Criticism: a necessary evil
HUMAN BEINGS are by nature critical of each other. Whether dealing with loved ones, relatives, friends, colleagues, even strangers, they look at others and, among other things, find fault with what the individual is wearing, how they speak, what they do, and how they do it.
They even proffer their opinion on what could have been done or should be done in situations even though they have few facts on the circumstances involved.
For those on the receiving end of such criticism, these words can cut like a knife. They pierce the mind and can sometimes do more long-lasting damage than physical wounds.
Whoever came up with the statement, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me” was clearly seeking to get those so affected not to react adversely to criticism.
But anyone who has ever been criticized, especially if it was done publicly, would most likely confess in a quiet moment that those tongue-lashings hurt for years.
Indeed, former Prime Minister Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford has often spoken in pained tones of 1994 when he was the butt of national criticism for taking Barbados into an International Monetary Fund programme, cutting public servants’ salaries by eight per cent, and ultimately losing a motion of no confidence brought against him by the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
Sir Lloyd has maintained that he was unfairly treated, and once vowed to seek vindication even if he had to do so with his last breath.
So criticism hurts, and even politicians, whose stock and trade is being critical of opponents, feel the sting of pointed words.
Despite this, criticism, particularly in public life, is a necessary evil. How so?
In a democracy, the only weapon the public has to confront an elected government is words. They must talk, write, and inevitably criticize what their government is doing as a means of keeping that administration on their toes. In a democracy, there is no other way for people to convey their feelings about policy initiatives.
When people are unable to speak freely, they sometimes turn to sabotage and violence.
This happened in Grenada in 1979 when the New Jewel Movement was denied all avenues to legitimately air their concerns on behalf of the Grenadian people, with some members actually beaten up by the thugs controlled by Prime Minister Eric Gairy called the Mongoose Gang.
This resulted in the English-speaking Caribbean’s first and only successful coup.Conversely, if people are allowed to speak, then that ventilation acts like a valve to reduce the pressure of the situation.
So though an elected government will have its way by virtue of its numerical strength, the opposition and the public must be able to have their say to maintain good governance and equilibrium within the society.
Again, this is why in parliaments the ruling party and opposition face each other. The idea is for them to verbally confront each other to solve issues.
This is certainly how the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) overcame 14 years in opposition and to secure power in 2008. They criticized – that is, analyzed and verbalized their misgivings of the then BLP administration’s actions – so effectively that they convinced the public to oust the BLP via the ballot box and vote them in.
Those elected to power must therefore be prepared to accept criticism, and be vigilant in stoutly defending their tenure. Ministers with key portfolios are often the most maligned, as Chris Sinckler is today as Minister of Finance, and Owen Arthur and Sir Lloyd were during their tenure.
Often the tone makes these criticisms seem personal, but they’re usually not. It’s just people’s way of putting a face to their critique. It also demonstrates how power not only comes with great responsibility, but tremendous expectations as well.
It is for these reasons that commentaries about the state of the economy or whatever matter are usually focused on what the Government is doing.
As those people are in charge, it is their perspective on the particular issue that matters.
The opposition can only talk, but it is only the ruling administration that can implement anything. That is why it is essential that Government respond to matters raised.
Therefore, the general silence on the real issues affecting Barbadians today by Government does not endear this administration to a public who recently re-elected them. At worse, such silence comes over as contemptuous.
Late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
Government therefore needs to stop seeing criticism of their policies as unwarranted attacks. They are a necessary evil and legitimate in a democracy, and are a sample of people’s concerns about the direction of the country.
• Sanka Price is a NATION Editor. Email sankaprice@nationnews.