True Confession, New Resolution

I spent 30 years at a defense think-tank. There were many things that I liked about it, and a few things that I didn’t like about it. The thing that I disliked most was the way in which some senior managers and many analysts offered criticism. They practiced a perverted version of the Socratic method. Instead of working with the author of an analysis to improve it, they would keep probing the weak points of he work — or more correctly, the analyst’s ability to explain and defend it — and leave the analyst melting in a puddle of mortification.

I resented that kind of criticism when it was aimed at me, and when I saw it being aimed at others. (I was involved in the creation of a mock “seal” for the  hazing sessions that were led by a former president of the think-tank. The seal displayed the motto “Nibbled to death by ducks.”) But I often resorted to the method when I was the critic. Human nature is like that.

I am here to confess (as I just did), to repent (as I hope I am doing), and to enter onto the path of righteousness (as I hope I will).

The most constructive way to offer criticism, in my experience, is to put yourself in the place of the person you are criticizing. Try to understand the issue at hand, as he sees it, and try to understand the way he comes at the issue. If you get “inside” that person’s mind, you can then talk to him about the problem in a way that he understands. From there, you can work with him to improve whatever it is he is seeking to improve — be it the Navy’s choice of a new weapon system or the opportunities available to low-income persons.

I know that a person’s political views are largely a matter of temperament, and for that reason not always susceptible to change by appealing to facts or logic. But political views are nevertheless changeable, in the way that a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol will overcome his addiction — if he understands that he can do it, and will live a miserable life and die miserably if he doesn’t.

I am also aware that leftists — who are the usual targets of my criticism — do not often (or perhaps ever) respond constructively to conciliatory statements. As I say here,

leftists can be ruthless, unto vicious. They pull no punches; they call people names; they skirt the law — and violate it — to get what they want (e.g., Obama’s various “executive actions”); they use the law and the media to go after their ideological opponents; and on and on.

Nevertheless, this blog is but a pinprick on the vast hide of leftism. Perhaps it will be more effective if I make a greater effort to understand what leftists want, and try to appeal to them on that basis, instead of preaching to the choir of libertarian-conservatives as I often do.

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Related reading and viewing:

Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Centre Cannot Hold in America, Europe, and Psychology” (Heterodox Academy, August 9, 2016). This is an introduction to Haidt’s recent speech at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Denver, where he addressed the causes and consequences of political polarization.

A video of the speech:

PowerPoint slides:

PDF version of the slides:

One comment

  1. Valuable advice; thanks. I’m one of those guilty of criticizing that way (“Why did you do…this?”). It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m trying.

    Haidt is brilliant. I’ve corresponded with him by email a bit – he’s working on even better stuff for his new book. (My wife translated one of his previous books…)


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