Over the past few years I have realized an unspoken challenge to being an academic and social critic. Perhaps it is unspoken because many have not engaged in the introspection to see this dilemma, or perhaps academics do not like to talk about it because there are no easy solutions. I have personally found a way to deal with this challenge but my solution will not be easily adopted by many other academics. Indeed what works for me may well not work for many other scholars. The challenge I am talking about is being a social critic and yet maintaining a healthy mental outlook.
The issue develops because of the nature of being a social critic. Academics who criticize society play an important role. They point out issues that can help us to improve our culture. When that social criticism is combined with social scientific methodology, then we have the advantage of systematically understanding some of the societal shortcomings that need to be addressed. Of course, there is no guarantee that the criticisms will be accurate. There are those academics who are so wedded to an ideology or have an irrational, emotional ax to grind and doggedly stay with a complaint long after it has been answered. But I believe that most academic critics engage in their craft because they want to see social improvement.
Yet the same tools that are so useful in analyzing and criticizing society are not necessarily useful when it comes to having good mental health. My training has taught me to look for the weakness of an academic argument. I have been socialized to question every aspect of scholarly work and ask tough questions. Likewise, it is my job to scrutinize elements in our society to point out weaknesses and ask tough questions about the problems we face. To do the job correctly, one must be ruthless in his/her assessment and willing to honestly point out flaws. But that is not a good recipe for developing relationships or understanding one’s own shortcomings. It is not a healthy way to go through life. That attitude would make one overly critical of his/her friends and pessimistic about the events in his/her life. Few people want to develop relationships with such a critical individual. Furthermore, such pessimism can lead to a distortion of events so that an individual has a problem accurately appreciating his/her life. Thus we practice a perspective that services us well as it concerns social analysis but not as it concerns our interpersonal relationships and our mental health.
For example, consider the issue of gratitude. Mentally healthy people are grateful for what they have. All of us have some aspects in our lives that are good and some that are awful. Focusing on that which is awful is a good way to work yourself into a depression since often depression is anger turned inward. Yet a social critic has to focus on what is wrong to make useful suggestions on how to correct it. Very few social critics talk about what they are grateful for in our society. When is the last time you heard a race scholar focus on the progress we have made. If he or she mentions that progress, it is only a footnote before launching into a diatribe about the continuing racial problems we have in the United States. That is the job of the critic. We need people who constantly hold our feet to the fire and will not let us settle with our current level of success. Those people can push us to a more fair and just society.
But an inability to be grateful would serve that critic ill in his/her personal life. I would not want to hang out with someone who shows little gratitude and I suspect that many people would feel the same way. Such a person would likely be in a constant state of anger which would make him or her unbalanced in perception about life. This person would tend to exaggerate the slights he or she suffers in life precisely because this person does not take the time needed to appreciate the good elements in his/her life. In short, a failure to be grateful can be a ticket to an unhealthy mental life and terrible interpersonal relationships. One can think of other such qualities that are useful for a social critic but if taken into his/her personal life would be devastating for his/her health.
So this is the dilemma. How do we keep the characteristics that are valuable as a social critic from plaguing our own mental health? If we do not maintain those tools as a social critic, then what good are we in that role? But if we became critical and grumpy in our personal lives, then what good are we to ourselves? I suspect that there are many big-time popular social critics out there who are loved by their followers but hated or disdained by the people close to them in their lives. How do we keep ourselves from such a fate?
What works for me will not work for everyone, but I do assert that anyone who is a social critic needs to take seriously the challenges that being such a critic can have on their personal lives. They need to consider for themselves how to maintain their skills of societal critique in a way that allows for them to create mental health and beneficial interpersonal relationships. For myself there are two important factors that help me to maintain relative balance in these issues – my faith and my family.
My faith is the cornerstone of both my ability to be a social critic and to not take those critical attitudes into my personal life. Because of my religious beliefs, I understand the world, and society, as a fallen place. My faith provides a vision of a place of perfect love, perfect morality, and perfect justice. I do not believe we will solve all social problems this side of heaven, but I do believe that we should strive to get as close as possible. So I have a role as a critic to see what I can do to locate the factors inhibiting societal improvement.
The same faith impulse that directs me to seek perfection in our society also reminds me of how imperfect I am. I have messed up in the past and will do so in the future. My faith provides for a grace despite my mistakes and outright intentionally wrong actions. When I recognize that grace, then I have the power to be grateful for what I have in life. I also find myself wanting to extend grace to others in my life because I can relate to the fact that we all fall short of what we should do. They, like I, are fallen creatures in need of grace. Thus I am motivated to turn off the critical eye that I cast towards society when I deal with the individuals in my life. That keeps me sane and bearable to be around.
Over the course of the past few years I have engaged in verbal battle with some of those who commented on my blogs. I will do so in the future. I confess to an impatience for comments that do not deal with the issues at hand, are non-critically reflective or are ad hominem/strawman attacks. The social critic in me provides motivation to challenge such assertions. But in my personal life, I rarely challenge what people do or say unless it is clearly illegal, dangerous to themselves or others, or grossly immoral. If someone personally ask for my advice I strive to be honest, even if it is brutally so, but otherwise I am usually silent no matter how much I may disagree with how someone lives his or her life. That is the personal realm where I want to operate out of grace and not critique. It builds the relationships and social support I need to sustain mental balance and health.
This leads to the second element that helps me to maintain my balance which is my family. I am blessed to be married to a wonderful woman who reminds me of my own shortcomings with her kindness and love. Being in this type of relationship helps me to take my head out of the ivory tower clouds and remind me that someone needs me to stay well connected. She is a constant reminder that I do not have the luxury to live in anger as doing so would hurt her deeply. When you truly love someone, you will not engage in such actions that will bring that person pain. She is also a trusted confidant that I can share with my thoughts and feelings to help me to sort them through.
I am also blessed to be a father. There is nothing like having someone else relying upon you to remind you that you need to work to make the world better. You have your offspring(s) in mind as you consider what is wrong in society and how we address the issues we face. Being a father makes me impatient with solutions that are only focused on furthering some political and social agenda instead of really fixing the problem. I want real solutions for the next generation of my family. But there is also the personal dynamic of being a father. Once again, I do not have the right to allow myself to be in mental disrepair. I need a healthy mental attitude so that I can be a positive influence. Who wants to be raised by an angry man who will turn you into a perpetually angry person? Trust me that issues like this cross my mind if I consider taking a critical attitude into my household.
So for me, it comes back to the basic values I have in my life surrounding faith and family. Both provide motivation to make the world a better place without making myself a worse person. I realize that this is not the formula for everyone. Some people do not have traditional religious faith and/or have not been blessed with a family that keeps them grounded. I do not share what grounds me to instruct others that this is the path they must take. But what all who want to engage in social criticism should do is engage in the self-introspection needed to realize that if one’s personal life is not attended to, then there are dire consequences to our health. Thus those who cannot or will not go the route of faith and family do have a responsibility to locate other ways to maintain their social criticism and yet still strive for a healthy mental outlook. Finding ways to stay grounded will not happen by accident. They will only occur with an intentional effort to section off critical attitudes from one’s personal interactions and mental well-being.