September 12, 2011

On Criticism

I used to hate receiving criticism. I still hate it. It takes a lot of courage, energy, and patience on my part not to go beyond squirming and trembling while someone speaks their Piece Versus Me. I struggle to let the criticism wash over me, to sort the outright insults from the constructive remarks, to roll with the punches.

Criticism is inevitable. I can’t please everyone. If I don’t want to offend anyone or have them misinterpret what I have to say, I might as well shut up and do nothing.

Too bad shutting up and doing nothing aren’t exactly my expertise.

To ease my unease, I have to keep on telling myself that criticism is reserved for those who dare to speak up. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” a Japanese proverb says. You can’t help getting lambasted, criticized, or scolded if you defend your opinions.

Criticism, however, has its limits. Insults don’t count. Threatening me doesn’t count either. I will listen if you point out flaws in my work, and consequently provide suggestions on improving it. Whether you are criticizing the way I dance or editing my work, I will accept your suggestons wholeheartedly, and within reason.

If I dare to speak up, I must also accept the risk of being corrected or criticized.

I, too, have the right to criticize people, especially when they say something that I do not agree with. Now this is where things get a little tricky for me. I don’t mince my words; I say what I mean and mean what I say. I will be as tactful as I can. I will not shout at you or insult you with empty words. I will give you the respect that you deserve regardless of who you are, what you are, where you come from, and how old you are.

And this is where some people disagree with my brand of criticism.

“Why are you criticizing your relatives? They’re your family. You should defend them.”

Nope, family has little to do with it. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. End of story. I don’t care if we spent 9 months in the womb together, were playmates since I learned how to eat solid food, or sent letters to each other every day. In fact, I believe I, of all people, have the right to criticize you because I know you best.

“Why are you criticizing him/her? He/she is old and has been around here for a while. You’re still young.”

Uh – what? I do respect those who are older than I am, but respect doesn’t mean blindly accepting people’s opinions only because I was in diapers when they were earning their college degrees. That isn’t respect. That’s useless martyrdom in the spirit of “So if X told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?” Age doesn’t always mean wisdom, and I will follow wisdom regardless of age.

“Why are you criticizing him/her? He/She is smart, struggling to finish a difficult degree in a reputable school/working 80 hours a week at a prestigious company/heading a family business that is 100 years old.”

I have no idea what these people are on. I have friends who had several jobs in college. I have friends who work with multinational companies. I have friends who are in charge of their ancient family businesses. They don’t use their work loads and work schedules as excuses for anything.

“Why are you criticizing your university? Where’s your sense of loyalty?”

Nope, I don’t give a crap. If my alma mater does something stupid, I have the right to speak up. I want my alma mater to improve, to go into the future well equipped to serve the next generations of students. I will not stand by and blindly accept what my alma mater does. That’s not loyalty. That’s stupidity. UP and Purdue never taught me that.

And now, for my latest foray into criticism: “Why are you criticizing him? You’re speaking against a top debater and valedictorian of a top school.”

So? I was a debater in high school, too. Debating awards didn’t make me perfect. Academic awards didn’t exempt me from criticism. I really don’t care if you were valedictorian of your pre-school, if you won debates since you were in elementary school, or if you had enough medals hanging on you to break your neck during high school graduation. If anything, your credentials should prompt people to expect more of you. If anything, your academic progress should be a sign that you were taught to listen and accept criticism.

And so on, and so forth, this strange preoccupation with and fear of those who have achieved, who are in positions of authority, who are older or whiter, what have you.

My mom believes that the need to defend blood, connections, and titles is unique to Filipinos. I’ve met many people from different countries, however, who have the same attitudes. Conversely, I’ve met many Filipinos who don’t believe in blindly defending people just because they come from the same family/school/neighborhood/province/herd.

Harsh? No, just realistic. I will respect you, but that respect is based on what you have to say and how you say it. Your age, nationality, sex, weight, height, skin color, college degree, and shoe size are all incidental.

I really don’t care if you’re the valedictorian of Harvard, the Best Debater of All Time, the King of Westeros, the Lord Rahl, the Steward of Gondor, or Emperor Palpatine. Sure, you could get 100% on all your quizzes, argue the brains out of other scholars, rule kingdoms, or destroy planets.

But when you’re wrong, YOU ARE WRONG. No rank, prestige, or diploma can change that.

True, some people earn their rank or diplomas by virtue of their abilities. They earn some of our trust as authority figures because of how far they’ve gone, how much they’ve worked, and the awards they’ve received.

To hide behind one’s achievements, however, is cheap. You are not shielded from criticism just because you have a PhD. You are not immune to reprimand just because you have a diploma from a prestigious university. You cannot win every argument or expect to silence your would-be opponents just because you won 1,000 debates since you first started debating. Remember: You can always lose Debate # 1,001.

You cannot always be right. You are not perfect.

It takes courage to speak up – but that same courage has to be used to remain standing, to receive the cannonballs of insults and derision that humanity cannot help throwing at those who want to rise above the crowd.

We are all of us human, whether we have PhDs or no education whatsoever, whether we have wallets swelling with cash or pockets filled with air, whether we are male, female, old, young, well-traveled, hermits – we are all of us human. We all make mistakes.

I am not always right. I am not perfect. I have my own achievements, but I will not hide behind them.


Bring it on.


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