October 7, 2009
Criticism and Cannabalism = Longer Life
A recent scientific discovery found a strategy for survival that is over two billion years old and exists in all living things. Cells in your body age and wear out (Oh! My aching back!) Dead cells float around your system, gumming up the works, and are one of the factors in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. Another group of cells, lysosomes, see the defective parts and destroy them like a garbage disposal, clearing away the old and using the new to build new cells. As Carl Zimmer wrote in SELF-DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR IN CELLS MAY HOLD KEY TO A LONGER LIFE (The New York Times, 10/6/09) we are all cannibals because our bodies constantly devour their cells and recycle them to make new parts. Self destruction is the way the body stays healthy. When lysosomes stop working, we get sick and die. Isn’t the parallel fascinating between our inner world and the outer world around us? How do we sweep away the debris of dead systems and dead relationships? While our bodies are on constant vigil to maintain health, what is the corollary to the lysosome in special education? A basic tenant of biology is that dysfunctional cells must die and be replaced with ones that work. Special education as we know it must be swept up by a devouring force that simultaneously sweeps clean, while recycling whatever pieces that work into a new and functional body.
That is the phenomenon we face because life cannot continue within a body clogged with waste and inefficiency. This is no conjecture, not philosophy, but a fact about how systems work.
How do we begin? Criticism seems to be the way we complain about what we don’t like or about what we think to be unjust. Alina Tugend summarized the issues we confront in America when using criticism (FOR BEST RESULTS, TAKE THE STING OUT OF CRITICISM, Alina Tugend, The New York Times, 8/29/09).
- Criticism is judgmental and accusatory. It can involve labeling, lecturing, moralizing and even ridiculing. It must have a sender and a receiver. Presently, there is no receiver in special education. Those who get federal or state funding don’t respond to those on the outside. They view themselves as the only stakeholders. We can label and lecture and moralize ‘til the cows come home, but nobody listens and nobody cares. They are immune from the need to clean up the garbage in the system because there is no monitoring agent to cannibalize them. They are safe and their cancer has, therefore, matasticized throughout the fabric of special education. Why? Because there is no organized monitoring system to swoop in and chew them up when they are out of control.
- Criticism involves making negative assumptions about another person’s motives. It reacts to the actual behavior and not to what the person says their intention was. In other words, the criticism is not about what is said, but about what is done. Parents and professionals automatically react to words in an emotional way, assigning intent as to why the person did what they did. The important thing is to target the action, because nobody knows for sure why something happens. It doesn’t help to say, “He doesn’t like me because I’m black.” Or “The town is run by the Mafia and the law firm controls the school board so we don’t stand a chance.” To do this sucks you into a vortex of impressions that waste energy. Criticism must describe what you can prove and what you can see.
- Criticism does not include advice, commands or ultimatums. Essentially, it is (A) “This is what you said” and (B) “This is what you did.” The goal is to focus on the benefits of change. Right now, those in power see no benefit to change because such benefit would leave them unemployed or in jobs they would not do.
- Listening skills and positive feedback are the keys to both giving and receiving criticism, dependent on culture and upbringing. In a study comparing American and Japanese reaction to criticism, Americans found criticism very hard to take, seen as a threat, an attack on self-esteem, or as a violation of social rules. Japanese culture saw self-esteem as important, but improving oneself was more important. In working within the special education system, one sees strong reactions to criticism largely in relationship to the age of the person both giving and getting the criticism, as well as the culture. Younger parents and professionals criticize in more personal ways and often react more strongly than older staff and parents.
- People in their 20s, called millennials, reflect generational differences. Old style management is often more curt and less hands-on. Millennials want to talk to their managers every day and are less able to cope with negative opinions. However, everybody has their inner Charlie Brown insecurity, so that the ability to take criticism and to learn from it requires inner security as to who you are and why you are initiating the criticism.
- Consider the source. Don’t assume the critic is right but stay and listen to what he/she has to say. Try to figure out what is valuable and what isn’t. Don’t argue or apologize. Stay and ask questions to clarify the situation, and try and stay calm.
Criticism is painful, both to give and to receive, but it serves to cannibalize what doesn’t work and to start the process of renewal.
I’ve been criticized by some of the best, and have given my share, too. Much of the criticism received was personal- What is your agenda? What do you really want? Much has been in the form of threats in order to scare me into closing my mouth or to stop the work of change. Recently it is in the form of ridicule by those in their late 20s and early 30s. After a while, though, you can stand back a little and watch the delivery as well as the content of the criticism. The look and facial expression says as much as the words, how the body stands defiantly, how the lip curls. And after it’s all done, after the listening is done, and the receiving is done, it is all about the actions that happen and the transformations that begin. Does the criticism cause change? If not, the act was merely masturbation.
Lysosomes are in every part of the body, so that the necessary cannibalism can occur. It happens locally, regionally or throughout the entire body. Given the current climate, I suggest a local recycling program.