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Hopeless Criticism: The Number One Obsession in Pakistan

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Introduction

This article is in response to the ocean of pessimism and hopelessness that surrounds us. It is targeted towards the barrage of criticism unleashed by the so called intelligentsia, "think tanks", media and "enlightened" segments of the society who do not think, feel or talk anything but gloom - day in and day out. Their primary obsession is humiliating individuals (especially politicians), presenting and "proving" them to be villains, attacking institutions, and condemning the entire system as evil and absolutely void of any good. Their preoccupation with negativity is doing grave disservice to the society. In my opinion, they are sick, warranting immediate treatment. And since negative thoughts and emotions are known to be contagious, they pose a threat to plague the entire society and paralyze its problem solving faculties like a virus that damages the brain.

A "Hopeless" Environment

Over the past decade or so a striking change has occurred in Pakistan - we have stopped loving and believing in ourselves. We have touched the rock bottom of self-esteem as a people. The thought of the society (and culture) makes us sick because of the failures and negativities associated with it. There are "too many" problems and frustrations attached to the society. Maintaining a healthy state of mind while contemplating about the societal issues seems "impossible". It is an overwhelming experience. Thus many of us have learnt to escape from reality, fixating on the islands of our private lives, and being effectively indifferent to the flood of crises that surround us. We have given up!

A Hopeful Past

I grew up in an age when there was a strong feeling of patriotism and nationalism in Pakistan. Pakistan was a good brand and people felt proud about it. Despite many challenges there was hope and energy. We were competitive and were not taken for granted. There were failures all right, but we also had successes to celebrate for. Today, each day is a horrible, pitiful experience with bad news all around.

Pakistan was born with mega issues but we lived with pride and confidence; never lost hope. We were wrongfully demarcated by the British, had a tattered economy, lost our founders in infancy, were ill equipped to defend against a giant neighbour, fought three bloody wars and numerous civil wars, failed to integrate East Pakistan etc. Our institutions were raped and leaders were assassinated or eliminated from the political scene and we were condemned to live under military rule through much of our history. But we went on and never lost hope. We were an extremely hopeful society.

Learnt Hopelessness and an Obsession for Criticism

In my opinion, what has dramatically changed is not the scope of challenges but the way we perceive and think about it. We have learnt to think negatively, and at all times. We have even started accepting the blame for crimes not committed. We have become psychologically fragile and vulnerable - an easy target and scapegoat. This is a radical shift from the past.

We have acquired a preoccupation for self-criticism almost as if we have turned against our very essence like cancer cells. We are eating up the very fabric of the society, including our own souls. The spirit and euphoria of the past is completely dissolved into an impregnable crust of perpetual hopelessness.

A Shift of Focus

But it is more of a psychological change and can be reversed with a shift of focus. We are not doomed but are just made belief to doom. The future that looms before us is a fabrication of a powerful global political system thrust upon us (and we are not alone; just look around and see how other societies are also being challenged by the emerging global system). Our fatal mistake is that we have transformed from an acting nation into a bunch of 180 million spectators witnessing our own "death", individually. This spectacular spectatorship must end. And the point to start is to reject and counter the sources spreading hopelessness. There is no hope without hope. Do you have an alternative?

When you are surrounded with darkness and hopelessness the only way out is to seek a ray of hope howsoever unreal that might sound at that point. Focusing on intense pain or the overwhelming challenge makes it even more painful and hopeless. Those who survive are the ones who expend their energies on finding a way out and not the ones who whine about the "insurmountable" challenge or mistakes made in the process. Being critical at that point is in effect like committing suicide. Hopeless criticism only intensifies and complicates the issue.

What is Criticism?

Criticism is defined as:

"the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding"
"the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes"
"a serious examination and judgment of something"
"the judgement (using analysis and evaluation) of the merits and faults of the actions or work"
"the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of..."
"reasoned analysis and assessment"

Constructive vs. Destructive Criticism

The above definitions hint on two forms of criticism:

One comprises a value judgment and is bent on finding faults in others. The other is more rational and objective and tends to seek a more holistic truth about the object in question (idea, individual or a system etc.). While the former threatens the object the latter reinforces it through constructive feedback.

