I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dean Jeffrey R. Di Leo’s essay in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “In Praise of Tough Criticism.” Di Leo notes that the increasing prevalence of “faint praise” and anonymous criticism (both of which allow the critic to avoid unpleasant repercussions from their criticism) stifles the free exchange of ideas:
The future of critical exchange stands at a crossroads. The increased reliance on faint praise, along with the rise of anonymity online, threatens to enervate the free flow of ideas in academe. While Smith’s harsh critical style is not warm and snuggly, at least it promotes an exchange of opinions and the production of knowledge. It is time for literary scholars to question their critical affiliations, to question behavior that encourages conformity over nonconformity; faint praise over pointed criticism; anonymity over transparency. Telling a colleague “You’re wrong” shows more compassion and collegiality than remaining silent — or hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.
This is exactly right. The unwillingness to engage in open and tough criticism is a product of our own sensitivity. The inability to accept criticism directly contributes to the inability to give criticism as we value our self-esteem over the self-reflection that inevitably results from tough criticism. Few things are more difficult than an honest look in the mirror, and we avoid anything (or anyone) who forces us to take that look. In fact, we often respond with our most extreme rhetoric for those who dare challenge us. For the critic, the price of criticism is our scorn.
The answer? We all need to get just a bit tougher . . . but in the right way. We need the humility and openness to consider criticism carefully, even when delivered in a manner that we find unduly harsh or cruel. We should often thank our critics, not despise them. At the same time we need the toughness to withstand the slings and arrows of critics without excessive emotional angst. As critics ourselves, we need not let our colleagues’ eggshell egos deter us from delivering messages that we believe to be both important and true.
Perhaps the cure for our uncivil society is not, in fact, more niceness but instead more toughness. Dean Di Leo concludes:
We need to grow thicker critical skin. Why? Because critical behavior that always results in a chorus of affirmation is nothing more than conformity; because allowing views to persist that need to be challenged is nothing less than critical mediocrity; and because failure to tell our colleagues what we truly think about their work is simple dishonesty. A reshaped critical culture will help build a more robust, honest, and transparent academy.