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Learn techniques for criticizing undesirable or unfavorable actions in ways that will gain both respect and support for your cause.

 

  • What is criticizing unfavorable action?

  • Why criticize unfavorable action?

  • Who should criticize unfavorable action?

  • When should you criticize unfavorable action?

  • How do you criticize unfavorable action?

What is criticizing unfavorable action?

In community work, you will often encounter situations where despite your best efforts, someone has taken actions that are unfavorable to your cause or target population. As an advocate, you have to protest and criticize those actions, but in a way that will be heard, and lead to a positive change in the situation.

Criticizing unfavorable action is protesting - usually publicly - action that you believe is unwise, unfair, ineffective or contrary to the public interest. Both your criticism and the actions you might criticize can take a number of different forms.

Some ways you might criticize unfavorable action include:

  • Bringing your criticism directly to those who are responsible - policy makers, CEO's, etc. If there's an opportunity to change the situation by working behind the scenes - i.e., not involving anyone besides yourself and the party who initiated the unfavorable action - it's often worth it to take advantage of it. You eliminate embarrassment and the need to save face for the other party by not alerting the public or anyone else to the criticism, and perhaps increase the chances that your points will be heeded.
  • Directing it to regulators, courts, or other oversight bodies
  • When laws or regulations have been broken or disregarded, or when you've tried the private method and it hasn't worked, appealing to an oversight body - or, sometimes, even the threat of doing so - can often serve your purpose.
  • Informing the public, through the media, fliers and posters, and other avenues, in order to make sure everyone in the community knows what's going on. Your aim here might be to mobilize public and political opinion, to warn the community of a threat, to embarrass the person or entity responsible for the action, to bring to light an illegal or unethical dimension to the situation, or some combination.
  • Holding public meetings to discuss the situation, and further inform the community.
  • Staging public demonstrations to call attention to the unfavorable action and to embarrass that action's originators.
  • Combining two or more of these methods.

Some of the forms an unfavorable action might take:

The majority of unfavorable actions are some variation on this theme. Most of the time, policy makers, officials, or others who set something in motion really do want to address an issue or solve a problem. They may not know what to do, however, or how to do what they know needs to be done. Or, for reasons of politics, economics, or difficulty, they may not be willing or able to do what needs to be done. For example, the "obvious" solution - if we just jail drug users, we'll have no more drug problem - is all too often no solution at all, or only involves the symptoms, rather than the cause of the problem. Those who enact such non-solutions are not bad people who are trying to cause trouble: they simply don't have the knowledge or the background or the perspective that would allow them to see the situation more clearly, and to make better decisions.

  • Action meant to resolve a particular problem or condition may be well-meaning, but ill-conceived. The Planning Board in the Parkersfield situation, for instance, believes that what it's doing is in the best interests of the town.
  • Some entity, public or private, may put its own narrow interests before the good of the community. An elected official engineers a law to benefit his donors, a paper mill decides to dump its poisonous sludge into the river, an institution discriminates against a particular group - these are all instances that cry out for public criticism.
  • Uninformed public opinion may force or support action that harms a particular cause or target population. During the national debate over welfare reform in the US in the 1990's, for instance, a majority of the public thought that welfare and other entitlement programs accounted for a majority of the federal budget, when, in fact, they amounted to less than 2% of it. Public ignorance on this issue led to demands for legislation that some thought would correct the "overspending" on welfare.
  • An action that takes the path of least resistance, or that is really no action at all, may be an indication that a problem is being swept under the rug. Often, the appointment - by a government official or body - of a commission to "study the issue" is just such an action. The commission may take a year or more to do its work, and will then issue a report which, in many cases, is ignored. The appointment of the commission can be seen as "doing something," while the result is the same as paying the issue no attention at all.
  • An action may be an unthinking expression of prejudice or an ethnocentric world view. The proposal of a referendum limiting the rights of gays and lesbians, choosing a demeaning caricature of a Native American as the high school football team mascot, or scheduling a "Brotherhood Meal" for lunchtime during Ramadan (the Islamic month of daytime fasting) are all examples of this kind of action.

