Professor Collini is a professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge University, and in this, his latest book, he looks at the very meaning of criticism, what it means to criticize, and distinguishes the most common understanding of the term (“fault-finding”) with it’s more academic usage, that is the close analysis of a particular subject or text.
Scott McLemee’s short review for Inside Higher Education notes, quite correctly, that in an increasingly poisonous and rancorous atmosphere for the public debate of important topics, understanding the goals and rhetoric of criticism is an important first step to overcoming the resistance to listening to a critical analysis of our own cherished ideas and views. (In the Levensonian language of Modern China, not to let ideas about “what is mine” prevent me from hearing “what might be true.”)
Of course, thinking of this through Levenson, it’s hard not to recall the rather prickly response on the part of the Modern Chinese state (and their supporters and advocates) to recent criticism of their handling of the Nobel Prize. In a recent Global Times masterpiece with the whimsical title of “A Prize for Westerners and Oriental Traitors,” CASS researcher Huang Jisu is quoted as saying:
“We are holding criticism toward our government,” commented Huang. “From my personal point of view, I don’t agree with the majority of Liu’s political opinions.
“But our criticism of the government should be independent from the criticism of the Western world.
“We should criticize based on most Chinese people’s fundamental interest, but not the standpoint of Norway, the US or Japan. Our attitude toward Liu should also be independent from the incident of Nobel Prize award.
Fair enough but do identity politics and the reduction of all identity to our nation or country of origin preclude our ability (if not responsibility) to occasionally speak as global citizens. As Professor Collini argues in his book:
“Criticism may be less valued or less freely practiced in some societies than in others, but it is not intrinsically or exclusively associated with one kind of society, in the way that, say, hamburgers or cricket are. And anyway, different ‘cultures’ are not tightly sealed, radically discontinuous entities: they are porous, overlapping, changing ways of life lived by people with capacities and inclinations that are remarkably similar to those we are familiar with. While there are various ways to show ‘respect’ for people some of whose beliefs differ from our own, exempting those beliefs from criticism is not one of them.”
I like the bit about respect. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the criticism is not particularly respectful, but a lot of it is and the typical Chinese response to any criticism (whining hysterically and pitching a fit) seems somewhat counterproductive to building a bridge for dialogue. Then again, this assumes that the goal of the Chinese government is actually building a better China and not, ultimately, just finding ways to justify and reinforce their hold on power.