Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Apologia: Confessions of a Reluctant Critic

Indulge me just a little here. I’ve encountered some negative feedback and feel the need to engage in a little self-defense this morning. Some of the responses I get to my comments both here and elsewhere suggests that some people sum me up as being overly critical, in some cases, just for the point of being critical. I think an explanation is in order.

Just a Coverston?

When my saintly mother was alive, she used to shake her head at me when I would say something critical about the school I attended and at which my father taught. “You’re just a Coverston,” she’d say

Truth be told my father’s family members do have a long history of being well educated and outspokenly critical of aspects of society they have found lacking. My Great Aunt Louise was a Columbia University educated woman in the Depression era who came to Little Rock for her first teaching assignment. When the annual school program for Confederate Memorial Day rolled around, she refused to participate and told her students it celebrated little more than traitorous behavior. It was only due to her colleagues who defended her excellent teaching abilities that she was not fired in the middle of the year and allowed to finish it out before being discharged to return to the friendlier confines of Pittsburgh, Kansas.

But my role as a reluctant critic goes a little deeper than mere family ties.

Seeing the Big Picture

Over the years I have done a good bit of work with the Myers-Brigg Temperament Inventory (MBTI) to try to get a handle on my own personality type vis-à-vis the rest of the world. It has been helpful in understanding my proclivities for being the critic. It has also helped me understand why others have been often silent in the face of situations I found to be badly in need of change and prone to criticize me when I could not be.

One of the things I tell my students regularly in advising is that bright people can do a lot of things but that doesn’t mean they should do anything they can. Rather, what they should do is what they are called to do. Most of my life, I have seen my vocation as calling both individual people and social institutions to their highest potentials. By definition that almost always involves critiquing the status quo, locating the places where it falls short of that potential and advocating for change.

I score nearly off the charts as an INtuitive when I take the MBTI. I have nearly no Sensate in my profile. The iNtuitive information gathering function tends to look at the big picture, focusing on possibilities rather than the immediate data in front of the viewer upon which Sensates are focused. Sensates often accuse iNtuitives of being too idealistic, pie in the sky, where iNtuitives regularly recognize that Sensates tend to get stuck in the immediate and too readily are satisfied with the way things are, no matter how mediocre or impoverished.

I sometimes use the example of the big balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade to illustrate this. The iNtuitive is the Mighty Mouse balloon, looming over the street, seeing in all directions, ready to fly off into the power lines. The Sensate is the corps of rope holders, down on the ground, holding the balloon close. Without the balloon above them, the Sensate tends to get focused on his feet and the street beneath them, never noticing there is a larger world around them full of ideas and possibilities. Without the rope holders below them, the iNtuitive forgets there is a ground down there, with actual people and things to consider how their ideas and possibilities might impact them.

In an ideal world, big picture iNtuitives would work with immediate picture Sensates to insure a balanced, healthy world. Some cultures come closer to this ideal than others. America is not one of them. Estimates suggest the American populace is about 3 to 1 Sensate dominant. Bearing in mind that the Sensate tendency is toward maintenance of the status quo (because Sensates often can’t - or won’t - see any other possibilities), this gravitates toward an overall conservative and individualistic bent in attitudes that is readily observable when American politics are compared to any number of other first world countries.

It is precisely this lopsidedly conservative context that iNtuitives like myself come up against when we offer our visions of the world. The writer whose wisdom was preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures’ book of Proverbs rightly recognized that “Without a vision the people perish.” Of course, the vision is just the starting place and without Sensates to make it happen, visions alone remain largely useless.

A Champion’s Critique

My complete MBTI type is ENFP, Extraverted iNtuitive Feeling and Perceiving, a type called the Champion. This type composes about 3-4% of the total population in America. At the site for MBTI types, Champions are described in part as follows:  

They see life as an exciting drama, pregnant with possibilities for both good and evil…Champions often speak (or write) in the hope of revealing some truth about human experience, or of motivating others with their powerful convictions. Their strong drive to speak out on issues and events, along with their boundless enthusiasm and natural talent with language, makes them the most vivacious and inspiring of all the types…Champions are positive, exuberant people, and often their confidence in the goodness of life and of human nature makes good things happen.

My working life has largely reflected this Champion character, sometimes in the traditional sense of that word. My early public school teaching was largely with special education middle schoolers of whom I was fiercely protective and strongly encouraging to become all they could be. My clients as an attorney were mentally ill adults and juveniles in trouble with the law, many coming out of home lives that can only be described as hellish. And my heart has always gone out to my working class state college students, many of them first in their family to attend college, and those who find themselves outsiders at a university which largely reflects the hypercompetive, status conscious upper middle class that dominates it.

It should not be a surprise that an Idealist (as all iNtuitive Feeling types are categorized) would find him or herself serving as critic. Being able to see the big picture is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, one feels compelled to offer their vision of how one’s highest potential can be realized even as one recognizes that this is but one possible vision. On the other hand, when an inveterate preference for the status quo prevents that vision from even being considered, it can be enormously frustrating for the one articulating that vision.

