Editorial Keynotes

Constructive Criticism Definitely Helpful

L.E.F. is editor of the Ministry.

There has developed among us an unfortunate policy of speaking, in our de­nominational press, of institutions, projects, policies, reports, et cetera, almost exclusively in commendation. No word is breathed, usu­ally, of other than the rosy side—even if an­other aspect is common knowledge, and irre­spective of how one-sided or biased the presentation may appear. There is a constant patting on the back, as it were, and a rehearsal almost entirely of gains, achievements, excel­lences. General warnings and admonitions to the church appear, of course, but not discus­sions of the manifest weaknesses of specific projects and situations. Constructive editorial criticism is unusual, if not indeed virtually taboo by common consent.

But is this really a wise situation; is this a healthy procedure to follow ? Ostensibly done to evince unity and support of the denomina­tional program, it unconsciously betrays in­stead a collusion to exclude criticism, and re­veals a deliberate shutting of the eyes and lips to obvious weaknesses that may need consider­ation. We need, as a body of denominational workers, to learn to appreciate the values of candid discussion, and to utilize the advan­tages of frank, sincere criticism. Yet this we customarily avoid. To many, the plan we ac­tually follow seems to savor of blind endorse­ment that is subject to heavy discount, if not, indeed, to be tinged with an element of hy­pocrisy—for obviously all the relevant facts are not disclosed in such an approach.

There is, in the average man, an instinctive love of fair play that demands knowledge of both sides of a question—acquaintance with the strength and the weakness, the truth and the error, the wisdom and the folly, the pro and the con—that he may himself make a just evaluation. We fail to follow this, to our own detriment. Men wish to form their own conclusions, not to have them handed down for unconsidered consumption.

To illustrate this principle with an unoffend­ing example: It is not a mark of strength, but of weakness, for the book review of a given volume to eulogize its excellences only, with never a word as to its weaknesses, its bias, or its misstatement of fact or teaching, as the case may be. Such a procedure neither gives a just evaluation of the work nor plays fair with those who purchase it upon the reviewer's recommendation. That kind of review really fosters an unwholesome attitude on the part of both reviewer and reader—a sort of arti­ficial protectionism by the reviewer, and by the reader a kind of mental reservation because one cannot but be suspicious of blanket en­dorsements. They sound too much like sales­man talk—leaving one instinctively wondering just what the real facts are.

Such openness of view as is here advocated we have not been used to. Nevertheless, we need definitely to cultivate it. Were it adopted, it would greatly help us. None of us are in­fallible. Our writings, projects, and plans are not without their recognized limitations. This, others know perfectly well. By our silence we are fooling no one who thinks for himself. Therefore we will all be advantaged if greater candor prevails, and if friendly, wholesome criticism be part of our recognized procedure. We would not injure, but actually help, our publishing, health, educational, and ministerial work, or special projects and problems within these distinctive fields, if more of the forum spirit were operative—the open-minded ap­proach that expects all the facts and weighs all the factors, suspending judgment until all the evidence is marshaled.

In all properly conducted conference com­mittees, nominating committees, book commit­tees, and the like, there is an expected open­ness of expression and a refreshing freedom of utterance prevalent. But why should this procedure be reserved for such groups only ? Are not others capable of thinking, and are they not entitled to the same privilege? Where this is absent something is wrong. Indeed, the real value of committee work lies largely in this freedom of discussion before decisions are reached. Where this freedom does not pre­vail, there is an unwholesome fear or restraint in control. A candid consideration of the points of weakness, as well as those of strength, contributes to a far stronger and more united ultimate conclusion than is produced by the presentation of one side only.

Christian charity and toleration for variant viewpoints, with recognition of legitimate dif­ference of view on detail or method, is, of course, absolutely imperative to all true and wholesome unity. There is an instinctive re­volt in the mind of the normal man—though it is usually unuttered—against what seems to be a one-sided presentation. On the other hand, there is a satisfying sense of fairness and justice when both sides are presented and criticism without rancor is encouraged. Try it and see. If we take serious cognizance of this principle and employ it in our various relationships, we will get farther in the end. The results will vindicate the means. The children of this world who employ it are wiser in their generation than we are prone to be.

L. E. F.

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L.E.F. is editor of the Ministry.

May 1940

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