On criticism

Here are some thoughts on the average person making evaluative statements, as well as professional reviewers and critics opining, pontificating, on all sorts of issues.

You can’t go very long in conversation, without reading some opinion on some issue or other. Often this is a criticism of a group, of a performance, or of some work. It may be done by a professional, in an area where they allegedly have expertise. It may be done by some folks sitting around a cracker barrel at some general store. It could easily be people you’ve met for drinks at a pub, or the group at the next table. There are no shortage of opinions and no shortage of opinionated people.

Now if you agree with the opinions expressed by some commentators you may think that they’re very smart and wise and well-informed. If you disagree with them you may think that there are not very bright, not very clued in and uninformed.

So you might be with a group that is criticizing the singing of Celine Dion. Although many common folk like her singing it has been fashionable for people in the music industry or reviewers to put down her abilities. You will agree or disagree with the critics according to your own musical tastes, and tastes vary.

What I think happens is that critical comments are to a large extent nothing more than rationalizations, or justifications, for likes or dislikes. So if you have an emotional response to something or an intellectual response to something, you will feel you have to justify it. Then you will come up with some verbal description of why you like something or why you don’t. Depending on your training it might be of fairly simplistic take on things, or it might be a very sophisticated argument. But in the end, I don’t think you’re doing very much more than saying “hooray” or “boo”, with commentary to rationalize your feelings.

Your evaluation of some performance will always depend on your previous beliefs, your ideas about the world and your thoughts and feelings towards the topic at hand. It also will depend upon your current state of mind, physical state, emotional state and also depend upon the setting.

I should mention that your physical state could include things such as substances ingested, recreational chemicals, fatigue, medications, physical comfort and undoubtedly other things.

Your emotional state could vary widely depending on what is happened to you during the day, how receptive you are to certain types of performance at that particular time, and again undoubtedly other things. Also there are some standard emotions: fear, anger, anxiety, awe and sadness.  There are many, many more emotional states and I’m pretty sure not all are named or commonly recognized. There are many subtle states of mind that I have experienced in my life that I don’t have a name for. There may well be other states of minds that others experience and do not have a name for.

The setting can alter significantly how you perceive and how you respond to things. In the early days of LSD experimentation, two factors were identified as being relevant to the type of experience you had when ingesting LSD or other psychoactive substances. These were set and setting. I think set refers to our emotional and physiological state. I believe that setting refers to our physical surrounds. We also need to consider expectations as to what might happen. It is clear that the physical setting will alter our perceptions and our emotions, our response. For example if you’re on a beach, sitting by a campfire, listening to a group of people singing, some playing instruments, you will respond differently than if you are attending a concert. If you were to review the performance at these differing venues you would undoubtedly apply different criteria towards evaluating the performances.

So there are usually criteria that can be articulated when evaluating a performance or a work of some sort. However these may be implicit and not articulated. They may be quite arbitrary or they may be based on some theoretical underpinnings. It does not mean that they are particularly good.

In the end, people will make evaluations. Often the evaluations will be critical and sometimes the evaluations will be laudatory. A lot of people making these criticisms will tell a really good story. But like any other type of storytelling, they may give a good story: a story seemingly well supported with facts and a story told well. It does not follow that the story gives us a deeper understanding into the truth, the reality, the essential nature of the situation.

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