The power of criticism

I Complain by Shtikl. CC BY-NC-SAI live in a country where our local musicians, media, politicians, creatives and the blogosphere share something in common; the abject celebration of mediocrity. I believe that this perpetuates a prosaic environment in which many do the minimum to get by. After all – there is little incentive to be excellent at what you do when you are praised for being average. My intentions are not negative or pessimistic in addressing this issue, however. I want to see clever, creative and ingenious South Africans celebrated and acknowledged on the world stage, and back at home. But this can not happen if we continue to focus on self-reference, think locally and applaud bland and uninspired performances. Criticism is a vital tool for improvement and one that is not employed with enough frequency in SA, as is the case with our environment of generally apathetic consumerism that has led to a generally unacceptable service industry.

Some will say that this is a global problem and I would agree to an extent, but my commitments lie in South Africa, hence my focus on the local situation.

A side-effect of being involved in a medium such as live radio, as I am, means that you are constantly aware of criticism. At the talk radio station where I host my shows we have an SMS line that runs 24 hours a day where listeners can send their messages to add to the on-air conversation. This channel is more regularly used to abuse presenters, however.

On the SMS line I have been called everything from useless to racist. Black listeners have called me a ‘euro pest’ and white listeners have called me an ‘armchair liberal’. The abuse is unrelenting and flows throughout the show. On the flip side, other listeners compliment me. Fortunately the good outweighs the bad. But the bad is very, very bad and often includes personal attacks adorned with expletives.

Now I could let the negative criticism I receive get to me. I have on occasion. And it has dragged my whole being down, along with my show. But I prefer to try seeing it as something positive. My view on life is that negativity is self-perpetuating and unproductive. I have never seen a negative person solve any form of problem. So I’ll have no part of it. Instead I look for the positive in any situation. As such, I see criticism as a seed I am being given by someone. I can swallow it and choke on it, or plant it and unlock the energy it contains. Criticism is fuel. The more I receive, the greater my incentive becomes to improve, to prove the criticisers wrong, to show that I am not shaken. I see my ambition as a fire; there is good fuel and bad fuel but they both help the fire to grow.

A colleague of mine in talk radio, Udo Carelse, has a good take on this. He says that he goes into shows with his “core” and a commitment that it won’t be shaken. I like this description and I am continuously amazed at how Udo manages to remain positive and upbeat at 4 in the morning – even when I know he has had the kakkest of days.

But I digress. My point is that South Africans need to learn to both give and take criticism. And to see it for what it is and accept it from whence it came. And don’t refrain from labeling something as banal, mediocre crap if that’s what you think it is. Alternatively, when criticism aimed at you comes from a drunk moron mouthing-off at 3 in the morning, merely toss it on the fire. But don’t engage. As my friend Daniela always says, “When you wrestle with a pig you both get full of mud – but the pig enjoys it.”

Without criticism creatives in South Africa will continue to be just OK with the few odd exceptions, when they could be great if pushed – or stop what they’re doing if they really are hopeless at it, which would be a desirable outcome too.

Some of our music groups are poop, our official political opposition party is a joke while our governing party is beyond adjective description in its inabilities, and our blogosphere is full of link-loving morons who love marking their own homework. Are you going to sit back and say, “well, at least they’re doing it” or are you going to mouth off? If you aren’t going to target your criticism at individuals, then you can’t whine about the collective.

But make it constructive and try to execute your criticism in a way that encourages the target to grow and improve. Unless that target really needs to be stopped in its tracks.

And give credit where it’s due. We have some good politicians in South Africa. Not many, but some. There are some excellent bloggers in South Africa and musicians that are world-class, to say the least. South Africa has given the world its most expensive female artist and the greatest revolutionary leader of modern times. We are not short on talent, but it needs encouragement. And sometimes it needs to be guided in the right direction with some positive crit.

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I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.