We all offended someone or were offended by someone during the 2017 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship. In several occasions, people expressed criticism of certain groups (the Black Lives Matter movement, Muslim people, the Black Power movement) and of certain ideas (that it is acceptable for art to be offensive, that the label “white people” applies to people from European countries) and their criticism was not well taken by the larger group, to some people’s chagrin and confusion. These criticisms were made in good faith, but they were unnecessarily hurtful.
These criticisms were made in good faith, but they were unnecessarily hurtful.
I offer this essay as a modest, preliminary attempt to clear up some of the confusion regarding when and in what way one should criticize groups that one does not belong to. I also offer this essay with the intention of dispelling the myth that people working for social justice forbid others from criticizing groups to which they do not belong; what is true is that those committed to social justice are often vocal in letting people know when their criticism is inappropriate.
There is a common misconception that identity politics precludes people from criticizing groups that they do not belong to. We are all too familiar with the insidious caricature of the angry social justice activist who will rage over the fact that a member of group X voiced a criticism of a different group Y. From the stereotypical response of our caricature activist we are expected to conclude that people working for social justice are both dogmatic and fragile: they are intolerant of criticism because they cannot cope with it.
Is it necessary to be part of a group in order to criticize it?
I do not know of anyone working for social justice who rejects criticism of a group by an outsider wholesale. Yet, perhaps it is worth positing the question anyway: Is it necessary to be part of a group in order to criticize it? Let us consider three arguments why someone might respond in the affirmative.
- Outsiders to a group do not know enough about the group they are criticizing to provide valuable criticism.
- Outsider criticism is ineffectual to a group’s practices because the outsider does not have any standing within the community.
- Criticism by person A to group B, where A belongs to a group that oppresses group B, reinscribes relations of domination.
These three arguments reflect possible pitfalls that we must seriously consider when engaging in criticism of a group that we do not belong to. Yet I do not think that they are sufficient to claim that one cannot ever criticize a group one does not belong to. All three arguments can be overcome because: 1) it is possible to become knowledgeable about a group one does not belong to (and sometimes all that is needed to engage in constructive critique is knowledge of a specific insidious practice, like harassment of queer people); 2) outsiders to a group can have moral standing by virtue of things other than group membership, and it is also possible for insightful criticism to have “unforced force” regardless of the speaker’s standing; finally, 3) it is not clear that respectful, humble criticism by a person from a dominant social group must reinscribe domination (although I recognize this is a contentious issue).
Is it unacceptable to criticize people other than yourself? Is it unacceptable to receive criticism from others?
By the same token, we must consider that all three possible pitfalls can apply just as easily to criticism of a group made by members of that group: 1) members of a group have varying levels of knowledge about said group; who, then, gets to decide how much knowledge is requisite before voicing criticism?, 2) a person criticizing a group that they belong to might have very low standing within that group, even if they are one of its members, and 3) members of a group have multiple identities, some of which might position them in a relationship of domination over other members of the group. Hence, it seems unlikely that the previous three pitfalls work to exclude criticism by outsiders of a group exclusively.
So, is it necessary to be part of a group in order to criticize it? In theory, the answer is no.
I believe we can provide further intuitive support to our answer by considering a (hopefully) easier pair of questions: Is it unacceptable to criticize people other than yourself? Or the alternative: Is it unacceptable to receive criticism from others? The intuitive answer to those two questions, I presume, is also no. Partly because few things are as mundane as the fact that people criticize one another (although mundaneness is not in itself a good reason). But, more importantly, because it would be hard to prove that, as far as individual people are concerned, the only legitimate kind of criticism is self-criticism, for one would have to prove that external criticism is always misguided, ineffectual or domineering (the three aforementioned pitfalls) if it comes from anyone other than yourself. Proving that something is always the case is very difficult, so we intuitively assume that constructive interpersonal criticism is possible. In the same way, I find it reasonable to assume that constructive critique across group identities is possible. To prove that said critique is impossible is simply far more difficult than to concede that the three aforementioned arguments can be overcome. We should of course be aware of the difficulties inherent to criticizing groups that we do not belong to, but acknowledging difficulties does not entail eliminating criticism altogether, which would be akin to throwing the metaphorical baby out with the bathwater.
Humility about our knowledge of the situation and of our capacity to help should be at the forefront of what we do
In conversation we must see beyond the words being spoken if we hope to understand the realities which are coming into contact. Two people are two distinct universes, each embodying a multiplicity of differing identities, hence the popular advice to be wary of providing advice to others if we do not know them or their situation well. It is the same with criticism: humility about our knowledge of the situation and of our capacity to help should be at the forefront of what we do.
In an effort to provide tools that might aid with conversation that involves criticism across different groups, I offer this advice (each corresponding to the three pitfalls mentioned before):
- Do not criticize another group’s problems if you are ignorant about said group or the history and characteristics of the problem they are facing.
As a rule of thumb, ask yourself: have I read at least a couple books on this subject (or otherwise engaged deeply with the issue) and can I name and explain the work of at least 5 five activists who are working from within the other group to eradicate the problem I have identified? If you cannot do these things, chances are you are not ready to engage in critical conversations about the subject matter.
- Do not try to make yourself the source of a critique that has already been made by people belonging to that group.
Rather, show that you care by working to uplift the voices of the people making the critique internally. You will achieve more this way than by voicing criticism as an outsider.
- Know that a history of domination between a group that you belong to and the group to which you are an outsider creates tension, distrust and difficulties when communicating; if nobody else but you can make a certain criticism, and the criticism is important, make sure to acknowledge your positionality and be mindful of not reinscribing a relationship of domination through your words or actions.
If you have something to criticize about a group that is not your own, state your thoughts in the form of a question because, more often than not, in the process of answering the question will come recognition of the problem
I cannot offer general advice as to what acknowledgment and sensitivity look like because it will depend on the situation; the people who belong to the group to which you are an outsider will be the real experts in how to accomplish these. Finally, I want to share a piece of advice which I found piercing when another fellow shared it during one of our challenging discussions in which criticism seemed to have gone awry: If you have something to criticize about a group that is not your own, state your thoughts in the form of a question because, more often than not, in the process of answering the question will come recognition of the problem; but even if the question does not lead to recognition of a problem, sit down, and know that you have done enough. When to apply this advice depends on the context: in some situations it might be unconscionable for us to sit down, in other ones we might achieve little by forcing recognition of a perceived problem. Our responsibility as critics is to always get better at telling one from the other.