An Essay on Criticism Analysis of the Passage by W.E.B. Du Bois


This essay will interpret and discuss the sociopolitical implications of the passage by W.E.B. Du Bois, set forth above. Although this excerpt is part of a larger work (See, The Souls of Black Folks, Ch. III), the analysis will remain within the four corners of the passage. Consideration of this passage in the context of Du Bois’s broader writing would likely raise different questions and drive different conclusions, but is outside the scope of the assignment. 

Du Bois’s premise that “criticism” is an essential element of discourse in modern society is consistent with the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of American democracy. More specifically, the principle that minority, or even just contrary voices should be heard is embodied in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which implicitly acknowledges that: (1) The free marketplace of ideas (i.e, speech) allows the best ideas to be heard and to rise to the top, even if they are not supportive of the status quo; and (2) The right to speak openly to and about power is a check on the abuse of that power. That said, a closer look at Du Bois’s words reveals notions lurking below the surface that are worthy of explication.

For example, Du Bois speaks only of “critics” and “criticism” as opposed to speech in general. Speech is everything and anything that can be said (including symbolic speech). Criticism, however, is a specific subset of speech. It is more than just being contrary; criticism is (or at least should be) the fruit of analysis, not the product of raw emotion or visceral reaction. Reasoned criticism, combined with objectivity, is the engine of progress (or at least of change-the connotation of progress has a subjective element).

Du Bois goes a step further by referring to “honest” and “earnest” criticism. Honest does not mean accurate or true, it merely means (in this context) subjectively believed by the speaker. Earnest means sincere conviction, which, again, does not mean accurate or true. By omitting reference to accuracy or truth, Du Bois appears to indicate that criticism based on fiction (e.g., “fake news”) is valuable merely because it is believed and stated in earnest. Is this to say we are to be more tolerant of criticism levied by people who believe ridiculous things than by people who say the same things but know they are not true? Conversely, are we to stifle factual criticism if it is presented as a rhetorical argument as opposed to a sincerely held belief? Perhaps the better position is that all fact-based criticism, regardless the motivation, has value; and that its validity as an agent of change will come out in the wash.

Another notion implicit in the excerpt is that allowing the free flow of ideas and opinions will not only insure that multiple and contrary view are considered, but that it will somehow restrain intemperate behavior and enable speakers of a contrarian view to opine calmly, presumably even if their ideas are ultimately rejected. This is an interesting notion, but relegating the freedom to criticize to the role of a relief valve – let the aggrieved blow-off some steam and they’ll calm down – may help maintain stability in the short run, but will eventually lead to heightened anger and possibly revolt once the aggrieved realize they are being duped.

Finally, Du Bois  proffers the idea that criticism by those who are most directly touched by the actions about which they are speaking are most essential to democracy (and to modern society). Is this necessarily true? From the perspective of open criticism as a “relief valve,” perhaps it is, if you assume that those most directly touched are the most likely to openly rebel. On the other hand, being directly affected by a perceived problem does not mean that you are better positioned to provide an effective solution than someone disinterested (and perhaps more objective). You don't have to have to be in a wheelchair to believe that a public space needs to more accessible to those who use one.

As it pertains to the operation of a democratic society, this excerpt is deeply flawed. The “honest and earnest criticism” by a West Virginia coal miner of efforts to reduce carbon emissions is hardly the “safeguard of modern society,” if it is based on a denial of humans’ role in global warming. Honest and earnest criticism is of value to a democratic society only if it is based on fact, on objective reality. Similarly, criticism by those most aggrieved is hardly the “safeguard of modern society,” if it is allowed merely as a relief valve, with no intention of taking action. Criticism by those most affected is only valuable if it is actively considered in the development of public policy. Honesty, earnestness and proximity are important, but less so with respect to the person offering the criticism than to the policy maker figuring out what to do with it.

As it pertains more specifically to “inclusion” and “education,” the general notion of fostering criticism and debate would appear beneficial. Giving every voice, every perspective an opportunity to be heard is both empowering to the speaker and, theoretically, beneficial to the listener. Nowhere is it more important to have a robust marketplace of ideas and opinions than in an educational setting, where one of the goals is to introduce new ideas and perspectives that open the student’s mind and challenge preconceived notions, as difficult and painful as that may be to the listener. It is in this context that Du Bois’s emphasis on “honest’ and “earnest” criticism has real merit. 

There is an ongoing debate in both public education and on college campuses regarding the extent to which students should have a right to be “protected” from views contrary to their current beliefs (or the beliefs of their parents), including views that are inconsistent with their beliefs about religion, or race or sexuality. If the speaker’s beliefs are sincerely held, then it appears that Du Bois would support the right to be heard. Where the speaker’s motive is to cause real emotional pain or incite violence, it would not warrant protection. But motive may be difficult to ascertain, and there is a danger that some speech may be stifled. The balancing of the right to be heard and the right to be free from unwanted speech is a difficult task. Taking all of the above into account, it is my position that censorship in any form (short of screaming “fire” in a crowded movie theater) is wrong, and the only way to truly learn is to teach all how to live in an uncensored world.

 

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