These types of actions - and the fact that you find them unfavorable - may spring from profound philosophical differences. Many who support limiting gay rights, for instance, believe they are justified in doing so on religious grounds. Many other controversial issues - abortion, military spending, the role of religion in public life - are rooted in such philosophical differences, most of which have an emotional component that make them difficult to resolve.

It's important to recognize when an unfavorable action is based on religious, moral, and/or philosophical grounds, and to prepare your criticism accordingly. It's unlikely to have much effect if it attacks the opposition's strongly held beliefs. If possible, the best course may be to argue that there are religious or moral principles on your side that represent a more powerful position. (The sanctity of human life is generally considered a more important moral and religious principle than the sanctity of property, for instance.)

Why criticize unfavorable action?

The essential point of criticism is to stop or change the action you find unfavorable. In the service of this overriding goal, there are a number of more specific reasons - several of which might exist in a particular instance - for criticizing unfavorable action:

To inform those responsible for the action, those who have oversight of the action, or the public (or all three) of that action and its consequences.

Criticism of an action is useless if no one realizes that it's happening, or what its effects are.

To question the assumptions behind the action.

Does one individual or group benefit to the detriment of others? Is there a conflict of interest involved? What was the rationale behind the choice of this particular course of action? The answers to questions like these can often demonstrate the real reasons behind an action that is not in the public interest, or that doesn't take some important aspect of the situation into account.

To correct incomplete or false information.

That information may be about you or your cause, or it may simply be mistaken information about the issue. In either case, it may be one reason the action was taken, and therefore needs to be corrected if you're going to stop or change what's happening.

To make clear what's wrong with the action.

"What's wrong" can cover a lot of ground.

Some of the more likely possibilities include:

  • It's based on mistaken premises. The situation has been misinterpreted, or the assumptions behind how it can be corrected or changed are wrong.
  • It won't work well. The research may show that this approach has little or no effect. Or you may know from experience that the action in question comes at the issue in the wrong way - an intervention that's planned without considering the nature of the target population or unintended consequences, for instance.
  • It's too costly or not cost-effective. The costs might be financial, but they might also be measured in physical or other risk, human suffering, logistical difficulty, lack of consideration for the disruption of people's lives, etc.
  • It may clearly be self-serving, of benefit to those who took it, often at the expense of others. A politician pulling strings to see a state contract awarded to a firm run by her husband would be a particularly blatant example.
  • It may actively injure others - physically, economically, politically, or otherwise. An industry practice that causes a health hazard, or a redistricting plan that intentionally disenfranchises a particular group could be targets of criticism, for instance.
  • It may be unethical, or just plain illegal. You may have agreed to take or not take a specific action if another group also agrees to a specific condition, but the other group fails to keep its end of the bargain, even though you do your part. Or an entity may knowingly violate the law, hoping it won't get caught.

To spell out and advocate for what ought to be done instead.

Criticizing an action as unfavorable implies that there is a more favorable course of action. It's your responsibility not only to criticize, but to explain the alternatives, and why they're preferable to what's happening now, and to sponsor their adoption.

To garner support.

Your criticism may or may not have an immediate effect on the situation, but it can serve to build support against the current action, for an alternative or for your initiative, for the target population, or against those who've knowingly taken an action that's harmful, unethical, or illegal.

Who should criticize unfavorable action?

In general, criticism is more likely to be believed and accepted if it comes from a credible source that is perceived as being both knowledgeable and objective. Walter Cronkite, the dean of US TV newscasters during the 1960's and '70's, was known as the most trusted man in America, because no one could imagine him being biased or lying. Once Uncle Walter said that it appeared Nixon had engineered a Watergate cover-up, the President's guilt became believable to much of the public. That's credibility, and it's that kind of credibility that's most valuable when delivering criticism.

Unfortunately, you probably don't have a Walter Cronkite to call on. You can summon people, however, who have experience with the issue, and have a reputation for integrity. They may be members of the target population, those who work with the target population and the issue (e.g., medical professionals), policy makers and public officials, experts and researchers in the field, or just ordinary citizens known and respected for their honesty and fairness - or, better yet, several or all of the above. Whoever they are, they can be effective in conveying criticism of an action that goes counter to the goals of your advocacy effort.

