Hornbill Unleashed

October 24, 2009

Criticism – good or bad?

Kaypo Anak Sarawak is a Columnist  of  Hermit Hornbill at The Borneo Post Online , His article is  published  in The Borneo Post every Sunday. (Used by permission of the Author )

BullShitALL of us have been criticised, sometimes unfairly. We have all criticised others at one time or another.  To be critical is human.To criticise is to pass judgement on something or somebody out of our personal interpretation of what is good or bad.  Some are better than others in this business of offering criticism.

We know the odd individuals among us who criticise everything and everybody. They probably have a bloated self-image, thus appointing themselves as the ultimate judge of everything human. Their constant whining criticism probably stems from their need to assert their sense of superiority. It is often an inferiority complex working in reverse gear.

We have been told often times to make constructive criticism, and avoid negative criticism. What is the difference between the two?

Negative criticism is made out of spite, to put down or demonise the party or thing being criticised. Sometimes, it is made out of good intention, but from the perspective of prejudice or ignorance. The best negative criticism may point out a problem that everybody knows about, but it offers no solution.

Benjamin_FranklinAs Benjamin Franklin ( Photo left )once said, “Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain, and most fools do.”

Constructive criticism is born out of genuine concern or even love for the person or thing criticised. The best critics are those who have knowledge and experience in the subject matter, and have given long and careful thought to the matter at hand before they even open their mouth.

A constructive critic will foresee a problem before anybody else does, and he will also offer options and solutions towards solving the problem. He may even be ready to offer his service towards solving the problem. A leader in any field must also be a constructive critic.

A  good critic will always be courteous in his manner and language, so as not to antagonise other people. His intention is perhaps to encourage and stimulate healthy debate and promote common understanding, and so he will avoid totalitarian absolutist condemnation. In short, good criticism must start on a humble standpoint.

For those who love books and literature, they may well be familiar with literary criticism.

Literary criticism has probably existed for as long as literature. Aristotle wrote the Poetics, a typology and description of literary forms with many specific criticisms of contemporary works of art, in the 4th century BC.

In our present day world, you can get numerous articles and essays on the latest books in many major newspapers and magazines. My favourite magazine is the London Review of Books, which I have subscribed for many years. The literary critics writing their reviews there sometimes sound far more knowledgeable than the author whom they criticise.  Sometimes, the author does not like to be criticised and writes back in refutation, and you get a blazing fiery debate.

Literary critics often   write their reviews based on some theory of literary criticism. In the literature department of most western universities, you will be fed with all those complex and difficult theories. Sometimes, I get the feelings that critics armed with all those theories think that their piece of criticism is greater than the art they try to review!

It is a sad reflection of our poor literary standards that we have not yet any space for literary criticism in all our local newspapers. Perhaps, the Sarawak publication industry has not been born yet.

My statement above in the last paragraph is a form of social criticism.

Social criticism is one that is aimed at highlighting a certain social ill or weakness that needs to be addressed. Many columnists and op-ed writers in the newspapers devote their attention to the social ills in our Sarawak society.

They provide a vibrant and critical forum for discussion on public issues that affect everybody, out of genuine concern for the welfare of the community.

The Borneo Post has done well in this department.

Great literary geniuses are often great social critics. They have this ultimate concern for humanity as a whole, and are particularly sensitive to the sufferings inflicted by social injustice in their own community. They can portray these sufferings through their artistic recreation in fictional form in their stories.

charles-dickensCharles Dickens ( Photo right ) stood out as the premier social critic of 19th century England, at a time when massive suffering and poverty existed alongside incredible personal wealth.  The most iconic work from Dickens’ genre is Oliver Twist. George Bernard Shaw was famous for his lively and humorous portrayal of the class sickness in England in his time, as in Pygmalion.

The most common form of criticism is probably political criticism. With so many dramatic events unfolding on the national and local political stage, everybody is a political critic in the privacy of his skull. We watch public events quietly, and we make judgement in our hearts. All those private judgements will evolve into a firm political opinion that will determine how we vote one day.

Political criticism used to be quite muted in the mainstream media for various reasons.

Ever since the emergence of the alternative media on the Internet about 10 years ago, political criticism has exploded on the many net news portals like Malaysiakini, Malaysia Insider, Malaysian Mirror, Merdeka Review, and The Rock News.

There are also thousands of socio-political blogs that offer daily political observation on the unfolding political drama in the country. Right now, the hottest issues are the MCA party crisis and the Umno general assembly.

The trouble with political criticism on the Internet is the wide variance of quality of the fare offered to readers.

For established net portals like Malaysiakini and Malaysia Insider, the journalists and columnists tend to be very professional in their op-ed pieces.

They tend to give well reasoned argument for why they think something is good or bad. Although they are far more critical of the ruling parties than the Star and the New Straits Times, they still try to give balanced views when debating burning issues of the day.

Because of the alternative media, the mainstream media have been compelled to be more critical also.  When any news item breaks on the Internet, the mainstream media also feel compelled to cover the story. Of course, Internet news has the advantage of speed. What you read on Malaysiakini today will come out in the Star only tomorrow.

bad mouth

The blogs on the Internet are far more anarchical than the news portals. Hiding behind their anonymity, bloggers can say whatever they like, and this privilege of anonymity is often abused by many bloggers in advancing their own political agenda.

So far, the government has not interfered much with the freedom of speech on the Internet. Technically, it is very hard to censor Internet content anyway. So on cyberspace, one hundred flowers can bloom.

Meanwhile, the freedom of speech on the Internet has changed the nature of political criticism in Malaysia forever.

Every morning when I wake up, I read Internet news and comments before I turn to the online version of the mainstream media. There are some very discerning Malaysian writers out there shunned by the Star and The NST who can really give you very illuminating views on current events in Malaysia.

When reading on the Internet though, one has to be vigilant always against those writers who have an axe to grind against certain parties. As for me, anyone who cannot write even grammatically correct English and refrain from hysterical outbursts of profanity and name-calling is not qualified to give political comments on the net. Stay away from the website sarawaktalk; it is a garbage bin.

I sometimes wonder how our political leaders regard their most severe critics on the Internet. Nobody likes to be criticised, often negatively. Some of our leaders may be too old to master the new technology of Internet journalism; some may not realise its potential and power.

But political criticism on the Internet is the way to go in the future. In time, it may grow to be more powerful than criticism in the mainstream media. Scholars are already predicting that Internet communication will change the nature and mode of democratic politics in our country.

This may not be a bad thing. As Winston Churchill once said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

(The writer can be reached at Bapakmiki@yahoo.com)

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