The inability to interpret the exact meaning of criticisms of one’s own ideas is probably the most universal intellectual failing of literate people.
That’s how I probably would have written it when I was young. And I likely would have left it there, satisfied. These days, I’m willing to give it another try or two:
A very common failing: the inability to comprehend the exact meaning of criticism directed against one’s own ideas.
Well, that was shorter. Maybe this:
No failing blights the realm of allegedly literate society more than the inability to interpret correctly criticism of deeply held beliefs.
Perhaps I should marshal a more caustic tone, and immediately expand:
Widespread literacy has not yet produced a people able to meet criticism while retaining basic comprehension skills. Facing a critique, your average intellectual panics and makes a fool of himself. Hysteria is not uncommon; over-reacction, the norm. Forgetting the exact wording before his blinded eyes, the criticized takes up the cudgel to beat back ideas hidden between the words, swinging to destroy intentions not demonstrated and insults not in fact delivered.
Criticism too often sends the poor creature into fight or flight mode, while the better tactic likely would have been to stand ground and sniff the wind. Maybe there was something to the critique after all. Or maybe its import would prove not altogether antagonistic, but, even in error, worth learning from.
The idea being that civilization is best upheld by the cautious, the curious, and the not easily ruffled. Do not signal a fight until the fight must actually be made. A criticism may be an addendum in disguise. Or an attempt at early revision.
And so I continue to struggle to make some sense of the world of ideas in collision.
Obvious criticism of my sentence? Some thinkers in the past have indeed been able to keep their cool in the face of criticism. The historic claim is obviously suspect. The intention of its author (me), almost certainly refers to a bunch of touchy, ill-mannered poseurs on the Internet.
In the back of my mind? Authors who have written letters to magazines defending their work against public criticism. When I worked in the magazine biz, in my very humble position, our policy was to limit author responses to readers’ letters of criticism. So, when I was called a “pipsqueak” by a well-known professional philosopher, we in the editorial room laughed and laughed and laughed. By losing his cool, the philosopher harmed his own cause, not mine. His was the over-reaction (and boy, was it an over-reaction.)
Of course, today’s class of easily offended and self-righteous ideologues interpenetrates many other classes indeed. Taking offense is the new mania, umbrage theater the national pastime.
I have long resisted the pull of the pack, and I try not to “lose it” when facing criticism. But I obviously go into other modes, such as the no-kill-like-overkill explanatory response.
But I still do manage to leave alone and let go at least half of my chances to react. Sometimes I can keep silent, or even resume silence. And then advance a new foray when the fog of disagreement lifts, as it must, over time.
And, I hope, learn from both my errors and others’. There is plenty to learn from.