How to Disagree: Amin Maalouf on the Key to Intelligent Dissent and Effective Criticism
By Maria Popova
Long before philosopher Daniel Dennett laid out his four rules for criticizing with kindness, the great Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf addressed the key to intelligent dissent and effective criticism in a passage from In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (public library) — his altogether magnificent exploration of conflict and how we inhabit our selves.
Maalouf, translated here by Barbara Bray, reflects on what his unusual composite identity — born in Lebanon to Christian parents and raised with Arabic as his mother tongue, he emigrated to France in his twenties — taught him about the right to criticize the Other:
The key word is reciprocity. If I try to belong to my country of adoption, if I now regard it as my own country and consider it part of me and myself part of it, and if I act accordingly, then I have the right to criticize every aspect of it. Similarly, if it respects me, if it recognizes what I bring to it and regards me and my characteristics as now being part of itself, then it has the right to reject aspects of my culture that might be incompatible with its own way of life or with the spirit of its own institutions.
This reciprocal right to criticism transcends the relationship between an individual and a culture and applies to just about every aspect of life where different mindsets and value systems come into contact. In a more sincere counterpart to Pascal’s insight into the art of persuasion, Maalouf adds:
The right to criticize someone else has to be won, deserved. If, in general, you treat another with hostility or contempt, your slightest adverse remark, whether justified or not, will be seen as a sign of aggression, much more likely to make him obstinate and unapproachable than to persuade him to change for the better.
Conversely, if you show someone friendship, sympathy and consideration, not merely superficially but in a manner that is sincere and felt to be so, then you may allow yourself to criticize with some hope of being heard, things about him that you regard as open to objection.
To approach someone else convincingly you must do so with open arms and head held high, and your arms can’t be open unless your head is high.
In the Name of Identity is an immeasurably potent read in its entirety. Complement it with Margaret Mead and James Baldwin in conversation about identity and Benjamin Franklin’s strategy for turning critics into supporters.
Published October 9, 2015