Archive for Sunday, July 4, 2004

Commentary: Those who can, do; others just criticize

July 4, 2004


"Did you notice," asked my friend Gen, awash in disgust after a recent meeting, "that the person who criticized the most was the one who had done absolutely nothing to help?"

You bet I did! But I learned long ago that the old adage about leaders and followers leaves out a vocal third group: critics. While usually few in number compared to those who do the actual work, critics have an impact that belies their small numbers because of the volume -- I'm talking decibels -- of their criticism.

And quite often, as in the case of the woman who had done nothing to help, critics show that they haven't been paying attention by suggesting ideas that have either been implemented or tried and failed. In an attempt to head off that sort of after-the-fact criticism while helping plan a class reunion, I wrote in our newsletter that our committee needed feedback during the planning process and if it wasn't offered, "then please don't tell us how we should have done it after the reunion is over."

The strangest thing about critics is that each and every one of them insists that their criticism is "constructive." Yeah, right! How much constructive criticism have you received? Remove the "con" and replace it with a "de" -- that's the kind of criticism most critics deliver. Filmmaker Elia Kazan once aptly described criticism as "a big bite out of someone's back."

It's been my experience that it is easier to accept criticism of ourselves than to listen to criticism of loved ones. My father wouldn't tolerate anyone saying something even mildly critical of my mother. Sister Bette's boyfriend learned that the hard way when he stayed for dinner one evening and suggested that the gravy could use more salt. "Do you want your money back?" snapped my normally mild-mannered dad.

And I remember when the mother of a girl in son Butch's kindergarten class burst into tears during a parent/teacher conference. "I just can't stand to hear my children criticized," she sobbed. I decided then and there that if her kids ventured into politics, I would invest in Kleenex stock and become filthy rich.

While politicians surely rank as the most harshly criticized group (sometimes deservedly so, most times, not), writers -- in my subjective view -- come in for more than their fair share of criticism. I can attest from personal experience that it is possible to interview 16 people and get the same story, but miss the 17th person who will come out of the woodwork with the REAL story the minute the incorrect version hits print.

Alexander Pope, who penned the oft-quoted "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," also wrote a line about critics that is rarely quoted: "And all your courtly civet-cats can vent, perfume to you, to me is excrement." While that last line is certainly a more graphic way of saying "one man's trash is another man's treasure," both explain why Ebert gives a movie a thumb's up, while Roper gives it a thumb's down.

Professional athletes are regularly criticized by Monday morning quarterbacks who have the luxury of not needing to make snap judgments. Faultfinders frequently blame military generals, who would give a lot to have "do overs" utilizing the hindsight their critics have of strategies that failed to work as planned. Shoulda, woulda, coulda! I'm guessing critics who engage in vicious personal attacks on politicians, professional athletes and others who are well-paid for what they do rationalize that if the subjects of their criticism are financially well-compensated, they shouldn't make mistakes.

But how can one explain sharp criticism directed at unpaid volunteers who generously donate their time and talents in efforts to create something good? I've seen women react to such unfair attacks by crying and watched men respond by retreating into stony silence.

Brother-in-law Dick, newly-elected president of his country club, has a great idea that I plan to steal. When someone criticizes a person or procedure, Dick is going to tell them to put their complaint in writing and come to the board meeting where he'll place it on the agenda for a vote. The clincher: Along with their complaint, they must propose a SOLUTION!

I can't wait to hear how those country club carpers react to criticism of their own proposals. If Dick's idea works as well as I think it will, I'd like to see it mandatorily applied to politicians before the November election. THAT should quiet the airwaves!

According to writer Elbert Hubbard, criticism may be avoided altogether. "To escape criticism," he wrote, "do nothing, say nothing, be nothing."

Personally, I'd rather take my lumps.

- Marsha Henry Goff is a freelance writer in Lawrence. Information about purchasing her book, "Life Is More Fun When You Live It Jest for Grins," is available by calling 843-2577 or e-mailing

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