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Op-eds

Criticism is one thing, insult is another

  • Howard Feldman 2018
I gave a talk to the Claremont community in Cape Town over Shabbat on how to embrace criticism. As someone who is no stranger to being on the receiving end, I’m often forced to deliberate whether or not to take the message on board.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Nov 21, 2019

As absurd and perhaps sad as it might sound, over the years, I have developed a method to determine how seriously to take negative feedback. Death threats and pure anti-Semitism aside, my approach is simply to differentiate between criticism and insult. The former might be able to assist me in improving my craft and myself, but the latter – insult – most often has no other purpose but to offend. Insult generally says more about the person than it does about me.

In the course of my research into this topic, I was astounded to learn that the “sandwich feedback” approach is almost always unsuccessful. In essence it’s when we provide positive feedback, then negative, and then positive again. The idea is to bring balance to the discussion. Research, however, shows that the person on the receiving end often perceives the positive to be insincere, and doesn’t even “hear” it because they are so anxious about what might follow.

So, what’s the answer? Very simply, to be direct and fair. The ideal approach is to establish the goal you are trying to reach in the difficult conversation so that everyone is on the same page. Once that’s established, express concern. It’s significantly easier to have the conversation if the person has complimented the other party at other times for a job well done. Then there is more credibility in the censure when it is required.

In many ways, the same is required from us as a community. Criticism and complaining is encoded into our DNA in much the same way as anxiety is. We love to have a good moan, for whatever reason. Whether it is about the SA Jewish Report, the Shabbos Project, Chai FM, the Chevrah Kadisha, our shuls, rabbis, schools, tuition, restaurants, or anything else that we might find not up to our standards. We have the right to complain, especially if it’s to raise standards.

But as the person complaining, it’s equally important to look at ourselves to determine if we are trying to improve the subject of our complaint or if we are just venting in order to insult and cause pain. If the latter is our truth, then we need to understand what our motivation is.

More than this, we need to consider if we have paid a compliment to the organisation at other times. Did we give credit where and when it was due, or did we remain silent? Did we compliment the organisers of the Shabbos Project for the incredible work they did, or did we just become vocal when we didn’t like an aspect of the weekend?

Do we commend Maharsha School for lowering school fees, or do we look to denigrate it because it makes us feel better about the fees we are paying? Do we tell our community rabbi and friends when we enjoy a sermon or just mumble to the person next to us when we don’t? The same applies to conversations with our children, our spouses, partners, and even conversations with ourselves – we are, after all, in general our own harshest critics.

I’m not suggesting that it’s an easy balance to achieve. As a social commentator, I know this well. Whereas I try and attain some sort of equilibrium of fairness, I probably don’t succeed fully.

What I’m suggesting – or asking in this column – is that you join me in that struggle. I should also possibly add that sending a message that, “It’s because of you that Jews get killed” contributes as much to conversation as does photoshopping me into a gas chamber with the words, “Coming soon”. It has an impact, but it’s not going to be taken seriously.

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