This is the juncture at which the ideal becomes the critical. By definition, any challenge to the status quo to live into a larger possibility will be seen as criticism if not an attack. The reality is, most of us resist the urge to grow and develop because we intuitively recognize that it will involve the requirement to exert energy, endure pain and delay gratification. In The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist/theologian M. Scott Peck describes the resulting resistance to the possibility of growing and becoming all one can be humanity’s original sin. In all honesty, this is the only definition of that concept that has ever made any sense to me.

There is a reason that prophets get stoned (and, no, this is not a plug for Florida’s Medical Marijuana ballot proposition though I do plan to vote in favor of it). While prophets have largely been reduced to caricatures by evangelicals who construct apocalyptic visions out of ancient societal-critical writings, the reduction of the prophet to a fortune teller serving the agendas of 21st CE American religious conservatives is both disingenuous and loses sight of the purpose of the historical prophets in question.

The Hebrew prophets were very much focused on their own place and time: G-d calls us to be this kind of people but we have become a very different kind of culture, unjust, materialistic, self-serving, exploitative. We have fallen short of our calling  and G-d is not happy about this. If we do not change, disaster will ensue. And, time after time, that is exactly what happens in the Hebrew Scripture even though some of the prophets (most notably Isaiah and Ezekiel) ameliorate their condemnatory pronouncements with prophecies of restoration of a punished and thus penitent people. 

Deeply Held Values

It should be no surprise that in my own life, it is the aspects of the world which I value most that are the targets of my criticisms. I am a fourth generation teacher. Education is a critical aspect of a healthy democratic society which from my perspective should live into its highest potential for the benefit of everyone involved. It should not be surprising that when shallow business values and oppressive technocratic processes come to dominate all levels of education, true lovers of education will cry out. When cynically named programs like No Child Left Behind actually leave behind up to a third of our children, critics like myself will find our voices to expose that myopic, impoverished vision and its mediocrity of practice for what it is.

I am also a lawyer by training and experience. I believe in the ideals of American democracy. The positivist vision of legality which dominates our legal system results in a preference for a mere legality which tends to serve the interests of the powerful who make the law. What gets lost in that process is any remotely comprehensive, contextual understanding of justice. And the might makes right politics currently practiced in America in which the economically powerful are able to dominate the system to the exclusion of and at the expense of the majority of our citizens is a betrayal of our ideals as a people. Such realities demand that true patriots speak out against them.

I am a Franciscan who grew up in the woods amidst bobcats, owls, deer, panthers and the occasional bear along with the beef cattle we raised on our farm. I am a fifth generation Floridian and have seen our state change drastically in my lifetime. I sometimes viscerally feel the scars inflicted on our Mother Earth by a mindless practice cynically described as development that more resembles the metastasis of cancer than any kind of healthy growth. And I fear the long range impacts of human animals on this planet as summers grow longer and hotter and sea levels rise. The good Creation deserves at least a whimper of protest before it is destroyed. 

In Jesus Christ Superstar, a singing Jesus enters Jerusalem amidst an uproar, an event we Christians now call Palm Sunday. He is admonished by the Temple guard to “Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot.” Jesus responds, “If ev'ry tongue was still the noise would still continue, the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.” For the Idealist Champion who sees a bigger picture of the world and sometimes assumes the prophetic role of pointing toward the destructiveness of failure to heed that vision, it is impossible to be silent.

From Preachin’ to Meddlin’

And that’s where the trouble begins. As the common joke in clerical circles goes, the parishioner leaving the service after a social justice sermon remarked, “Pastor, now you done gone from preachin’ to meddlin’.”

Of course, there are a lot of ways for the beneficiaries of the status quo to avoid that criticism. The most common is to simply shoot the messenger, dismissing them as “gloomy” as one of my colleagues periodically calls me or simply assessing the critic as a negative person, hopelessly pessimistic and cynical. It’s a lot easier to ignore critique when one can locate all the problems in the person of the critic.

There are harsher ways of dealing with critics than mere dismissal as naysayers. One can lose their job for refusing to go along with the status quo and challenging its beneficiaries. One can be marginalized in one’s social milieu, demonized as a threat to decent society. And, upon occasion, one can lose their life for being unwilling to eschew their callings as social critics. Ask Socrates, Gandhi and MLK, Jr.

What’s ironic about the assessment of the critic as negative, pessimistic and cynical is that most Idealist critics are actually quite the opposite. It’s precisely their sanguine, optimistic vision of human beings and human societies and their ability to live into their highest potentials that prompt their critique. Sociologist Todd Gitlin once remarked in the film The Dissenter and the Warrior that it was precisely when the 1960s Berkeley student leaders recognized that things could be different from the repressive reality of the early 1960s that they then felt obligated to do something to make that change happen.

For Idealist critics, there is also a more immediate liability. Idealists have an extraverted iNtuitive function which prompts externalizing their idealistic big picture of the world. This often plays out in the form of criticism. But they also have an introverted Feeling function which desires harmony with others. The Feeler wants to be liked, respected, appreciated. The result is an inevitable internal struggle: I feel compelled to articulate the vision I see even as I don’t want to upset people in the process.

