Friday, 25 June 2010

Criticism and the Diversity of Opinions

It seems that many people praise the ability to criticise other persons. Indeed, if one had to take a look at the tabloids or watch a number of talk shows on TV, they would know very well what I am talking about. No action performed by a human being appears to be immune from criticism. No matter what one says or does, there will probably always be, at least, someone willing to engage in some critical activity. Is this good? Is it bad? Aren't we often told that we should promote the diversity of opinions?

This is not an easy topic to discuss. Each question could easily invite countless other questions. I would, however, like to attempt to go beyond the many cliches that are associated with the issue of criticism. In order to avoid any confusion, I would like to point out that I am linking critical activity to differences of opinion since it is very common for people who hold a particular set of beliefs to criticise any ideas which go against it.

Taking a look at the world's history, it is quite easy to identify how different views triggered so many terrible wars and persecutions. Millions of people have fought and died because of differences related to their religious and/or political beliefs.

At this stage, one of the questions in my mind is: if two people can only agree to disagree and are almost constantly criticising each other, does this necessarily mean that they must fight to the death? Of course not! When faced with such a situation, it is extremely important to exercise - first and foremost - tolerance. To me, tolerance means being able to accept that another person has a different view. I would, however, go a step further - tolerance should not just be limited to accepting that there are differences in opinions or beliefs; it should also trigger an attempt to understand why the other person views a particular issue differently. Such an understanding could shed light on why a person might find it so hard to change their mind about a specific topic.

There is little doubt that the acceptance of diversity and the attempt to understand its origins do not necessarily lead to any significant positive changes. To mention just one example, it seems quite unlikely that certain religious people who strongly believe that a drunkard will spend eternity in Hell would change their views following an acceptance of diversity and an understanding of why the drunkard ended up in such a state.

Although the diversity of opinions or beliefs has often led to social disharmony, a few words must be devoted to the distinction between positive and negative criticism. The former is still triggered by the existence of a different opinion, but it is usually said that such criticism is aimed at helping the other person to improve. Negative criticism, on the other hand, is normally associated with the attempt to hurt another person; to attack their self-esteem. If a person keeps failing an exam, it is one thing to tell that person "Your current studying strategies need to be revised since they are not leading to success", but it is something quite different to tell that person "Give up studying because your repeated failures only serve to show that you are dumb!"

In a world characterised by individuals who do not have a bird's-eye view of all the variables that exist in the universe and of how such variables interact with one another, a debate that is carried out with an emphasis on positive criticism could lead to great improvements and/or a fuller understanding of a number of issues. Given such a state of affairs, it would not be realistic to imagine resolving various problems without a certain amount of debates.

Sadly, there are still many times when debating is completely frowned upon. The avoidance of any type of debate opens the door to dogmatic, top-down communication that strongly resents ever being challenged or questioned. It appears that this tends to occur within several business, religious, and political organisations. When this happens, the consequences could be devastating.

If one had to focus on numerous religious organisations, it would not be difficult to notice how almost every attempt to question a core belief by someone is frequently regarded as "the work of Satan"!!! Whenever I hear that line, I immediately feel like telling the person who describes any type of questioning as Satanic the following words: "How do you really know that Satan exists? And please don't tell me that you know because you say that the Holy Spirit whispered it to you in your head!!!"

With reference to the Roman Catholic Church, more and more cracks are appearing in the walls of this organisation. The ban on female priests, the ban on contraception, the imposition of celibacy, the condemnation of homosexual behaviour...all these issues are being increasingly questioned by the members of this Church. A number of priests are also criticising certain positions that the Church still supports!

If one turns - to mention another example - to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it is possible to find some extremely sad stories about the pain that various members had to face because of the Church's teachings about homosexuality. By avoiding any questioning and insisting that it is right in condemning homosexual behaviour as something that goes against God's Plan, several individuals have endured horrendous amounts of suffering. A few have also committed suicide.

When it comes to political parties, many members seem to be afraid of questioning certain positions because they do not wish to be regarded as "traitors" or as "disloyal". For those people whose party membership gives them a sense of belonging, it can be very difficult to risk expulsion as a result of taking a position that goes against a party position. Consequently, a party member might end up preaching one thing in order to avoid trouble, but privately believe the opposite thing. Such situations could clearly be avoided if a political party could learn how to manage diversity in better ways.

What about the harsh criticism that is often witnessed in multi-party societies? Although one party might say that its critique is aimed at improving the country, there seems to be little doubt that the tone that is frequently used in debates between political parties is very harsh. Instead of focusing on ideas and issues, it is specific individuals who are often targeted by a rival party. In a society that tends to adore competition, such bashing between parties is usually considered as totally acceptable. If there is cut-throat competition at work, in schools, at home, why should the political arena be left untouched? The sad thing is that the social bitterness that is created as one party lashes out at the other is dressed up as "democracy at work". At this stage, an interesting question could be: does the existence of numerous political parties really lead to a greater degree of social harmony? Couldn't we try to discover better ways of working together instead of creating tribes to fight each other? Does democracy necessarily require a political party for every different opinion that one might have?

One final question: will there ever be a time when all people can live peacefully together without any disagreements? Without any bitter criticism or terrible clashes? Who knows?

All I can say right now is that as long as people continue to disagree on one thing or another, criticism will continue to exist. My hope is that any debate or any criticism could be utilised for exclusively positive purposes.