Constructive Criticism is an Oxymoron

I have never liked the term “constructive criticism”, not because I don’t believe in useful feedback and third-party opinions, but because criticism infers judgement. And there is no such thing as constructive judgement.

Worse yet, there is no room for improvement in judgement.

The critic is never right.

It’s easy to criticize the unknown. To call something that is unfamiliar wrong, or backwards, or impossible. The definition of “criticism” is, after all:

the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything;
the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.

I fail to see how that is constructive?

I’m not saying people aren’t entitled to their own opinions. They most certainly are. But there’s a big difference between an opinion and a judgement. Critics make judgements, often using the time-honoured tactic of universal deflection: “Since I didn’t like/understand/appreciate it, no one else will either.”

The critic says, “That painting is stupid. No one will like it.” Someone with a constructive opinion says, “I didn’t see the point in that painting, but someone else might.” The critic says, “This book doesn’t make sense. It will never sell.” A constructive opinion states, “I didn’t understand this book for reasons a), b), and c). People who have the same tastes as me won’t like this book.”

The main difference? The critic never takes responsibility for his judgement. Because owning that judgement is hard. I urge you to try it. Walk up to an art student and tell them you think they’re talentless. Or tell an entrepreneur, someone who’s just sunk their life’s savings into an idea, that you think what they’re doing is pointless. Please, please let them know that what they’re trying to build can never happen here.

You can’t do it because neither of those offerings are constructive.

You can’t do it because you have nothing to base your judgement on other than personal opinion and preference. And that’s not constructive. It’s not enough.

What right do you have to criticize another person’s creation? What expertise do you have in their field? Critics are always wrong, because critics have the least right to judge. Constructive criticism, to me is baseless judgement. Destructive postulating. An unfair assumption that you know more and you know best.

When really, you know nothing.

The Problem with Constructive Criticism

Judgement that moonlights as constructive criticism is fatal to creativity. It stifles innovation and stops change. This is especially true when you criticize someone who has stepped outside of their comfort zone in order to create something unique. When you judge someone for taking a risk, calling their work universally unacceptable, simply because you yourself don’t like it, the art suffers. You’ve successfully destroyed the one thing that made this creation worthwhile – its uniqueness. Its attempt to be something else.

Congratulations, I hope you feel better knowing that the world is exactly how you like it, devoid of change, and unyielding to progress.

That student will always be ashamed of his art for no reason. And you’re right, that business or industry will never flourish here. That entrepreneur went somewhere else thanks to your “constructive” analysis.

Stop critiquing.

You’re not right. By all means, provide feedback, disagree, argue, and examine. Promote learning and exploration. Push boundaries and impart educated opinions. But never judge.

The only thing your criticism is constructing is a walled garden where you feel safe.


3 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism is an Oxymoron

  1. You had me right up until the line, “Stop critiquing.” Everything else, I absolutely agree with.

    I think part of the problem is a misunderstanding the general public has between the words “criticize” and “critique.” You’ve nailed criticism, so I won’t go into that. Critique, on the other hand, is a systematic and detailed analysis of a written or spoken work. It is an evaluation of the work, rather than an opinion with a negative bent.

    This might seem like splitting hairs, but truly, it isn’t. My day job is as an editor; I critique for a living, and I do a very good job of it. I build up my writers by showing what in their writing is weak, how they can improve it, as well as show them what is strong about their writing and build them up. My critiques help them to utilize their strengths and shore up their weaknesses.

    Of course, I would never criticize. A useful critique never does. Please, I beg you, don’t mistake the two terms. One is useful and truly constructive. The other isn’t.

  2. This was very insightful because I have often made the mistake of criticizing others in my mind. It’s a good thing I don’t say these things out loud. However, I know that this is detrimental because as you mentioned I am only criticizing myself. Any thoughts on how to change my mind from being negative or criticizing others. Actually it’s only my boss that I criticize so maybe it could be an easy fix. Thanks.

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