Motives, Characteristics and Consequences of Criticism

Negative criticism is damaging both for the individual and the environment and in the prevalent circumstances we must act to challenge and reject it to stop the overwhelming assault on the society which threatens its existence. The aim of this section is to outline the fundamental characteristics of negative and constructive criticism enabling us to clearly distinguish between the two, both in terms of motives, attributes and outcomes.

Destructive CriticismConstructive Criticism

Motives

Stop, discourage, discredit, reject or eliminate the idea, individual or system in question

Motives

To gain deeper understanding about the issue, idea, choice, individual or the target system.

Identifying strengths, weaknesses, pros, cons, risks and opportunities of the target object

Identifying and interpreting faults, mistakes, errors of judgment, in a wider and holistic context, establishing lessons learnt

Generating effective alternatives and solutions

Role of the Critic

Opponent, obstructionist, competitor, enemy.

Role of the Critic

Analyst, guide, coach, advisor, friend, ally, supporter

The Process

Negative criticism is a subjective process based on assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, incomplete facts, circumstantial evidence, hidden motives, intuition, negative feelings and at times, rush of blood.

The Process

Constructive criticism is a relatively objective, rational and analytical process based on available facts (though not necessarily complete), which often includes both pros and cons, supporting and contradictory evidence

Key Characteristics

The critic usually attacks and condemns the object (individual, group, system etc.) rather than the issue at hand. The discussion is fixated on the dark side and completely or mostly disregards the positive aspects. Use of strong and negative language, and sweeping statements.

The critic positions himself as a know-it-all kind of an expert and looks down on the idea, individual or target system as "the accused", inferior and incompetent.

Key Characteristics

The critic addresses the problem instead of attacking the person (or the entire system). In addition to the issue the overall context of the problem is also examined for broader, just and holistic interpretation and evaluation. Quite often, the strengths of the target object are highlighted to develop or maintain healthy atmosphere for discussion. Arguments are constructed through logic and reasoning instead of assumptions and strong negative emotions.

Constructive criticism usually takes the form of an open debate that encourages ideas, alternatives and additional perspectives. The critic does not consider his/her perspective as the final word. The object (individual, group, system etc.) may actively participate in the debate as a stakeholder but not as "the accused".

Outcome

The target individual or group experiences panic, shame, degradation, humiliation, embarrassment, and lower morale and self-esteem. This negativity lowers the overall confidence and ability to think clear-headedly and significantly reduces the object’s capacity to deal with the issue. The heat and emotionality of the environment makes the object to react strongly instead of responding through reasoning, thereby leading to greater mistakes and errors of judgment.

Destructive criticism makes the target object insecure, weaker and more vulnerable than before. Often leads to inaction, paralysis or indecision. The probability of failure is significantly increased.

Outcome

Honour and self-esteem of the object remains intact. The target individual, group or system becomes more aware and develops deeper understanding about the problem, weaknesses and associated risks. Wider perspectives, options, and alternatives are generated thereby widening the object’s prospects for growth and improvement. The above knowledge makes the object less vulnerable and more confident about the future.

Constructive criticism makes the target object stronger, securer, more confident and enhances its vitality. Often leads to change and new initiatives. The probability of success is significantly increased.

Reconstructing a Brighter Future with Reflection and Hopefulness

The purpose of the above discussion was to underline the poisonous consequences of negative criticism and instead point to a more positive alternative - constructive criticism - which is critical for the long term health and growth of a system. We must recognize that any debate revolving around failure and darkness leads to an even darker future. Obsessive criticism and absolute condemnation of the system reflects our intention to kill the system instead of a desire to develop and strengthen it. After all, are we not the stakeholders of the society? Do we not consider our future to be interwound with the health and success of the system? Do we get as critical against our loved ones as we are about the society or the overall system? Is that fair? Does it help? Does it enhance our prospects as individuals or as a society? Does it make Pakistan a better place to live?

If not, then for God’s sake, lets stop it!

Enough is enough!

Let’s give Pakistan a breathing space. Let us expend more energies thinking and talking about the gifts, blessings, opportunities and solutions than constantly whining about real or perceived problems. Let’s get rid of the negativity and work together to reconstruct and make Pakistan a great place to live for and die for. I don’t believe we have a second option. Do you?

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"War is nothing less than a temporary repeal of the principles of virtue. It is a system out of which almost all the virtues are excluded, and in which nearly all the vices are included."

[Robert Hall]