we not welcome it? This does not mean that our ideas are right or wrong. It may, sometimes, mean that our ideas may not take certain things into account and that we may need a wider array of stories to place our ideas into, to open up the possibilities. This does not mean that our ideas are bad or wrong.
Critique, is liberatory in intention, and has complexity of time and history and culture at its back. Criticism has single truth and moral right and wrong at its back. They are different.
Of course I am not only speaking of conversations encounters, but how US Americans have learned to relate to each other. Listening has become a very de-valued skill in the US. We must do-do-do, and do more. In reflecting on what we may need for social change, I think this is one factor we need to change—that of listening and thinking in a wider field, and that our words and actions should not depend on single-identity factors that want to maintain itself. We have been, at least partially, socially constructed. Opening to critique is a fun and wonderful way of relating, creating new possibilities.
If we encounter or we inhabit the spaces of criticism, and hear everything as either a win or a lose, then we continue to go in the same circular and un-enchanting forms of relating to each other, leading to more self-hatred and misanthropy, misuse, jealousy, distrust, alone-ness and isolation. We cannot be happy with everyone. But certainly, through listening and speaking with critical thinking toward critique, we can have new areas of thought and feeling to play with, and in the process, create new possibilities for humanity.