Watchdog organizations and activists can be credible criticizers if they're seen as generally accurate and fair-minded. If they're known as having a political or ideological axe to grind, people tend to take their pronouncements with a grain of salt. If you're offering the criticism, make sure you know what your reputation is, and whether anyone is likely to listen to you. If not, find someone else to be the public voice of your effort in this situation.

Who might actually be your most effective spokesperson depends both on the situation and on whom you're trying to reach. Most people are generally skeptical about the criticism of those who are known to hold a position different from their own. In addition, most people assume, probably rightly, that rabid believers in a particular ideology or political philosophy (see box above) often delude themselves or lie in favor of what they want to see. It's hard to know when they're accurate, and when they're simply trying to support their chosen position.

People respond best to those who seem to be like themselves, who are not known to be in a particular camp, and who are credible or have an air of credibility. Among those who are seen as believable critics are those who have some reason to support the action being criticized (that's why anti-smoking ads featured the former Marlboro Man, who died of smoking-induced lung cancer). Admired people - astronauts, sports figures, and some other celebrities - also tend to be believed. If Michael Jordan had chosen to, he probably could have sold environmental consciousness or AIDS awareness in the same way he sold Nike Air Jordans.

When should you criticize unfavorable action?

The actual criticism of unfavorable action has four elements: timing (when you criticize); magnitude (how severely you criticize, and how publicly and loudly); content (what you say); and tone (how you frame the criticism - anywhere from "the opposition is evil incarnate" to "we're just about in the same place, but we'd like to suggest some small changes.") This part of the section deals with timing. The other three elements are discussed in "How do you criticize unfavorable action?" below. Although we've chosen not to structure the section around these four basic elements, they might provide some Tool Box users with a convenient way to look at the topic.

Guidelines for timing your criticism:

The best time to criticize unfavorable action is before it takes place. Prevention, as the proverb points out, is the best form of cure. Thus, calling attention to the potential for harm if a particular action were to be taken is often the best way to stop it from being taken. Paying careful attention to the discussions and behavior of policy makers, any opponents in the community, and others who are able to take unfavorable action can help you anticipate and react against possible bad decisions on their parts.

Unfortunately, even with vigilance, preventive criticism isn't always possible - you often don't know about a decision to act until it's already been set in motion. Furthermore, preventive criticism doesn't always work: the action may be taken anyway.

Whether you can anticipate unfavorable action or not, speed at responding is important. If you can't stop something from happening, you can still protest it as soon as it happens. If you wait too long, the action will be seen by most people as part of the landscape. It's much harder to change something ongoing than something that's barely started and hasn't had time to gain a foothold in the consciousness of the community.

Protest immediately when a hitherto hidden unfavorable maneuver comes to light. If an action is illegal, unethical, or likely to anger a large number of people, those taking it often try to keep it quiet. When that information surfaces, the appropriate response should be immediate and loud.

Once people realized that police in many areas were officially engaged in racial profiling - i.e., stopping, and often harassing, members of particular groups, especially African-Americans, on "suspicion" - many organizations raised an outcry, the media trumpeted the story, and the practice was declared unconstitutional.

Make your voice heard when evidence - or new evidence - of the unfavorable nature of an action becomes available. As an advocate, you may have tried to stop this from happening in the first place, or you may not have seen the problem with it. If new information makes the unfortunate nature of the action clear, use that information to protest.

Immediate criticism is necessary when time is a factor, and injury will result from the action going unopposed. If the action is likely to cause harm to the community or a particular population - the dumping of industrial waste, the elimination of a children's nutrition program - it has to be addressed before the situation becomes any more serious.

Protest at every opportunity until you turn the situation around. Your criticism, once launched, should continue for as long as is necessary to change what needs to be changed: that's what advocacy is about.

There may be a point beyond which criticizing unfavorable action becomes less promising. A US Supreme Court decision or a law that institutionalizes what you're protesting may make further resistance beside the point. You can continue to criticize and work for change, but the chances of it happening depend largely on the social and political climate.

