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The spirit that negates

What is constructive criticism? If you came up sometime in the last 40-odd years, you probably think it means something like: criticism that doesn’t make you an asshole. In other words, all legitimate criticism is necessarily constructive criticism. But if that’s the case, why not just call it criticism–why add the clunky prefix? It’s as if someone were trying to convince you that vegan nachos are the only form of nachos. And, like with vegan nachos, you might wonder if the unmodified version were not more satisfying altogether.

If you throw the term “constructive criticism” into Google, most of the results are in the vein of advice columns on how to deliver it. An article by Clifford N. Lazarus in Psychology Today is a fine example of the genre, and usefully demonstrates how the forms of “constructive criticism” are hideous and oppressive. Consider, for example, the “compliment sandwich,” whereby “one sandwiches the meat of a criticism between two positive comments”:

Hence, instead of saying “You did a lousy job writing this report,” using the sandwich method one could say “You did a great job on the introduction, but the middle section and conclusion seem a little weak. With a bit more work, I’m sure you can tighten it up into a really good report.”

The effect of this trope is totally predictable: it makes people paranoid about being praised, because they come to understand praise as a way of smuggling in an attack, like how gangsters hide machine guns in big gift boxes. We gird ourselves upon hearing praise, waiting for the criticism that is the presumed “real” intention of the merely prefatory kindness. Even completely genuine compliments become suspect: if a date compliments your shirt and your shoes, you assume there’s something wrong with your pants; if they say they like your outfit, you wonder if your personality is deficient; if they say they love everything about you, then you really feel terrible.

An even more devastating practice of “constructive criticism” is the use of “I-statements,” which are supposed to be superior to “you-statements.” Here, for example, is a very naughty and bad “you-statement”:

You never come home on time! You think that everything should run on your schedule, but the rest of the family can’t always just wait around for you! Why can’t you be more considerate?

Compare this to the ostensibly equivalent “I-statement”:

I get really upset when I’ve fixed a family dinner and you’re not here on time. In the future, please try harder to get home on time, or call if you’re running late.

Now which, as a mode of criticism, is worse? Obviously the latter is worse. The “you-statement” contains a number of assertions that the criticized party is free to contest: “I do come home on time! I don’t think people need to wait for me! I’m not inconsiderate!” Evidence can be cited, mitigating facts put into play; it is possible, in principle, to determine whether the criticism is fair.

But what about the “I-statement”? Nothing in it can be disputed frontally–who am I to say what you feel? how can I deny your humble plea?–but everything in it contains a hidden accusation: “You are thoughtlessly upsetting me! You are not trying hard enough!” Thus with the help of relationship “science,” a relatively straightforward complaint has become truly monstrous.

There is, I think, a very exact homology with Žižek’s wonderful parable of the (post)modern father:

Let’s say that you are a small child and one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old–fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? “I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty.” A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: “You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to.” Now every idiot knows the catch. Beneath the appearance of this free choice there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only [that] you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it.

Similarly, with “constructive criticism,” one is obliged not only to answer it, but to (always-already) agree with it.

Lest you think I’m reasoning interestedly towards an absurd conclusion, consider this article in the Financial Post. The author–an expert on “leadership,” whatever that means–proposes to “do away with” constructive criticism. Not by returning to the “old school” critical methods that, modern research says, “feel like threats to our survival”; rather by “crowdsourced positive feedback” that gives “timely, measurable insights into your talent top influencers [sic] and performers.” So we see that in its (admittedly clownish) self-transcendence, “constructive criticism” melds perfectly with the technocratic-totalitarian Spirit of neoliberalism.

Up to here we’ve only discussed how “constructive criticism” oppresses the target of criticism; but in fact, it also ties down the maker of criticism. To demonstrate this, it’s useful to examine the history of the term “constructive criticism”: when did it first enter the national discourse, and under what circumstances?

If you throw the term “constructive criticism” into the New York Times search tool, which archives the paper back to 1851, you see that the first appearances are clustered in the years 1917-18 (with a one-off use in 1914); furthermore, almost all these invocations relate to American policy in the First World War. In the midst of a long interview published in January 1918, Louis Marshall gives a very clear sense of the limits of the concept:

[W]hen I say that much of the criticism now being made is a good thing for the country, I do not mean partisan criticism, or captious fault-finding, or such as proceeds from personal considerations. I mean the constructive criticism of patriotic men and women, whose sole desire is to aid in the present emergency, by giving thought not only to what is contemplated but also to what has been done. [emphasis added]

For his own part, Marshall assures the interviewer that he is “absolutely for this war” and holds “the highest regard for the President’s qualities,” including his “exemplary motives and exalted patriotism.” The meaning of all this is completely clear: war criticism is constructive–and thereby admissible–only to the extent that it accepts the war as the starting point. The point was reinforced just some months later, when Eugene Debs was arrested for his now-classic antiwar speech at Canton, Ohio.

The (rhetorical or physical) police quality of “constructive criticism” is, from this point forward, articulated and rearticulated in every major national “emergency” where critical thought threatens to go beyond the bounds of the conventional wisdom. In 1942, the head of the Office of Civilian Defense states, “Fair constructive criticism is always the right of a free people. Criticism aimed to undermine and divide leadership is another thing.” In a 1955 press conference, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles welcomes “constructive” debate but reminds the audience that “those hostile to the United States…are not going to take a vacation so that we here can safely concentrate on a domestic political battle.” (Hints of the British SWP leadership’s call to focus on the “outside world,” perhaps?) In two speeches to Congress in November 1969, Nixon requests “support [when] you feel we are right” combined with “understanding [and] constructive criticism when you feel we are wrong”–in the face of what the NYT calls “massive antiwar demonstrations” that were, one assumes, considered by the President to be distinctly “unconstructive.”

The penetration of “constructive criticism” into work, school, and interpersonal relationships hasn’t shorn the concept of its conservatism, but rather extended its range: critic and criticized alike are held to compliance to the Right Ways (as defined by the state, the media, the “expertariat,” etc)–yet the Right Ways themselves are not to be interrogated, as that would not be “constructive.” In this sense “constructive criticism” has been a vector for the production and reproduction of the neoliberal condition, wherein atomized individualism is weirdly entangled with its apparent opposite, the feeling of always being watched and compelled by alien forces.

Hopefully this argument to reject the tropes of “constructive criticism” isn’t understood as an endorsement of ad hominem attacks, abuses of position or “privilege,” and so forth. (Indeed, I would argue that the mania for “constructive criticism” aggravates these problems, since it tends to encourage the practice of “ruling out of bounds”–and who do you suppose does the bulk of the ruling?) To the extent that “constructiveness” has made us more sensitive to such things, it has (accidentally) done us some good.

But basically we should forget about it. Be constructive (in the ordinary sense) when you more or less agree with the way things are going; be destructive–or better yet, adversarial–when you really don’t. For “if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”


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