One difference between ordinary and public condemnation

[Edit: This is one of those essays where I explain something that might seem painfully obvious to others, because I grasped it relatively late. Or if you’re more cynical, you might say it’s an autist taking commonsense and dressing it up as insight porn for other autists. I tend to work on the “better out than in” theory of writing, for better or worse.]

The most obvious difference between public and private condemnation is the number of people it reaches but that’s not the difference I’m going to talk about today.

I don’t want to be a wanker about it, but the difference I’m interested in is ontological. If I say to you privately “Mr Jones’s affair was disgraceful” I’m judging his actions, indeed I’m judging them quite harshly. However if Mr Jones is still part of my life, and still part of yours, my relation with him will continue to change. He might redeem himself somewhat- or he might make things worse.

If, however, I condemn Mr Jones’s affair and Mr Jones is not part of my life, my rejection takes on a finality it wouldn’t otherwise have, it becomes an assessment of his being. Even if it is not my intention, the gap between “Mr Jones’s affair was disgraceful” and “Mr Jones is disgraceful” becomes thinner. Public criticism is more likely to be received as a criticism of the person.

There’s a number of reasons for this difference.

One, as we have already alluded, is the ongoing, dynamic character of a personal relationship- if a person changes or even just reverts to the mean, we will encounter it. The same is not true of those we criticize publicly.

A second is the comparative indelibility of ink & public record. It is harder to roll back what we have said, hence we will cling to it more strongly and the criticized person knows this.

A third is the way we view those who are distant from us. People who are distant from us are smaller- we do not see that they can contain simultaneously a great deal of both good and evil. Or perhaps it is better to say they’re photographs rather than films, linking back to point one.

To see an ugly photograph of yourself hurts because it can unmake your self image briefly. To see an ugly photograph of your soul can unmake a life.

Yet the irony is that we are more, not less willing, to make public criticism. Because we do not know the target personally, our empathy is reduced, and we have less to fear by way of consequences.

It would be easy to think this kind of criticism only applies to celebrities and politicians- people who can (presumably) take care of themselves. It doesn’t. Anonymous and relatively anonymous individuals are picked out all the time.

Sometimes, often even, this process can be a good thing. Sometimes reputations need to be annihilated. Then again, sometimes they don’t. There is little one can say in general. My hands certainly aren’t clean of either the good or the bad kind of public criticism, I can only hope I’ve been righ mucht more often than I’ve been wrong.

Leaflets dropped from a super hercules
Propaganda leaflets dropped by an American Hercules Bomber. There is a parable I often think of, that criticising someone publicly is like flinging scraps of paper off a mountainside, unknowable in effect and irreversible.

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