[VIEWPOINT]Need to Develop a Culture of CriticismEach time I grade student papers, I recall a teacher from the days of my studies in the United States. Before pointing out defects, the professor always found something to praise first. I am still trying to use him as my role model.
When I was invited to seminars as a novice academic, I believed the proper role of a discussant was to give biting criticism and to ask prickly questions. I tried to make my criticisms more acrid when a person sharing a close personal relationship with me presented a paper.
But I found my relationship with the presenter invariably deteriorated and realized I must be doing something wrong. There is no great difference between young students and mature adults in that both hate to hear criticism. I finally learned the most effective way of offering a constructive criticism was to praise the merits first before pointing to the shortcomings.
It is said that a culture of criticism does not exist in the Korean society because of its clique mentality. Under the prevalent tendency of tightly knit cliques looking after the interests of their members, it is easy to become ostracized if one criticizes his or her own clique or one of its constituents. In such an atmosphere, I think it is commendable that such people as Professor Kang Joon-mann contributed to the establishment of a new culture by calling for the identification of critics by name when offering criticisms. Another contributor is Professor Suh Ji-moon, who had the courage to criticize Kim Yong-ok, the charismatic but controversial scholar and TV lecturer of Chinese classics, by writing critical commentaries in newspapers when other scholars of Oriental studies were maintaining their silence. But unfortunately, such criticisms are failing to develop into a constructive direction.
The call for the use of real names in criticisms is persuasive and has its own merits. But the people who hide their identities during sometimes unreasoned attacks either ignore the proposal to shed their anonymity or respond with more scathing criticism against the proposal.
Easing stress by heaping reproaches on someone you don't like may be one function of criticism, but it ends up as a personal denunciation. The purpose of criticism is to help the society move toward a more desirable direction by generating a constructive agreement between the two parties through active communications.
Experts say constructive criticism should point out the merits and demerits in a 4:1 ratio. They also advice against personal invective, to instead focus on the acts and achievements of those being criticized in order to maintain good relationships.
Some might ask whether it is not premature to talk about an ideal culture of criticism when our society is not acclimatized to any sort of criticism. But criticism that strays from its stated purpose only creates unnecessary conflict, forces people to take sides and end up hurting someone.
It is easy to see how Koreans are stingy with praise from the high popularity of the TV program called "Let us Give Praise." Genuine criticism begins with praise, which means a culture of criticism cannot exist without one of praising others.
Children and adults are not the same in wanting to hear praises?dults crave more flattery the older they get. One professor I know candidly confessed that the older he gets, the more he wants to surround himself with those who only offer compliments. The almost octogenarian President Kim Dae-jung may be the same in wanting to be surrounded by his loyal supporters, as evident from the way he ignored criticism to re-appoint former education minister Lee Hae-chan as the ruling party's chief policymaker and former culture and tourism minister Park Jie-won, who resigned over a financial corruption scandal, as the chief policy planning adviser to the president.
The press should also honestly review whether it has not highlighted only deficiencies in the political sector. After stringently calling for speedy restructuring, the press promotes social unrest with sensational front-page headlines about the rising number of jobless once restructuring got under way. The positive effects of educational and medical reforms are manifested only after a certain lapse of time, but the press stresses the failures of the reforms from the beginning till end. It is no wonder that the government is upset with the press.
If the press wants to fulfill its responsibilities to the public as a watchdog, then it should offer criticism that emphasize both the positive and negative aspects of a policy, and also present alternatives.
Watching the endless conflicts between the press and the government with a heavy heart, I also reviewed my past criticisms of politicians without giving them a word of praise.
It is said the resolution of conflicts begins by looking at an issue from the other person's position. I made a resolution to place myself in the other person's shoes first before criticizing. I also hope the ruling party and the president, who is persisting on his way while blocking his ears to public opinion, learn to be more receptive to constructive criticism.
The writer is a professor of political science at Ewha Womans University.
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