The Death of Criticism

By Scott Keith


“To criticize is to find what’s wrong with something, like the improbabilities in a movie’s plot line, or double standards in your father’s rules.”

What does it mean to criticize? The verb criticize in English comes from the noun, critic, and simply means “to act like a critic.” A critic is someone who makes judgments. Its origin is the Latin word criticus, which in turn is no more than the Latinized form of the Greek word κριτικός, which means fit or suitable for deciding, or capable of judging. To criticize doesn’t have to mean negative judgment (think of a glowing movie review from a movie critic), but in the vernacular, when we use criticize we seem to always mean finding what’s wrong, instead of what’s good with something. In short, a critic’s job is to judge.

Our overly politically correct world regards a critic as a villain. Critics are those people who dare to fracture the only remaining universal rule in our postmodern society: they dare to claim that some actions, thoughts, or propositions may actually be right necessarily implying that conflicting actions, thoughts, and propositions are wrong. In short, by criticizing ideas, the critic asks those who hold said ideas to self-examine their own rationale. The critic examines in order to encourage all of us to lead a more examined life. Every society needs its critics to keep it honest, and there are damned too few of them in ours.


We have become a society that seems afraid of its own shadow. Every type of moral decay seems not only permissible, but rather permissively, or even overtly, encouraged. We move to and fro, between debauchery and licentiousness without a word from even the religious leaders of our age. We have given up the right to judge some things as good, true, and beautiful, and others wicked, fake, and dreadful. The goal of the critic is not idol sanctimony. The goal of the critic is self-reflection.

The reality is that every critic lives in the world that he or she criticizes. They too feel the burden of blame for the passivity that surrounds them. They are those few among us who are able to judge what has gone array, and further know that they are to blame if they stand by and say nothing. It is for this reason that the truly virtuous critics will refuse to be influenced by the sometimes-hard reality that their criticism may cause the weak to be offended. This is not because they are insensitive, but because they have weighed the consequences of their criticism in the balance and have assessed the criticism necessary, come what may. Critics know that other societies may be worse than their own, but they critique the failings in their own society nonetheless.


We have lost many of the great cultural critics, though some like Noam Chompsky and Roger Kimball remain with us. Yet even they are marginalized in their ability to criticize a culture, which seems hell bent on its own destruction due to a determined refusal to analyze its own “progresses.” Those who point out our collective cultural flaws are responded to by the mindless mantra: “haters gonna hate.” Without those who are brave enough to stand up and demarcate the inconsistencies in our world, we will devolve into Huxley’s vision of a world so enthralled with its own unquestioned vices, that the only sin we will remember is the lack of iniquity. The world loves to believe that it abhors the critic. But I find solace in the words of Chesterton (as I often do): “What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism.”

The world in which we live is much too sensitive. We believe that the worse harm that could befall someone is that they be called out for their awful behavior or their fallacious beliefs. Rather, the best thing that can happen to us is that we are pushed into actually examining the beliefs we hold. Our unique ability to self-examine, even when we are pushed in to that examination, is one of the things that makes us unique. Criticism makes us all better than we are. The conversations that arise out of criticism are how we hone ourselves as iron sharpens iron. The critic does not solve every problem, or tie up every loose end. The critic shines a light on the smaller details. The critic’s job is to see how the small details of an argument influence the big picture. The reality is that our society, and our church for that matter, needs more criticism. Our culture needs more critics. So I guess that means that we all really need The Jagged Word!