On advocacy and criticism

This post was originally published January 1, 2020.


I’m not sure why, but I’ve been missing Roger Ebert recently. I’ve posted about him a few times before and commented on my appreciation that he was a film lover first and a film critic second.

I think it’s safe to say that social media has multiplied and elevated critics. I’ve been thinking about the role of critics in addiction treatment and recovery advocacy. I wondered this morning whether Ebert has anything to teach us.

We see an abundance of criticism of mutual aid groups, treatment providers, treatments, advocates, language, policy, media coverage, etc.

So, what should we make of criticism?

Ebert described the criticism of criticism this way:

Criticism is a destructive activity. … They think they know better than creators. They praise what they would have done, instead of what an artist has done.

He goes on to quote Anton Ego, the food critic from the film Ratatouille. Anton offers an important insight about the role of the critic. [emphasis mine]

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.

Of course, Ebert’s observations can only take us so far—art criticism is about the subjective. In addiction treatment and recovery, we all seek to occupy a much more objective space.

We seek to put everything in objective terms—policies, pathways and treatments, as well as the impact of things like language and media coverage. This is good. We all should want policies and practices that are fact-based.

However, I tend to think most critics in our field overestimate what we know (or can know) objectively. These critiques and arguments don’t feel subjective, but they are much less objective than often make them seem.

So … if we’re frequently operating outside of the objective, maybe Ebert has something to teach us about criticism worth doing.

Ebert meditates on the meaning of Anton’s statement and doesn’t agree completely. He questions whether the creation of “junk” is actually more meaningful than criticism of the junk.

He adds the following about criticism worth doing:

[the artist] discovered the new. A critic can defend it, publicize it, encourage it. Those are worth doing. … you must know why you like a film, and be able to explain why, so that others can learn from an opinion not their own. It is not important to be “right” or “wrong.” It is important to know why you hold an opinion, understand how it emerged from the universe of all your opinions, and help others to form their own opinions.

He seems to be saying that good criticism emanates not from interrogation of the subject (or target), but from interrogation of oneself. Further, good criticism encourages others to think for themselves rather than telling them what to think.

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