How do you criticize unfavorable action?

Do your research ahead of time. Unless the unfavorable action is what sets off your effort, you, as an advocate, should be up-to-the-minute on any information that relates to your issue and to the situation in your community. That means:

  • Know the laws and policies that relate to the issue and to the action you're criticizing. The action may be regulated, or may go against precedent or accepted practice, or may be illegal. If you've done the research, you'll know.
  • Know the background of the situation. You'll want to know the history of the issue in general and this situation in particular, including what led up to the action and who made the decision setting it in motion.
  • Know the research on the issue, so that your criticism has substance behind it, and so you can offer reasonable alternatives.
  • Know the community. Who are your allies? Who are your opponents? What is the opinion of the majority in this situation? What is the community likely to respond to?

Make your criticism clear and specific. Don't give your opponents the chance to nit-pick your argument to death. Point out exactly where the problems lie and why, what needs to be changed as a result, and the potential results if changes aren't made.

Couch your criticism in language your intended audience can understand. That may mean using plain, simple English, or using other languages instead of, or in addition to, English, depending upon whom you're trying to reach.

Support your arguments. You may not always be able to prove indisputably that you're right, but you should try to do so when you can. When that's not possible, there are other types of evidence and other arguments you can use.

  • Where facts or solid evidence are available - details of past performance, promises made publicly, photographs or videos of illegal or otherwise unacceptable practices - find and present them.
  • Sometimes, there are no indisputable facts. The appropriateness of the action may be a matter of conflicting philosophies or opinions, or you may have experience and theory behind you that show you're right, but no "proof." In those situations, you can use expert opinion, firsthand testimony from those affected by the action, and/or overwhelming anecdotal evidence to back up your criticism.

Anecdotal evidence - stories of individual instances that illustrate a particular point about an issue - is generally not really evidence at all. Anecdotes are just what they seem: stories of individual instances. They don't necessarily prove any universal truths. The fact that the woman down the block cheats on welfare doesn't mean that all welfare recipients do. Just because one hospital amputated the wrong leg of a patient, it doesn't follow that hospitals in general don't have safety procedures to keep that from happening.

The fact that anecdotal evidence doesn't prove anything doesn't diminish its power, however. Many people - perhaps a majority - find it more convincing than more substantial evidence, and citing anecdotes can be useful in your criticism.

Overwhelming anecdotal evidence can be another story, however. If tens of thousands of people come forward with stories about having the wrong leg amputated or the wrong kidney replaced, then hospital procedures in general can and should be called into question. If hundreds of families in the city become homeless right after welfare reform kicks in, it's a good bet that the system is flawed.

If you're going to use anecdotal evidence, it's preferable that it be overwhelming. While many people may be convinced by anecdotes, policy makers are seldom moved unless there are hard facts to back it up, or unless the anecdotal evidence is strong enough to prove the point by itself.

  • Where appropriate, appeal to common values: fairness, justice, decency, social responsibility, the Golden Rule. If the action withdraws necessary services, threatens the health or safety of a particular segment of the population, forces the powerless to bear the burden of economic or other problems, conflicts with the public interest, or is otherwise contrary to those common values, then those values should be invoked in its criticism.

The issue of fairness is one that can be a problem, since it can mean different things to different people. Conservative politicians often characterize it as "unfair" that the rest of the society should contribute to the support of those in poverty. Many others would argue that "fair" doesn't mean that everyone gets exactly the same thing, but that everyone gets what she needs. Thus, it's not unfair that publicly-funded programs in the US pay for heating fuel in the winter. Rather, it's unfair that anyone should, in the richest country in human history, be in danger of freezing to death because she's poor.

  • Appeal to logic when you can. Sometimes, an action simply makes no sense. If you can point that out, most people will respond. When Ronald Reagan tried to convince the American public that trees were the worst polluters of all, for instance, it was easy for environmentalists to point out that, logically, that argument was silly.

