Criticism v. Critique

Critique and criticism are not the same thing. People confuse the two because of their perceived meaning. I see this often on Twitter. Every now and then, there’s at least one person taking offense because they believe I’m being “mean”. These individuals conflate my critique of behavior with criticism of the individual.

Let’s clear up the confusion and define the difference.

What is critique?

Critique is a “…detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.” This definition from Oxford Dictionary mentions analysis of “something”. Not a human, but a “thing.”

In order for a critique to take a place, a person or entity (Person A) exhibits a public display. Another person (Person B), perceives the display and gives critique. Person B asks themself, “does the display perceived match the mental model of what society has taught me?” Finally, Person B critiques the behavior of Person A.

Critique’s goal is to emotionally invest in analysis of behavior to encourage conversation. Critique creates learning opportunities for everyone involved and watching.

What is criticism?

Criticism is the “…expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.” Criticism can involve both a thing and a person. There’s no analysis involved, only disapproval.

There are other definitions for criticism, but most people align with the one provided. It’s what society teaches us and it’s what we recoil from because it’s a form of judgment.

In order for criticism to occur, the steps are in kind to critique. The difference is that Person B must decide how much they want to emotionally invest in Person A’s existence. Behavior doesn’t come into play because criticism doesn’t care about behavior. Criticism is born from having a bone to pick.

The goal of criticism is to emotionally invest in eliciting a response of guilt or shame in the person being criticized. Criticism focuses on pointing out flaws of a person to cause harm. Criticism is about judgment and shame.

Why are the two conflated?

Criticism and critique are oft-conflated because many of us are self-centered. You can see this self-centeredness with strangers on Twitter, with our friends and family on Facebook, and with people we interact with in the physical world.

For example, if I publicly declare that “men are problematic”, a battalion of men will rush to state that they are “the good ones” and how “mean” that is. They compulsively shout that they’re “the good ones” because they believe the phrase applies to them. They reflexively argue I’m mean because they believe the phrase applies to them. If I “criticize” men, and a few individual men are hurt, then that means that I’m open to personal attack, though my statement wasn’t personal.

Besides being self-centered, we’re also narcissistic. We declare “let me live!” as a way to deflect critique/criticism. But if you make public commentary, understand that you’ll invite public critique/criticism. That’s not something you can control. If it were, the world would be an incredibly dull place. Not everything said in the world is about us and for us. Though your world constantly centers you, planet Earth and its plethora of humans don’t have the capacity nor desire to constantly center you.

“Is this criticism?”

What do you do if you find yourself receiving criticism? Our egos cause us to believe that critique and criticism are the same. The first thing to do is to ask questions:

  • “Is this commentary about my behavior/work or about me, as a person?”
  • “If it’s about me, as a person, did I do something to warrant this?” (For example, publicly mouthing off about someone, while foolishly expecting zero repercussions.)

If you’re still unsure, calmly confront the person. Not with an insult and not while foaming at the mouth. You won’t get the answers you’re looking for if you decide to attack.

These techniques are especially useful if you consider yourself an “ally” (I’m trying to remove that word from my vocabulary, we’ll talk about that later) to any community or marginalized group. There’s much more nuance to this conversation than I’ve included here (for the sake of brevity). I’ll expand upon this in a future post.