Those who know me well know that I am an advocate for the precise use of language, and that I have on more than one occasion claimed that there are no such things as true synonyms, as each word has behind it context and symbolism and understood meaning which is different from all others. I am steadfast in the belief that we ought to carefully choose our words and phrases to convey the precise shade of meaning we wish to impart to our listeners and our readers. This is unless, of course, we wish to follow in true hipster fashion and simply use words which had their zenith 50 years ago, simply because their zenith was 50 years ago, or else in the fashion of most television flapping heads and use euphemistic and unimaginative language devoid of any analogies or- in many cases- proper context.
There has been a general devolution in the precision of language as English becomes increasingly Newspeakified as Orwellian neologisms with broad and inclusive definitions win out over more precise, more judgmental phrases (e.g. 'terrorism' being used to define such disparate acts as renegade ideological psychopathy and coldly calculated, internationally organized guerrilla warfare), but one change in definition stands out as being particularly insidious and indicative of troubling changes in our culture.
The word 'critique' (and its derivatives, 'criticism,' 'critic,' et al) has seen its definition subtly shifted. To critique (the verb form) was once understood to mean to carefully analyze both the merits and faults of something or somebody; it meant to rationally contextualize and interpret the subject, and to form an argument about it. In common vernacular, it is now taken to mean a purely negative, superficial undressing for the purpose of drawing attention away from attributes and directing it toward flaws.
More importantly, critiques and criticisms are increasingly being taken perceived as at best needless negativisms, and at worst outright affronts to our modern paradigm of sensitive understanding. In a culture where absurd ideas, such as the notion that all ideas are of equal merit and all opinions are equally justified, are held as dogmatic absolutes, it is easy to see how any scrutiny would be taken as a detriment. Why call attention to flaws if everyone is equally flawed? Why 'tear things down' with analysis when we can 'build them up' with eulogistic flattery (or, increasingly, commercial advertising copy)? Such is the mantra of the Feel Good Patrol, bent on marginalizing and ridiculing those opinions which express any discontent, disapproval, pessimism, cynicism, or contempt.
We live in a society where it is increasingly unacceptable to call attention to shortcomings. There is a teetering balance between (unthinking, automatic) contrarianism on one hand and (unthinking, automatic) universal praise on the other. This balancing point is called criticism- fairly evaluating both the positives and the negatives of the subject and generating either a specific or comprehensive argument detailing the successes and failures thereof. This sort of objective analysis is absolutely necessary for any real progress. Without it, there can be no innovation, no growth, no improvement. Criticism is necessary, yet we are increasingly being denied this opportunity because an ever-weaker-willed population is given to less and less tolerance of it.
When one goes looking for the consequences of this growing unwillingness to withstand criticism, one finds them abundant. The degeneration of pop culture from a slightly watered down artistic expression to a mass-media crapstravaganza (as Louis Kronenberger once said, "the trouble with us in America isn't that the poetry of life has turned to prose, but that it has turned to advertising copy,") can be directly contributed to it.
There was a time (was it really so long ago?) when one could go to a cinema and see a film destined to be regarded as a landmark in filmmaking. The Kubricks and Hitchcocks, Lynches and Coppolas produced epic works of both aesthetic, artistic, and popular merit. Today, the Abramses, Nolans, and Apatows slap together barely coherent rip-offs of tired themes, laden with product placements and special effects which try and fail to cover the woefull chasms in the storytelling, all wrapped up with merchandisnig tie-ins and ready-made, predictable sequels. Since those who dissent are seen as anacrhonistic, or negativistic, the people at large stand unprotected from and unprepared for the onslaught of summer blockbusters. Devoid of true criticism, and in pursuit of box-office receipts from an uncritical population, cinema has descended from an art museum to a theme park.
A dodging of criticism is responsible for the emergence of the phenomenon where anyone with a warbly voice and a guitar is being referred to as a 'singer-songwriter' as well. Bob Dylan's incredible legacy has been devolved into Taylor Swift's pathetic tunes about teenaged break-ups. Seeking 'authenticity,' these pseudohipsters instead produce a mutually indistinguishable series of strummed campfire songs with uninspiring lyrics. Not being a 15 year old female, I cannot say whether hearing hundreds of songs with almost identical chord progressions (though sometimes, in an act of rare novelty, in a different key) with similar sounding singers mewling repetitively about the same 2 or 3 themes is authentic or not, but I do know that it has very little artistic validity. If we didn't live in such a criticism-averse society, perhaps somebody would have told these people, and spared us all.
Most alarmingly, our government is more and more often seen as beyond any (legitimate) criticism. Now, it is a well known phenomenon that partisans are always detractors of the status quo when their opponents are in power and jingoistic when their own party controls the table, but that isn't what I am talking about here. When the purported 'news and analysis' consists of openly biased reporting and opinion discussions, it serves only to reinforce preconceived prejudices. Should a Tea-Partier stumble upon MSNBC (and even more incredibly, should MSNBC put together an intelligent criticism of anything) and see some criticism of his or her opinions that might be objectively valid, he or she will nevertheless dismiss it as being biased because it comes from a biased source. This is true for a socialist and Fox News, et al, as well. Conspicuously absent is any real, objective critiques, and the result is that we are subjected to pulpit-pounding pundits increasing greenhouse gas emissions and depleting worldwide oxygen levels screaming about trumped up stories (does anybody else remember spending weeks on relative non-issues like 'The War on Christmas,' or is that just me?) while massive government power grabs and civil liberties violations (USA PATRIOT act, CISPA, etc) go by almost unnoticed.
It is important that rational discourse and discussion again become a feature of American life. This cannot happen when any disagreement or criticism is seen as antagonistic and mean-spirited. This battle is being fought in our everyday attitudes, and our everyday use of language. Therefore, the best way to move forward is for each of us to consciously seek out criticism and purposefully open ourselves up to both introspection and retrospection.
Language is a tool, and words matter. So long as we continue to use 'critique' and 'criticism' in a pejorative sense to mean contrarian nitpicking rather than intellectual evaluation, people will continue to resist criticism and critiques in popular discourse. We must, to butcher the term, 'take the words back,' and use them in a manner consistent with what they really mean.
We have to be willing to object when we see something objectionable, and feel free to withhold praise when it has not been deserved. Cultural relativism is cultural death; we must be courageous enough to fairly compare the pros and cons of every side, all the while being aware of our own prejudices and defects of reasoning, seeking to correct them as we go. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the 'gregariousness trap.' We all have a right to be different and to have our own opinions, but this does not mean that everyone (or even most people) are right. This is a distinction which must be made.
How do we determine what 'right' is, you may ask? How can we be sure that we ourselves are not the ones who are wrong?
Funny you should ask. The answer is true criticism.