Can I offer you some constructive criticism?
Many readers may reflexively cringe at that question, which makes sense. For many of us, criticism feels primarily like a threat. As someone who relies on student loans and wage labour to get by, if I get too much “constructive criticism” from my profs or my boss, I could fail out of school or lose my job, and therefore wouldn’t have money to buy groceries or pay the bills.
Capitalism teaches us to especially fear criticism from authority figures at school and work, but also from our friends, family and other community members. Like losing a job, if we lose our friends and family, we could be stranded without a social safety net that gets us through hard times and makes grinding away at school and work worthwhile.
All this understandable anxiety around being criticized translates to fear around criticizing others, too. We’re trained to people-please, avoid making mistakes and smooth over conflict, so we develop fear around bringing up concerns directly with other people — you wouldn’t want to send someone else into an anxiety spiral.
The problem is that we all mess up sometimes. From time to time, everyone needs a little constructive criticism. No matter how much we try to perfect our tasks or our relationships, we will make mistakes.
The people around us will also make mistakes. People are sometimes forgetful, unkind or ill-prepared. But when we live our lives fearing criticism, it’s incredibly difficult to offer feedback when it’s needed or receive it when we’re the ones who goofed.
All of this creates a tangled web of neuroses. We’re desperate not to hurt each other and we feel like garbage when we do, which sometimes means the injured party must console the one who’s done the hurting. What a mess.
I’ve lived my life as a major people-pleaser, to mixed success. While I try to be a good friend and partner, be thoughtful and efficient at work and school and maintain a genial attitude towards strangers on the bus, it’s impossible to go through life without hurting people.
This year, I’ve started to get involved in community organizing and activism after years of being politicized under the thumb of crappy landlords, living through a pandemic that no one in power seems to care about, seeing friends struggle with crisis after crisis without support and witnessing major world leaders, including our own prime minister, shrug at and enable Israel’s genocidal war on Palestine.
Lives and livelihoods are on the line, but unfortunately, the high stakes of dealing with these crises don’t always bring out the best in people. When conflicts come up among folks I’m organizing with, none of us know how to handle it.
After one particularly heated venting session in the Signal chat, a comrade suggested that I read a book that has since changed my life, Constructive Criticism: A Handbook by Vicki Legion, which I think everyone should read. Originally written in 1974, the book is based on Legion’s work as an organizer in the communist, women’s and gay liberation, antiracist and anti-war movements. Despite the 50 years of separation, the issues Legion deals with in this text feel familiar to me as an aspiring organizer in all of these areas and as a worker under capitalism.
Legion writes about the ways vectors of oppression play into our understanding of the world and the ways we interact with each other, including where and when it can be helpful to engage in criticism. She says it’s best to engage in this process “among friends and allies” — people you’ve committed to supporting and mutually learning and growing with.
A key idea she works with is that “everything changes.” People and material conditions are in a constant state of flux and flow, and we can work to change things in a direction that is more just for everyone.
Changes happen for better or worse when we encounter contradictions and have to deal with them, but they don’t happen smoothly — change can be painful, terrifying and exhausting.
All of our actions and reactions are connected to our social world — we’re trained to react to situations in particular ways, and our environments provide a limited set of possibilities to work with.
Part one of the book sets up a theoretical basis for what follows, and part two is full of practical examples of how to deconstruct knee-jerk passive-aggressive responses to conflict, respond to feedback and ultimately, communicate effectively with friends and comrades. Essentially, Legion re-orients the goal of offering feedback from keeping “everyone feeling good and [keeping] everything running smoothly” to ensuring that movements work effectively for liberation.
Not all of us are organizers or revolutionaries, but the principles Legion outlines — criticizing ideas and actions rather than “separating one person from another,” grounding critiques in “objective observations” rather than bad faith interpretations, describing feelings and identifying their sources rather than suppressing them and expressing what specifically you want to change and what the purpose of that change is — apply to all kinds of conflicts.
Legion also spends a fair bit of time talking about how to receive criticism. When it’s in good faith, criticism can help us grow and change and become better people. When you receive it, paraphrasing criticism to understand it better and to show empathy to someone who makes a more heated criticism can be helpful.
Reacting defensively to criticism can show others that criticism is dangerous, which erodes trust. So Legion recommends receiving criticism, especially from friends and comrades, with the assumption that it is given in good faith.
Ultimately, both giving and receiving criticism is hard but necessary work. We can’t change without coming into conflict. Throughout our lives, we discard old ideas and adopt new ones, learn new skills and create relationships which make things possible that are impossible on our own. A better world is necessary and achievable, if we learn to work on our flaws and help others overcome theirs.
Constructive Criticism: A Handbook is available for free on Marxists.org.