Over in the world of food, a controversy recently brewed over a review The New York Times’ Pete Wells wrote about a California restaurant, LocoL, which from what I’ve gathered is an attempt to make a neighborhood fast food place with healthier options that will serve lower income neighborhoods. Wells gave it 0 stars, because he didn’t like the food. The restaurant’s founder, Roy Choi, responded with this:
Zero stars. I know many of you want me to respond or snap back at him but the situation to me is much more than that. I welcome Pete’s review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don’t know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever. So I’ll share with you what I wrote to a friend and our team. We got that PMA: “The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve. Doesn’t mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it. That’s the spirit of LocoL. It has nothing to do with my ego. It’s something bigger than all of us. Pete Wells is a component to its DNA. His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections. Also the nerve of challenging the binary structure of privileged thought patterns and how life is not just about what’s a success or failure, but some things are real struggles and growth journeys. We all know the food is not as bad as he states. Is it perfect? NO. But it’s not as bad as he writes. And all minorities aren’t criminals either. And all hoods aren’t filled with dangerous people either. But the pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to.. He didn’t need to go there but he did. That’s why he’s a part of LocoL. The power of this change and this nerve that it hits. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.. Crazy, right? But I see it as a piece to this whole puzzle.” #LocoL #Watts #Oakland
Choi’s response sort of set me off, because it is so emblematic of this irritating type of response to criticism that I see all the time, including in music. It’s when someone thinks that, because the thing they are doing is admirable, it’s exempt from criticism, and anyone who does criticize it is on this fictional “other side” and is an enemy. What Choi doesn’t get is that it’s unlikely Wells strolled into LocoL looking to tear apart this restaurant that clearly is trying to do great things for people. He wanted it to be good, because if LocoL’s food is good, that means it is more likely to make the positive impact is striving for (as the last line of Well’s review reads: “The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it”).
After receiving this criticism, Choi could have taken it and looked to improve his menu. But instead, he does what most people in his position do lately: he went on the defensive, portraying Wells like he was out to get him, and seemingly learning nothing from the review. In particular, I find his implied stance that the quality of his food is somehow irrelevant to his mission to be insulting to his customers.
I respect Wells’ review a lot, because I read so many writers that treat art with kid gloves and would just fawn over a restaurant like LocoL because of its concept instead of its execution. This is understandable: it’s hard to criticize something that is coming from a very honest place, and there’s a lot of external pressure to be positive and nice. But it does a disservice to art and the people who make it to act like everything is great. If anything, something like LocoL needs criticism the most, because it can do so much good if it is done well.
Lately I’ve been depressed over how nobody seems to understand the purpose of criticism anymore, especially younger people who have grown up with the internet and sites like Buzzfeed, which are popular because of their unrealistically positive tone. I can often be overcritical — to the point that it comes off as kneejerk negativity and cynicism — but I do wish everyone was a little more skeptical and a little more willing to dish out and accept criticism.
I remember first thinking this when I was taking creative writing classes in college. I’ll pat myself on the back slightly here: I think I’m a pretty good writer, or I wouldn’t write as much as I do. But I also know I’m not close to perfect, and I often ended up submitting pieces that I wasn’t proud of in these classes. In each session, there was typically a roundtable where we read our pieces aloud, then the rest of the class would critique your work, and invariably everyone would get all Minnesota Nice and only say positive things (I was also guilty of this, because I was too afraid to come off as “mean”). The professors were also rarely any help, as they understandably felt like they couldn’t rip into their students for a variety of reasons.
Eventually, it got to the point where I pretty much tuned out the roundtable, because I knew nobody was going to call out the mistakes I knew I made or give me concrete advice on how I could do better in the future. And I had this wish that someone would finally just be like “Josh, this piece sucks. Here is a list of all the things that are horribly wrong with it.”This would sting initially, but assuming the criticism was reasonable and substantive, I would be glad I received it.
So that is my experience with criticism on a micro level. On a macro level, I’ve recently started to see real consequences that happen when a society devalues criticism. One of my pet reasons for Why Trump Happened is that liberals became too complacent and were unwilling to criticize and improve parts of their platform and message that weren’t working. It became so easy to deride the extreme right wing crazies and feel proud of not being Those Guys that we didn’t stop to look within ourselves at the things we could be doing better. So this isn’t just about art — I think the world would literally be much better if criticism and its lessons were more widely understood.
And of course, now our president is a guy who can’t handle or tolerate criticism whatsoever. Trump’s constant lies and thin skin make him the perfect president for a populace that no longer emphasizes thinking critically and favors comfortable decorum over honesty. In the next four or eight years (oh my god), Trump is going to constantly test America’s ability to think critically and to not believe everything you hear. Let’s hope everyone improves at this very quickly.