Friday, May 20, 2011

Dealing with Criticism and Verbal Bullying

Inevitably communication between different individuals will suffer breakdowns and facilitate confrontational situations. Frequently these confrontations generate insults and other negative consequences to which one or more parties may take offense. These insults are understandable due to the typically over-emotional charged existence humans have created for themselves, but should not be necessarily excusable; however, why do individuals receiving the insult take so much offense to it? In fact why do people take personal offense to any insult or let it influence their psychological state?

Before addressing the core nature of rational psychological impact of insults one related issue must be addressed. The presentation of a particular externality could be interpreted in such a way to cause offense. For example there have been a number of instances when someone has been offended by a piece of art. However, such offense is misplaced for an individual to even have rational cause to take offense to something the trigger must have the intent to offend. It is unreasonable for an individual to be offended by a piece of art that has no discernable unique structure, but instead is given its form by the interpretation of the individual that is taking offense. There is no inherent intent to offend in such a piece of art instead the individual is finding a subjective reason to be offended. Thus the problem lies with the individual not with the piece of art, thus to put blame on the artist or the artwork itself is foolish.

Most insults move beyond the abstract and easily meet the principle criteria of an insult: intent to offend. The key element in addressing an insult is asking the question of legitimacy. All statements have a basis of perception which is heavily influenced by personal experience and bias; however, this perception does not mitigate the underlying reality of the statement. Therefore, the question of legitimacy boils down to simple accuracy. For example if someone says that Johnny sucks at baseball the element that gives that insult all of its power is whether or not Johnny actually does suck at baseball, not the perception that a single individual has regarding Johnny’s ability. The interesting thing is that if the ‘insult’ is accurate then it is improper to classify it as an insult instead it is criticism.

For the above example suppose Johnny does suck at baseball, then Johnny has no reason to get upset when someone says he sucks at baseball. For Johnny to get upset about a factual statement makes little sense. Does Johnny get upset about the Earth revolving around the Sun? On the other hand suppose Johnny does not suck at baseball, then Johnny has not reason to get upset when someone says he sucks at baseball because he does not.

Johnny has two rational choices if the statement that he sucks at baseball is accurate. First Johnny can accept that he sucks and view that particular aspect as a part of his character. Second Johnny can accept that he sucks and work to change that particular characteristic. If Johnny selects the first action then he should not take offense to that fact that he sucks at baseball because he accepts it as an aspect of his character. If Johnny selects the second action then he should not take offense to the fact that he sucks at baseball because while at present it is true, he is working to correct that aspect of his character, which should actually bolster his confidence because he is willing to grow in a positive way.

If the statement ‘Johnny sucks at baseball’ is inaccurate then there is no reason to get personally offended because the statement is not correct. It is irrational for an individual to get personally offended about someone making an inaccurate statement about his/her character. Now one may argue that the above statement is too simplistic within the confines of the complexities of society. The complexity of society has nothing to do with whether or not an individual at a psychological level is influenced by inaccurate statements about his/her character. In rare situations Johnny may not be afforded certain opportunities because an individual of some power/influence inaccurately believes that he is bad at baseball and that should anger Johnny, but some individual inaccurately characterizing his baseball skills should not personally offend Johnny or affect his psychological vision of self. It is not even a matter of strength of self; individual x is ‘strong’ enough to resist the negativity of others. There is no need to resist inaccurate information because such information should simply be discarded once determined that it is inaccurate.

Another element to the legitimacy issue is the construction of the ‘insult’. The two principle features of this construction are depth and tact. While tact of the insult may be of emotional importance, it is meaningless in the nature of the legitimacy. It makes no difference regarding the overall ability of Johnny’s baseball talent if one states ‘Johnny your baseball skills are craptacular’ vs. ‘Johnny your ability to play baseball is not as proficient as other children your age’. When receiving legitimate criticism (true statements), one would prefer to hear it in the latter format than the former, but overall at the core it does not matter which format is used and if the statement is inaccurate verbal delivery is irrelevant because the statement is inaccurate.

Depth is far more important than tact both at accessing the accuracy of the statement and what can be done to correct accurate criticism. For example between the statements ‘Johnny you suck at baseball’ vs. ‘Johnny you suck at baseball because you are afraid of the ball’ the latter is much more useful because it provides rationality to the statement to confirm accuracy. Depth of the statement also affords an effective measure of deletion for individuals that are ‘insulted’. If one cannot, within reason, access the accuracy of the statement then the statement can be inherently viewed as incomplete by the individual receiving the insult. It is important for individuals to understand that the burden of proof is on those delivering the insult not those that receive it because most insults tend to be stereotypical uncritical emotionally driven nonsense.

Depth also influences the subjective element of some criticism. Certainly it is unrealistic to anticipate everyone liking or disliking a certain person or the way that person does something. Due to this reality criticism evolves in another way beyond the black and white of ‘good or bad’. This third element consists of the ‘quality, but not befitting my preferences’ belief. Clearly someone can behave or perform a task effectively, but do so in a way that does not conform to the way someone else thinks it should be done. Once again expression of this third element is the responsibility of the ‘insulting’ party using a statement such as ‘I am not attracted to that individual, but I can see other people being attracted to him/her.’

