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Monday, November 24, 2008

A Common Singaporean Fallacy: "Before you criticise someone, make sure you can do a better job."

"Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form." - Karl Marx


One peculiar line of argument that seems characteristically Singaporean* is that one cannot criticise someone else ("A") about characteristic X or in performing task Y unless the critic possesses more of X than A, or is capable of doing Y better than him.

One common example follows: "John should not criticise girls' looks. He isn't exactly good-looking himself". Another is: "You have no right to criticise Jane's piano playing. You can't even play the piano yourself!"

An actual example in the field:

rubicon: "actually, if I don't have a law degree, and a judge makes a legal ruling and I criticize the judge, then I deserve to be called an idiot."

cwchong: "Dude, that's what we call an OPINION.

everyone should be entitled to one, and allowed to express his one... hmm, maybe not in singapore i guess...

by your token, no one can comment on most of the things under the sun...

comment about global warming? are you a geologist? no?
comment about the recent murder? are you a criminologist? no?
comment about societal issues? are you a sociologist? no?
comment about tech stuff? are you a computer engineer? no?
comment about others? are you a psychologist? no?"

One suggested response to this sort of nonsense is "fuck off", but one has to agree that while it may feel good at first it's not satisfying in the long run (though one might note that it has approximately the same chance of convincing the other party). Another is to argue to absurdity: if this argument were true film, book and food critics would be out of a job and we would be wasting our money on bad consumption goods, but this isn't entirely satisfying either.

Moving to responses that target the problem at a deeper level, while one possible response to the first example is that men and women look for different things in partners, and one wouldn't think a poor girl wanting a rich guy or a guy without gynaecomastia wanting a girl with big breasts to be hypocrites, in this blog post I will only consider general answers to the claim: "You cannot criticise A in having X/doing Y unless you have more of X/can do Y better".

Since, as you can see from the field example, those who use this argument typically do not flesh out their reasons for doing so, I have had to explore what they are (or might be) myself: their claim can perhaps be broken down into 2 components: the epistemic component ("if you don't possesses at least as much X as A/can't do Y to A's standard you cannot know what a good standard of X or Y is") and the moral component ("if you don't possess at least as much X as A/can't do Y to A's standard you are a bad person for criticising him").

It is important to note that what one is critiquing here is not the truthfulness of the critique, but whether the person performing the critique should do so in the first place - regardless of how justified the critique is.

I doubt many people have the epistemic objection in mind, so I will just note that being able to critique something does not entail being able to do it. For example, even one unable to boil an egg is capable of enjoying and critiquing fine cuisine: being able to cook is hardly the only way by which one can develop a refined palette.

I will also note that if the epistemic objection held, one corollary would be that one could not praise A for X/Y unless one possessed at least as much X as A or could do Y to A's standard. Not many would thus be able to give a valid opinion about A's X/Y, which doesn't seem reasonable.

On to the moral objection.

People seem to think that only possessing X to some degree or being able to perform Y to some standard gives one moral justification in critiquing those who fall below those degrees or standards.

Yet, take the case where an engineer designs a bridge which gets built, but which collapses on its first day of use and kills 100 people. Surely it isn't the case that no one except a fellow Civil Engineer (indeed, one who is more skilled) can criticise his lack of skill.

Similarly, if a politician, through sheer incompetence, is responsible for the escape of detained terrorists, or implements tax hikes despite there being a budget surplus, even non-politicians who would not be able to do his job better would be justified in criticising him.

Of course, one could always say that what we are critiquing is not their lack of skill or ability, but rather the harm that their lack of skill or ability has caused to others. Yet, it seems self-evident that causing harm would in and of itself would warrant reprobation.

Take a case similar to the first: a man carelessly drives his monster truck into the base of a bridge, and it collapses and kills 100 people. Although the harm caused by the driver is the same as with the incompetent engineer, our criticisms of the two would be different. We can thus see that in both cases, we are critiquing the ability of the individual responsible for the disaster (even if driving *is* easier than engineering a bridge), and not just the harm he causes.

In fact, even in examples where there is no harm, we accept that someone can criticise A in performing task Y even if he is incapable of doing Y better than him.

Take the case of the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Although he often is able to play at least one instrument, he is unlikely to be able to play it better than all of the musicians in that section, and he almost certainly will not be able to play all of the instruments in the orchestra (let alone to a professional standard). Yet, the conductor is the Head Honcho of the orchestra, and no one would dispute his right (his imperative, rather) to criticise or correct the playing of his musicians.

One possible response to this is to say that by virtue of his position, the conductor has the right (or imperative, rather) to criticise or correct the playing of his musicians. Yet, one can extend this argument: the audience of a ticketed concert have the right to criticise the conductor and/or musicians' performance by virtue of having paid for the performance (ditto for those who pay for furniture which sucks). One could even argue that the mere act of public performance opens one to justified criticism: since you are subjecting other people to your talents you have given them the right to critique them. This applies in a broader sense: if someone is in a position to critique your work, you have presumably done it in public and so are subjecting it to the view and evaluation of a wider audience.

I admit that I do not have a response to claims that you cannot criticise A for attribute X if you do not have at least as much of X, but then it is not clear why this claim holds in the first place. Presumably, it is because such a criticism is seen to be implicit self-aggrandisement (e.g. "I am better/can do better than A" or more concretely "My grandmother can run faster than A" - in which case the truth of the statement depends on your grandmother's running ability).

Yet, this is rarely the case. I have not read a movie critic who lambasts a movie's bad pacing and proclaims that he would do much better. Perhaps the use of this argument, then, says more about the meta-critic than the critic.

To say that A does not possess much of X or cannot do Y well is to make an evaluation that A falls below some determined standard ("G"). Regardless of who makes this statement, A still falls below G, just as 2 people in the same place saying that "It is 38 degrees celsius" are either both right or both wrong.

As such, anyone who is cognitively capable of making comparative evaluations is fully justified in making them. Of course, he can still be wrong in making the judgment (like saying it is 38 degrees celsius when it is really 4 degrees), but in that case we would critique the truth value of the judgment rather than the person for making a judgment in the first place.

I do accept that possessing more of X or being able to do Y better than A gives one more authority in critiquing A, but it is not in itself necessary for one to have the right to do so in the first place.

* - I have not observed non-Singaporeans using this peculiar argument, at least online.

On reflection, I realise that this is due to the gahmen canard of telling people not to complain unless they can do better, and to go set up another political party instead of demanding better governmental performance.

Yet another example of how short-sighted political maneuvering is injurious to Singapore in the long run!

Some suggest that this fallacy has biblical roots, but the saying about specks and planks refers to moral condemnation rather than evaluations about abilities or attributes.
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