When Criticism Goes Too Far
I’m not going to name names or even provide a context for this post, aside that recently, I received some “criticism” of another human being that involved a whole lot of insult or inference and conjecture.
There is a need, in this world, for constructive criticism. However, one of the things I love about Jewish law in particular is governance of lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”). It’s oft-disregarded even among ourselves, but it’s one of our most serious sins. Lashon hara is negative speech against another person which damages them, whether financially or in how other people regard them.
It’s not defamatory speech, because lashon hara is not rooted in a lie. Lies or slander are hotzaat shem ra or motzi shem ra, and that’s an even worse sin than lashon hara.
These all stem from the prohibition against “being a talebearer among thy people.”
Why I love this? We live in a culture that often celebrates “telling it like it is,” and “see something, say something.” Judaism disallows us to consider “being blunt” as virtuous. Jewish law tells us to be conscientious of feelings and reputation before we say something.
What this law does not preclude is sharing truthful information that can prevent harm or injustice. The #MeToo movement, for instance, outing rapists and sexual harassers is arguably not lashon hara.
But when it comes to our interpersonal and community relationships, this Jewish legal framework is very helpful. From Wikipedia I find one of the best descriptive statements of the benefit of our “laws of the mouth”:
Lashon hara, rechilut and motzi shem ra are not accepted social tools in Judaism, because such behavior cuts the person who does in this manner off from many good things in the world around them.
So whither “constructive criticism?” It’s not necessarily lashon hara, but the Chofetz Chaim (Yisrael Meir Kagan) did lay out seven criteria that should be met before offering constructive criticism.
The key one is “did you approach the person privately and provide them the opportunity to respond/fix the situation?”
Once that criteria is established, it’s fair to surface criticism in an institutional setting. However, it still should be limited to what we know to be true, not what we suspect to be true, and our suspicions should still assume the benefit of the doubt.
As I said in my response to the situation that prompted this, after over two decades in the military, I have lost any patience for supercilious criticism or unwarranted assaults on the integrity of other people. I felt this way in the military, when it came to counseling and non-commissioned officer ratings, and I feel this way professionally when it comes to evaluating the performance of employees. Jews in particular have to disabuse themselves of the notion that a blunt approach isn’t widely celebrated in our tradition.