I sometimes relate to the lamentations of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. He sees the big picture, feels compelled to articulate his vision, he knows no one wants to hear it and that they will dismiss, demean and even demonize him as a result. Out of his frustration over an untenable reality he exclaims, “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!... Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?”

And yet, Jeremiah accurately foresaw the impending destruction of Jerusalem. Being blessed with vision is a mixed blessing on a good day.

The Critic’s Consolation

I offer my critiques in this blog because it is the only place that I can truly speak my mind without interruption and fully explain myself. Even then, I often do not publish things I write for fear they may push the envelope a little too far. I do not anticipate that my commentary will always meet with agreement. Indeed, as an Idealist, I generally anticipate that I will meet resistance and dismissal. I am a reluctant critic on a good day. But I am not gloomy, negative or particularly pessimistic and my critique of institutional structures and practices cannot be summarily dismissed by a facile explanation rooted in authority issues.

I am critical because I care deeply about the world in which I live and the aspects of society to which I have devoted my life. And I do so at no small cost to my person. I am willing to be convinced that I am wrong. I am certainly open to new ideas. And I am willing to accept that on occasion my critique can arise out of my own tentativeness about power, an understanding that has been forged out of a lifetime of being pounded for offering uninvited critique.

But I am not reducible to a Gloomy Gus, a Negative Nellie or a cynical naysayer. The content of my criticisms cannot be so easily dismissed by people of good conscience. And those who would dismiss me as somehow mean-spirited or just bitter simply don’t know me.

In the end, I expect no more from others than I demand from myself. I call myself and those whose lives I touch to their highest potential. While the call to enter into what we in seminary were prone to call an AFGE (Another F****g Growth Experience) is rarely welcomed with open arms, being the agent of that calling remains a major part of who I have always experienced myself to be. And if my reading of world history and today’s society is correct, while the world has rarely appreciated its critics, it has always badly needed them. Indeed, that may be the only consolation critics like myself can truly enjoy.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Anonymous said...

It is admirable that you are always calling individuals and institutions to higher potentials. iNtuaives are just dreamers and are to be applauded. Macy's Thanksgiving Parade was a good analogy for the way you live and today's America of wanting to keep the status quo unfortunately means we've been dominated by the Republican Party. You have my agreement that all profits should get stoned, and I, like you, am/are a profit. Socrates, Gandhi, and MLK, JR lived out their lives according to the way they were CREATED !!! Hopefully we will follow their lead. Sorry you do not want to upset people (the Franciscan in you). But, yes Harry, you can be admired because you always remain an OPTIMIST. Agape, mike

Omniryx said...

DISCLAIMER: I have been a very close friend collaborator, and some would say co-conspirator with Harry for 25 years. We have eaten together, drunk (too much) together, supported each other through trials and sorrows, and occasionally fought like cats and dogs. Like Harry, I am a Myers-Briggs ENFP but one who has learned, when necessary, to function effectively in a sensate environment. Prilosec helps.

Harry and I are pretty closely aligned along progressive/liberal sociopolitical and spiritual axes. I regularly call him out for being (IMO) too ideological and he regularly tells me I am full of that well known stuff when I do so. This is all by way of saying that while our views on most matters are well aligned, we regularly cross swords on one issue or another.

I'm not writing to contradict the ideas Harry has laid out here. I do want to it a bit of counterpoint.

Prophets regularly feel misunderstood, put upon, ridiculed, or--perhaps most galling of all--simply ignored. They have a message for the world (or some corner thereof) and when the world's response is to ignore or dismiss the message or deride the messenger, it is not hard to understand why the prophets feel unappreciated, frustrated, and angry. Perhaps this always has been and always will be the case.

I'm not sure this will sooth the scorned prophets, but here are a few points they should keep in mind when judging the responses of their hearers.

1. Prophets feel a call to prophesy but they must not expect that their often unwilling audiences will feel a concomitant call to listen, Thus the "who asked you?" response.

2. Prophets are convinced that their prophecies are true and compelling (else why would they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous vilification). That is not necessarily correct. Prophecies are opinions and, like all opinions, are only as sound as the evidence that supports them.

2. Prophets, almost by definition, exhibit some measure of tunnel vision. They can be as aggressively dismissive of evidence in opposition to their proclamations as their unwilling hearers.

3. Prophecy often tends to lack nuance. Prophets are inclined to paint with very broad brushes in very dark colors.

4. Criticism without the proposal of alternatives is frustrating, especially to persons who are working as hard as they can to solve problems. Nothing in the rule book compels critics to posit solutions to the problems they point out but they must be aware that unwillingness or inability to do so may be met with snarls.

Every prophet should stand in front of a mirror daily and repeat 25 times, "I will not sound sanctimonious, self-righteous or omniscient. I will remember that I am voicing my opinions, not proclaming revealed truth. When someone tells me that I am as full of crap as a Christmas goose, I will remind myself that they just might be right."

Was it Mencken who spoke of those with "unquenchable certitude"?

This world needs prophets, not because they are always right. Not because they perceive truths to which others are blind. Because they call us to what we Franciscans call "daily examen," about who we are, what we value, and how we ought to behave.