Sunday, 19 January 2014

Criticism and the Omnipotent Standard

There is one kind of criticism that I believe cannot be constructive: having one’s best efforts put down just because they don’t live up to an arbitrary standard. We are exposed to this kind of criticism from a very early age. We are taught to man up and learn how to handle it because that’s life and we would get ever more of it. Nobody ever teaches children that standards are arbitrary. I’m tempted to believe that learning how to accept this kind of criticism as “constructive” goes hand in hand with the process of losing our ability to imagine. It’s the point where we learn to subscribe to the reality of a life of mediocrity. The alternative is often making ourselves unhappy while we continually try to play the standards better so we could get to the top.

This week I was exposed to the kind of criticism where I gave my best efforts and was put down. I didn’t care much about how I was graded because I had decided beforehand that I would give my best effort without making myself unhappy trying to do better. What was important was that my effort meant something to me. The very average rating set me free because I could close another door on something I had always been good at but wasn’t my dream. If I’m no longer good at it then it means that I can let go of doubts as to whether or not I owe it to myself to continue.

Nevertheless, the criticism hurt. Reflecting on it, I realised how weak I felt for feeling injured by criticism. It occurred to me that criticism in response to any kind of constructive effort is actually a non-physical form of violence which we all take for granted. Accepting that criticism of our best efforts is constructive is how we learn to love Big Brother, in the language of George Orwell. We believe that being rated, compared to others, found lacking and/or criticised is necessary because there has to be some kind of standard, otherwise who will know who is better? We won’t, and that would be problematic because then nobody would know who is more deserving of the privileges of being at the top. I'm being ironic, for those who don't know me.

In the framework that we know, I can identify a few ways in which most people would likely respond to this kind of appraisal.
1) Work harder so that you might at some point be found more deserving, less lacking.
2) Accept that it is beyond your ability or too much effort, in which case you have to resign yourself to mediocrity and look up to those in charge.
3) Look for an alternative where you have a better chance of getting to the top.

All the options to me look like a prison. The question nobody ever asks is who sets the standards and why. I’ll leave that up to you to decide. My conclusion after turning various stones is that the standards work for certain people more than others. If I look at the state planet Earth is in then my reasonable judgement tells me that I would rather define my own standards. Trusting those at the top is an irresponsible venture.

Steve Biko, South African freedom fighter, said: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” What better way to imprison people than to teach them that there is only one standard of being “good” that defines everyone. This standard is all important because it will determine where you are in the social pyramid. A lot of energy that could be spent on actually living is wasted when focusing all one’s efforts on fighting to get to the top, whatever that might mean.

After reading about the ring of Gyges written about by Plato I thought I finally understood Tolkien’s work the Lord of the Rings. My interpretation is that the ring of power makes the bearer invisible because being the one to dictate standards of achievement or morality means he is not subject to these standards. He can bend them at his will. The ring has to be destroyed in the oven where it was forged. The power imbalances we see in the world have to be destroyed on the level where they were created, i.e. on the level of consciousness. If all of us realise that we can define our own standards and more importantly, that we have an existential responsibility to choose them conscientiously, then the imposed standards of achievement, morality and value no longer control us. This makes way for a freer, more egalitarian society. Once the slavery is out of the way and we learn the importance of love as opposed to domination, I believe we can even create heaven on earth.