Criticism, like cancer, grows rather naturally and is fully dependent on its host. It’s growth is predicated upon a relatively healthy host and a benign environment in which it can grow unimpeded.
Lest we spend too long developing that story, the important way that criticism is like cancer is that it comes in two varieties: benign and malignant. Like cancer, both types of criticism can cause mental pain and anguish, but the benign form is not harmful. Malignant forms, on the other hand, are an undesired scourge which is never helpful and hard to live with.
For the purposes of this analogy, we will leave completely positive criticism aside. Like a false positive, it offers nothing worthy of either concern or time of the creator, but it may, at times, distract from the task. A kind word from a friend or stranger about your creation gives little or no insight into the success or failure of your effort.
Malignant criticism, to be clear, seems to have proliferated recently with ever more outlets available for nearly everyone to become a critic. A few years ago, I kept a blog full of quotidian concerns and grand ambitions. It was a very minor affair that was notable to myself and probably three other people. Yet some stranger found it and offered some decidedly malignant criticism. And it hurt. And that was all it did. I tell this story in part because I like to talk about myself, but mostly because it’s a good window into malignant criticism.
Malignant criticism, in short, negates all possible positives of a work and instead aims solely to eviscerate both the creator and the creation. It asserts that the creation is not only flawed, but completely without merit. It says “This is stupid, deluded, foolish, and naive. It’s only purpose is for me to ridicule it.” (That by the way, is about the content of the strangers “review” of my old site.)
This kind of criticism is tantamount to bullying. And just as your parents probably told you, bullies have to tear someone down to make themselves feel good. Malignant criticism is, in general, nothing more than an ego trip.
Benign criticism is almost never that simple. Though it doesn’t shirk acknowledgment of the flaws of the creation, it tends to recognize that a flawed work is not a valueless one. The words “constructive criticism” are often used to encourage this benign form.
Benign criticism tells the creator (and the audience at large) what the creator set out to do, how far she got toward accomplishing that goal, and how she failed to live up to the potential that the work had. This sounds straightforward, but most amateur reviewer (like myself) often fail to do this.
Benign criticism is much harder to compile than the malignant variety. Consider “snark,” the internet created shorthand for “snide remark” that is, at base, the height of malignant criticism. One can, with a single line of “snark,” express all that is generally seen to be wrong about criticism. A dismissive “Look how bad this story is” or “See how pretentious this guy is” often passes for criticism on the internet. And though it may be criticism, it’s hardly something anyone wants to—or should have to—spend time with.
I guess that brings us back to the top. Like cancer, criticism is often confused with its malignant form. But it’s a mistake to think that all criticism is malignant, benign criticism is one of the most important features of a vibrant culture and when it’s available can not and should not be dismissed out of hand.
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