It's important to know your audience here. One person's logic can be another's voice of Satan. What may seem "common sense" to some is appalling ignorance to others. Who is your audience? Are they educated, religious, urban, working-class, native-born, etc? Culture, education level, religious belief, political sophistication (not to mention self-interest), and many other factors can have an effect on what they consider logical. You have to know whom you're addressing to use logical argument to your advantage.

Present clear, understandable, feasible alternatives. Your criticism gains enormous legitimacy if you can present proposals for fixing whatever's wrong with the action under discussion. Whether that involves merely going back to the situation as it existed before, altering the current action in some way, or taking an entirely different action, you should be ready with a plan and a solid rationale for it.

If you can show that your alternative is similar to, but better than, what your opposition says it wants, your position will be stronger. If you can show that your solution is more effective, less costly, deals with the causes instead of the symptoms, or reaches more people (or all of these), it will make it difficult for the opposition to mount serious arguments against it.

Offer to work with opponents to change the situation. In addition to offering alternatives, offer help. You could end up being allies, or at least able to work together.

Assume that your opponents are of good will unless you have evidence to the contrary. As mentioned above, most actions grow out of a desire to improve matters and help people, rather than the reverse. For that reason, no matter how problematic the action itself is, it usually makes sense to follow some guidelines in your criticism:

  • Give your opponents credit where they deserve it. If they initiated addressing the issue, if some part of what they're doing is effective or potentially effective, if they have some good points or interesting ideas, don't be afraid to say so. You'll lessen their ability to accuse you of being blind to reason, you'll demonstrate your integrity, and you'll make them less defensive and more willing to discuss the situation.
  • Attack the action rather than the actor. Criticize the action and its potential results, not the people who made it happen. It may help to acknowledge that your opponents were trying to do the right thing. That might make it easier for them to retreat if your arguments are convincing.
  • Argue against ideas, not people. If the action is based on opinion, philosophy, inadequate knowledge, etc., criticize that, rather than the motives or character of those responsible. It's one thing to say, in essence, "These folks were trying to do a good job here, but they lacked the right information," and quite another to say, "These folks hate poor people."
  • Don't vilify or demonize your opponents. The nastier you are, the worse it reflects on you. Furthermore, in a community, you may have to work with these folks again. They may be your allies on another project. They may even be your allies in this effort once you convince them that their action was misguided. Don't drive them away by accusing them of being evil or mean-spirited.

The awful truth is that, in politics, although both politicians and the public say they're against personal attacks, those attacks often work. Statistically, politicians who broadcast attack ads usually benefit from them, while those who take the high road are seen as weak or unconvincing - or, worse, as having no dirt to smear their opponents with. Nonetheless, in community issues, it's generally a bad idea to make permanent enemies and be seen as a mudslinger. You'll have to live with both the people you attack and your own reputation long after your advocacy effort, or your criticism of a particular action, is over.

The exception here is when the action has been taken to benefit a particular individual or group at the expense of the public good and/or of harm to others. Laws that favor contributors to the legislators who sponsor them, regardless of their economic consequences, or policies that are meant to keep any power from the powerless, for instance, are not actions taken in good will to solve a community problem or to address an issue. They are selfish, unethical, often illegal actions taken for the advancement or convenience of the actor with no regard for their effect on others or on the community as a whole. Those who are responsible should be attacked directly, and held accountable. In these cases, being a pit bull is not only appropriate, but necessary.

Just what does that mean? Is it appropriate to try to ridicule an opponent and make him look like a fool? Is it appropriate to engage in name-calling (anything from "reactionary" to "slimeball")? Should you stand up in a public meeting and accuse an official of lying or of unethical or illegal behavior? Should you ever picket the homes of the Parkersfield Planning Board? The answer to all of these questions is that it depends on the circumstances, but that there are times when these and other aggressive tactics may be the right thing to do.

Use the media and whatever other channels are necessary to broadcast your criticism to those who need to hear it. As always, your message isn't much use if it doesn't reach its audience. Depending on your intended audience and your resources, you might try anything from a full-fledged media campaign to putting up posters on telephone poles and in laundromats.

