Column: With criticism, it’s often best to stop assuming the worst

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 19, 2003

When I need some words of wisdom, I usually don’t have to look any further than my extensive VHS archive of &uot;The Simpsons.&uot; For instance, one memorable moment had an exasperated Marge starting to scold Homer for complaining about something:

Marge: &uot;You know, Homer, it’s very easy to criticize …&uot;

Homer: &uot;Fun, too.&uot;

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If you’re a fan of the show, you know about the often-brilliant commentary at work. Homer is used to represent the excesses and attitudes of the masses at their worst, while other characters like Marge are often the voice of reason, or people at their best. This constant interplay is one of the things that makes the show great. And you can enjoy the show on both levels: You can appreciate the satire on a higher level while still laughing at the humor on its basest level.

In this case, one little exchange from one episode illustrates a point that can be applied just about universally. It’s easy to casually blast somebody else’s efforts, but chances are there’s more to the story than we originally imagine or care to understand &045; and there’s usually a good chance we’re being too harsh.

I can think of a few recent examples. So you know I’m not just &uot;casting the first stone&uot; here, I’ll start with me.

There’s been quite an uproar lately about the comments quoted to Sibley Principal Steve Lund in the Tribune regarding paraprofessionals. Upon first reading, a lot of people seemed to think Lund was disparaging these school district employees by suggesting they did not have the ability to teach long division.

The school people seem to think the quote was taken out of context, but I really don’t think it was &045;

no more than any quote in a news story that has to boil a two-hour meeting into an 800-word article. The problem was that it was easy to assume Lund was talking about these people’s abilities, when actually, he was referring to the fact that they are not licensed to teach long division, or anything else for that matter. It’s a key difference.

Not entirely realizing this myself, I wrote an editorial criticizing Lund for the comments. In hindsight, it was an overreaction, although Lund could have chosen his analogies better.

Once in a while, those kinds of misunderstandings happen, and more often than not, they never get straightened out. Other times, it’s less a misunderstanding than an inherent lack of faith in the goodness of others. It usually happens when people assume the worst about other people, either forgetting or refusing to believe that the ones they’re criticizing are probably smart, conscientious people who probably aren’t nearly the villains they’re being made out to be.

Consider our county government. Of course it’s okay to criticize politicians; they’re pretty much accepting that when they run for office. And a good dose of healthy criticism is important to keep people on their toes and get good discussions going. But there is a point at which it gets so over the top it’s almost like self-parody.

Our county commissioners and administrator have done some things that aren’t popular with some people, like get the expensive new courthouse approved and sign the death warrant for the 1954 building. But to hear some of the criticisms out there, you’d think these guys were a bunch of embezzlers lining their own pockets at public expense, laughing as they steal money from old ladies, spitting on young children as they pass by and kicking adorable little poodles in the ribs.

Not every decision they have made is popular &045; true of any policy-making body &045; and there is certainly room for disagreement, but it doesn’t have to get this nasty. Some people should consider the idea that the targets of their ire may have other motives besides bringing financial ruin on the populace just for the fun of it.

There are plenty of other examples. Many people love to criticize Albert Lea City Manager Paul Sparks, for instance; apparently, being around for a couple decades means you’ve lost any right to the benefit of the doubt.

We don’t always have to agree with what others do or say, but it’s a good idea to put yourself in another’s shoes or at least consider other explanations before starting to rip somebody. It’s easier to criticize first and ask questions later, but the easy way out usually isn’t the best way.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at