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Posts Tagged ‘Criticism’

When does Criticism turn into Bashing?

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on October 11, 2007

What is the responsibility of the sender and what is the responsibility of the recipient? Are there any basic rules for this, how are they applied? Is it possible to overreact to criticism? Is pointing out that someone is overreacting equal to blaming the victim? When does criticism turn into bashing?

I have recently had reason to mull these question over. I didn’t find any clear answers, as there are always exceptions to a rule – but I did find some general ideas, that I’d like to share.

What is a generalization?

This is typically when an entire people, faith, political faction or larger concept is implicated in connection to something which only a specific entity within that people, faith, political faction or larger concept is party to. Generalizations are easy to spot because they lack the company of any defining attribute, or limiting adjectives such as ‘some’, and ‘many’ or direct grouping adjectives, like ‘radical’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘leftist’, ‘conservative’ etc. Generalizations is generally overcome by a simple narrowing of the definitions used to describe an entity or phenomena. There is also the creation of new definitions to separate out specific groups or phenomena from a larger related group.

For instance, these days it is necessary to use ‘Radical Islamists’ to separate out those Muslims who have chosen to use violence as a means to further a political agenda, from those Muslims who are Muslims without a violent political agenda. In the same manner it has become necessary to use ‘Radical Far Left’ to define those on the political Left who largely accept and promote violence and embrace antisemitism as part of their agenda as opposed to more traditional liberal Leftist politics.

Are there any basic rules for this, how are they applied?

The general rule is that the more narrow a definition of something is, the less generalizing it is – i.e the more descriptive adjectives you put in front of the main descriptive adjective or noun, the safer you are. In some contexts it is enough to make the distinction once for the audience to understand that when you in all that follows that definition, use only the main adjective or noun, you are referencing that first distinct definition. Most people accept this way of communicating. Switching to another general definition doesn’t work, because that in turn would then implicate that entire entity, even if it takes focus off the previous generalized group.

Some do not however, and will, out of fear, laziness, obnoxiousness, inexperience with debates in general or just pure nastiness, demand that you retype your 21 word definition every time you mention whatever entity it is you are discussing. You can either ignore those complaints and demands, since the majority of the involved will both understand and accept the short-cut of “one definition covers all”, or accommodate the minority for the sake of peace. In the case you chose the second option – be sure to have your 21 word definition handy in an open Note Pad or other text-edit program, to make repetition easy. In the case you choose the first option, be sure to have a thick skin, a sense of humor and an array of sarcastic retorts you can use in the ensuing intellectual battle – because it will be needed.

What is the responsibility of the sender and what is the responsibility of the recipient?

When care has been taken to define and limit the subject of discussion through application of as narrow definitions as possible, those are the general obligations that fall on the sender and the recipient:

The sender has only three responsibilities:

  1. To be as clear as possible about his/her subject/topic of discussion.
  2. To clarify when there is doubt about what s/he is actually saying.
  3. To refrain from personalizing their criticism through use of name or other designators.

The recipient has at least three responsibility:

  1. To assume that the sender is being as clear as s/he can, honest and do not have the intention to be hurtful.
  2. To recognize their own trigger points.
  3. To assume that any sense of hurt is coming from those inner trigger points, rather than from the sender, unless the recipient is being specifically named.

Is it possible to overreact to criticism of things that are close to us?

It is possible to overreact to anything, and criticism is especially easy to overact to, as most of us carry personal baggage that somehow indicate that we are flawed, whether we are aware of such baggage or not. That is why, when we listen to someone, or read what some has said on topics that are close to us, we need to be aware of our trigger points. If we are not aware of our trigger points, chances are that at one point or other we going to lose sight of what is objectively being discussed and drown in our own subjectivity, which a really bad way to go emotionally.

Is it possible to not overreact to criticism of things that are close to us?

Yes. If we keep in mind that the general rule is that if we are not named, the criticism is not personal. It is not about us, just because a discussion is about a Topic we are familiar with or have personal experience of, it has nothing to do with us, until we are specifically named as part of that which is being discussed. Assuming a personal and subjective intent on the part of the sender is a rather narcissistic attitude to take in a discussion, and does neither sender or recipient any favors.

Is pointing out that someone is overreacting equal to blaming the victim?

If the overreaction occurs as a result of general discussion where criticism has not been personalized, pointing out that someone is overreacting can hardly be equaled to blaming the victim, since there is no personal victim. Thus if someone is overreacting in a personalized manner it can be assumed that the person overreacting is more likely responding to his/her inner trigger points, than to what is actually taking place in the discussion.

When does criticism turn into bashing?

As a general rule, bashing takes place when criticism is generalized, prejudiced and expressed inappropriately. I.e through abusive or derogatory terms repeatedly. It also become bashing when it is personalized.


Any discussion is hazardous, because discussion takes place between human beings. As human beings we are all carrying our past experiences with us into ANY discussion we have. It is easy to generalize – it’s quick, takes no time to type or say and most often we all accept and agree on a generalized way of defining matters we discuss. But generalizing also opens up for misunderstandings, misreadings and can in the end make any good, serious discussion rush to hell in a hand basket. So it is better to avoid generalized terms all together, and to be specific about one’s subject matter. Defining the subject matter through, limiting use of adjectives and general pronouns in connection with the subject matter is a good way to avoid generalizations. The narrower a definition is, the better.

Some people will overreact and take criticism personal if the subject matter is close to them in any way. This is due to them not having taken care of their own baggage properly and projecting their trigger points onto the sender in a discussion. One can either chose to accommodate them by re-tracing a discussion and give further clarification or one can simply ignore those reactions. But one does not have any obligation to cater to those by altering the basic definitions, if those definitions are already sufficiently narrow and definitely no obligation to stop discussing the matter altogether. As long as one as clear as possible, willing to clarify, don’t personalize and don’t use inappropriate language about the subject matter, one should be safe discussing also very sensitive matters.


Posted in Freedom of Speech | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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