You might need to use the Spanish-language radio station, or convince the priest at St. Stanislaus to deliver your message to his congregation in Polish. The local-access cable channel may be the way to reach most of the community easily, or you may have to use a number of avenues to get to everyone who needs to hear. In some communities (a university, for instance), a website or e-mail list would be ideal; in others, it would be useless. There may be situations in which word of mouth is the only reliable way to spread information. You have to know your audience and plan accordingly.

Going public doesn't always mean going to all the public. You may not need a full frontal attack to get your message across. If leaflets in one neighborhood will do it, then that's what you should use. If one radio or TV station reaches your desired audience, use that one station. You don't have to start a war in order to accomplish something that you could just as easily do by merely showing your weapons.

Keep at it for as long as necessary. You may be able to postpone or cancel or change the action almost immediately...but it's more likely that you won't. You may have to continue your criticism for some time before you get results. In fact, you may not get results at all on this particular action, but that shouldn't end your criticism or your advocacy. Political climates and public opinion change, but not overnight. Changes take place because advocates keep at it, month after month, year after year. You may have to do the same.

In Summary

Criticizing actions that endanger or run counter to your effort is an important part of your role as an advocate. While the majority of such actions are well-meaning, if misguided, you may also be called upon to react to actions that are self-serving, unethical, harmful to the public welfare, and/or illegal.

The ultimate purpose of any criticism of an action is to rescind or change it, so that it actively serves to resolve a problem or issue, or ceases to do harm. In pursuing that purpose, you might also try to inform the public of the situation, question the assumptions behind the action, correct false information, pinpoint what's wrong with the action, suggest alternatives, and/or garner support for your position.

The best critics of unfavorable actions are those who are perceived as knowledgeable and trustworthy. It also helps if they are seen as similar to the target audience. If they are known to the target audience, either indirectly (celebrities, public figures) or directly (community leaders), that's also often a plus. The choice of a spokesperson to deliver the criticism can therefore be a crucial strategic decision.

When you can anticipate unfavorable action, the best time to criticize it is before it happens. If you can nip it in the bud, you've more than done your job as an advocate. If you can't anticipate it, you should start your criticism immediately on learning of the situation. The less time that passes between the inception or revelation of an action and your protest, the more likely people are to listen to you. Thus, it's also important to make your voice heard immediately when a hidden action becomes known, when new evidence surfaces about the negative results of a particular action, or when it becomes clear that action must be stopped in order to prevent harm. If you're not immediately successful, then your criticism should continue as long as the action remains an issue.

To criticize unfavorable actions effectively, you should:

  • Do your research on all aspects of the situation.
  • Be clear and specific in your criticism.
  • Support your arguments with facts, expert and firsthand testimony, appeals to common values, and logic.
  • Present well-thought-out alternatives.
  • Offer to work with opponents to change the situation.
  • Assume good will on the part of your opponents if you have no specific reason to do otherwise, and criticize the action and its rationale rather than the people behind it.
  • Use the media and other public channels to spread your criticism to your intended audience.
  • Keep at it for as long as is necessary - indefinitely, if need be.
Contributor 
Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Bolder Advocacy has information on both praising and criticizing elected officials on their actions with regard to advocacy.

Constructing Criticism is an article from CBS News that provides five ways to get your point heard.

Dealing with Criticism, written by Gregg Walker of the Department of Speech Communication at Oregon State University, has two lists of guidelines: one for the critic, and one for the individual being criticized.

Effective Criticism Made Easy: Basic Rules for Delivering Negative Feedback to Others by Robert A. Baron.

How do you offer criticism and live to tell about it?, by Bob Rosner, the "Working Wounded" columnist.

How to Give Positive Criticism is an article that appeared in TIME magazine in May 2013, and it gives five tips for effectively giving and receiving criticism.

Public Criticism: Environmental Concerns. A case study of an environmental engineering situation from the National Institute for Engineering Ethics.

12 Ways to Criticize Effectively is an article written by Power to Change.

Print Resources

Meredith, C., & Dunham, M. (1999). Real Clout. Boston: The Access Project.