As previously mentioned without clarification of either the subjective third element or effective depth to the statement, it is appropriate for the individual receiving the insult to classify the statement as incomplete. Incomplete statements should be viewed as emotionally driven more than likely attributed to the ‘Will to Power’ elements of an individual’s psyche. To wit incomplete statements should be dismissed with no further thought or negative impact on one’s self-esteem.

So what does the above statement about human psychology have anything to do with the present? In recent years bullying has become much more prominent, at least the public’s acknowledgement of bullying for it is difficult to truly gauge whether or not bullying has increased beyond a simple proportional measurement. Unfortunately the principle response offered by society to assist individuals dealing with bullying is the repeated and tired refrain of ‘just stick it out’ most notably materialized recently in the ‘It Gets Better Project’. Basically the solution offered by society is ‘tough it out until your environment changes in a way that lessens the problem’.

The flaw of this solution is obvious, it does not address the psychological mindset of those that are bullied in the context of why these individuals allow bullying to bother them in the first place. Instead of addressing the psychological aspect of the problem and allowing the individual to grow as a person, the ‘It Gets Better’ solution wants to sweep the problem under the rug by offering future hope in exchange for present suffering. The sad reality is that there is no guarantee that it will get better, especially because no ‘roadmap’ is offered to take these bullied individuals, most of time adolescences, to the ‘better place’. Addressing the problem directly not only offers hope for the future, but also lessens to eliminates present suffering. So why does society take such a limited and passive approach? Is society really that lazy?

Finally one of the reasons for this particular blog post was as a reaction to the release of the ‘Mean’ music video by Taylor Swift, which many seem to have associated with an ‘anti-bullying’ message in a similar ‘It Gets Better’ tone. However, such association disappears when listening to the lyrics of the song. The supposed story behind the lyrics is they are a rebuttal against a certain music critic; whether or not the criticism was entirely music-based is not entirely clear. Unfortunately the response in the Mean video does not appear to be helpful because Miss. Swift does not directly address the critic’s critiques.

In using such a strategy one is reminded of the verbal confrontation between John Stewart and Tucker Carlson on the now defunct CNN program “Crossfire” in 2004. Mr. Stewart opened the question and answer portion of the show by criticizing the validity of "Crossfire" as a genuine debate program and political information source. In response Mr. Carlson criticized the seriousness and usefulness of the news commentary provided by "The Daily Show", which Mr. Stewart hosted at the time and still currently hosts. Mr. Stewart appeared to view this criticism as comical because "The Daily Show" was supposed to be satirical and comedic in nature; bolstering this point Mr. Stewart cited that at the time puppets making crank phone calls was time slotted right before "The Daily Show" whereas CNN claimed, and still does, to be the most trusted name in news and Mr. Stewart’s criticism was directly related to not living up to such a boast.

By Mr. Carlson criticizing "The Daily Show" instead of defending "Crossfire" he was basically telling the public that both "The Daily Show" and "Crossfire" were ill equipped to properly disseminate and analyze the news, thus limiting the quality of either show. Mr. Carlson should have instead defended "Crossfire" in effort to demonstrate its importance in the news community and simultaneously hurt Mr. Stewart's credibility to lodge future criticism of similar nature. Miss. Swift seems to have fallen into the same trap as Mr. Carlson, returning fire against the critic personally instead of defending herself against whatever he criticized and in the process stripping him of credibility. Although one can somewhat understand the attack strategy, such a response seems to be more detrimental than beneficial in the grand scheme of things.

Overall bullying and insults boil down to the simple question of legitimacy. True insults can be regarded as criticism which should be addressed by those who receive it by either accepting it or changing. However, most insults have no intention of encouraging an individual to grow by pointing out relevant flaws, but instead attempt to demoralize the individual. In these situations individuals need to acknowledge on a psychological level that these insults are not accurate and should not negative influence their self-perception or character. One could make the comment that such assertiveness regarding self-existence is a tall order for young individuals, even adults themselves.

While true, it is an even taller order when these individuals are not given the tools or encouragement to even attempt to better appreciate their own unique existences, which is exactly how most anti-bullying strategies are carried out. The ‘you are not alone’ stance by itself lack breadth because circumstances between individuals can have high variance. Little effort is made to ask people to confirm their self-worth and genuine character by identifying specific elements in their character to be proud of to bolster self-respect and confidence and what needs to be improved. In addition individuals seeing strong self-assured role models in the public eye, something that has been said for decades but still remains true and elusive, will also support the growth of individuals. Finally each person needs to acknowledge their unique imperfection and every day work towards the goal of ‘just getting better, always working to improve themselves’ not allowing anyone to prevent them from accomplishing this goal because continuing to grow as a person is ultimately the one thing that guarantees a person is important regardless of what anyone else says.

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