As you can see, my last post "Cigarettes and Seahorses" has generated a fair amount of debate and differing viewpoints. If I said I didn't expect this, I would be lying. However it has surprised me by making me think about the issue of criticism. Let me start by saying that I regret having included a couple of points in the post. First, the comment about Albanians having nowhere to go was a poor generalization. Albania, like anywhere, has people who are extremely industrious and entrepreneurial and people who are just plain lazy and unmotivated. Fortunately, there seem to be more of the former rather than the latter, particularly in places like Tirana and Durres. Unfortunately, there also seem to be a large number of people who have the ability and motivation to do something big, but because of circumstances, they have few outlets or opportunities to put their talents to full use. This is particularly the case with kids who cannot afford (or are not allowed) to continue their education. Secondly, my comments about arranged marriages and blood feuds were cheap shots. It is unfair to criticize a people about cultural artifacts that, while still practiced by a few, are not accepted by a large majority. (These regrets really became clear as I talked with some of my close Albanian friends. My friends are quite patient with me.) Now thoughts on criticism
I think that how criticism is given and how it is received changes between cultures. Certainly Americans and the Japanese have different ways of criticizing and different ideas of what it means to "save face" or protect another person's honor. This being said, I also think there are some universal truths to criticism. If you will indulge me, I will try to explain some of those truths here.
- Criticism is essential. Any person or culture that avoids criticism is doomed to self-destruct. Looking at our deficiencies is essential for us to improve and move forward. One commenter put it well when he/she said, "The only way we can progress is by identifying and acknowledging our weaknesses and trying to find practical solutions to them." Failing to criticize others when you see something wrong is a disservice to them and to yourself.
- You have to see the whole picture. It is much easier to make quick judgments about people, but when you criticize without looking at the whole picture, you tend to miss a lot and sound like an idiot. There may be a surface problem that is easy to criticize, but perhaps there is an underlying reason for that problem. This leads to my next truth.
- Criticizing a brother is easier than criticizing a stranger. This is true for two reasons. First, you know the people who are close to you. When you know the person or people, you are more likely to see the whole picture; the history, the culture, the underlying circumstances. Plus when criticism comes from a person who is known and trusted, it is more readily taken to heart than criticism from an outsider. When someone we don't know or who doesn't seem to "be like us" offers criticism, it is rather easy to dismiss it, whether the criticism is true or not. When the person has lived what you've lived and knows what you know, you are more easily convinced of both that person's authority to criticize and his/her trustworthiness.
- Positive criticism is always more productive than negative criticism. People get tired of repeatedly hearing what is wrong with them. Unless the criticism comes with an attempt at providing a solution or with some point of encouragement, the chances of the criticism truly being heard greatly diminish. One commenter said, "It always amazes me that foreigners who come to another country tend to emphases the "dark " sides of a culture..... Why no generositybout genereosity, sense of community, respect, joy, positivity there is in the albanian cutlure...?" I would agree, unfortunately we tend to look at the negative in order to help us feel better about ourselves. I would also add that we should look at both the positive and the negative. Ignoring one or the other helps no one.
I hope this makes sense because I am still trying to process it all as I write this. Finally, with the knowledge that Americans should worry about America and Albanians should worry about Albania, here is some criticism from an American for any Albanians who may read this.
I know that you probably hear about it a lot, but you really must do something about the littering problem plaguing your country. If you truly are concerned about how others perceive Albania, cleaning up your country is perhaps one of the best steps you can make. Whenever I meet foreigners who are here in Albania, either traveling or on business, the first thing they always mention is how much trash there is and how dirty everything seems. The consensus among foreigners seems to be that if Albanians don't respect their country enough to keep it clean, then why should we respect Albania? So I beg you, Albanians, do something about it! Albania is a beautiful country with great people, but right now there are few people who are able to look past the trash and see that. Tell your family and friends not to litter. Heck, tell a stranger. When you see people litter on the street, stop them and tell them why they shouldn't. The problem is not too big to be solved.