Friday, October 09, 2009

The fun in criticism

More than a year of writing a blog, mostly taking the unpopular and risky side of an argument, has pushed me further towards the fringe of public opinion. My first blog about contrary opinion set the tone and the lonely path of the critical dissenter and became almost the only road one could take to discover the truth. But what is a year of vigorous intellectual engagement compared to centuries of spite public contrarians had to put up with their detractors?

Last year I wrote that the smugness of the idea of an absolute truth paralyzes the mind to explore options and, to a degree, stifles creativity. The American fascination with capitalism and the workings of the free market, for example, has seemed to shut down any possible government reform or change that vaguely contains a germ of socialist innovation. U.S. President Obama’s health reform proposals could be a victim of this stubborn faith that only the market can decide what is good for the consumers. Democrat senators have joined with their Republican counterparts in stamping their feet on Obama’s public health option, an ominous portent of what could be the outcome of the American president’s bold initiative.

Oftentimes, the debate between those who would cling steadfastly to their time-tested system of beliefs, such as the captivation to capitalism and the idea that less government is better, and those, on the other hand, who would be bold to experiment with newer ideas or innovative approaches, becomes acrimonious to a point that the issues of contention are relegated to the background by the venom and spite in the exchanges. When President Obama failed to persuade the International Olympic Committee to choose Chicago for the 2016 summer event, the Republican camp went ballistic like a bunch of 13-year-old kids thinking the U.S. loss was a big blow to Obama’s chances of getting Congress to support his health reform package. How’s that relevant?

In my own fraternal organization in college, my brother-alumni are locked in a contest of tradition and liberal values as they argue to death the place of seniority in the organization. One side would argue in favour of treating each other as equals once admitted in the organization while the other side believes seniority makes the organization stronger and uniquely different from other like-minded societies. Either side of the coin could be correct depending on where one stands.

The beauty of the debating process is in its innate openness to the exchange of ideas. Whether it leads to more acrimony is really incidental only to the more important aspect of the process, which is the freedom to speak out and engage in a dialogue. In a society of mature individuals, we can take punches and deal our own. The bottom line at the end of all these squabbles is hopefully a brilliant resolution. At the end of the day, so the cliché goes, everyone kisses and makes up.

But that is easier said than done. There are organizations, or even governments, that are averse to hearing contrasting opinions. The exercise of free speech is non-existent in some countries or punishable by incarceration. In smaller organizations, the fate of opposing ideas is consigned to deaf ears.

No matter how loud or persistent the voice of opposition, those in control or those who have in the palm of their hand the organization and majority of its members could simply ignore the contrary view and wish it is forgotten or dies in oblivion. This is worse than being unable to speak out, though the perils exist that one may be marked as a dissident or be picked up in the middle of the night and detained.

When organizations allow people to express their ideas on the pretext that there is free speech, but in fact only leave the latter to speak to the wall, the issue becomes even more contemptible. For the wall can only bounce what one says, until the echoes of one’s own voice drown one out.

An organization that I know behaves this way. It doesn’t shut down opposing ideas, but doesn’t listen to others’ point of view either. Members are free to speak as much as they can until they realize that speaking out will not do any good, that to shut up is a much better option. This is as powerful as muting dissent, as effective as sweeping the opposition and throwing it to the dustbin.

Who do you blame when this happens to an organization? The leaders, maybe? But the members who keep silent while this mockery is going on are easily as culpable. Nothing could be worse than to be onlookers and bystanders to a crime that is going on, and when witnesses are asked to come forward, to disappear into the night never to be heard from again.

This is an organization one may call a “choked” anarchy. Anarchic because the leadership does not follow the organization’s rules. It’s almost like lawlessness where the leaders’ control becomes the law. While the organization is madly in disarray, its members are choked or gagged, told not to speak ill, or against, its leaders. Unchoke it, and the repressed membership becomes a loosened valve waiting to explode.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, recently wrote in the New York Times that “the guiding principle of one of our nation’s two great political parties is spite pure and simple. If the Republicans think something might be good for the president, they’re against it – whether or not it’s good for America.” It’s not so difficult to agree that spite drives many to take the opposite side. When you hate the spokesperson of the other group, that animosity can fuel more fires of revulsion even if the other group is obviously on the right side of things. Thus, we tend to become blind or deaf to the wisdom of arguments, because we simply hate the person espousing them.

One blog writer suggests that we should enjoy the fun of failure by re-framing the issue entirely to embrace criticism. She believes that criticism is part of the fun; otherwise, the dread of criticism would paralyse her.

If only each one of us can muster the courage to accept and learn from our failures, then this world could be an ideal place to live in. Accepting failure starts from listening to those who criticize us, and if we are persuaded by the logic and substance of their arguments that we are indeed wrong, to admit and learn from our mistakes, then start afresh with this new-found wisdom. It will prove that we have understood the criticism and tried to act on it, which usually is the best way to stand up to critics.

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