On the right to criticize without an alternative

On the right to criticize without an alternative
Opinions | Written by: Kasper Herschend | Translated by: Malte Joe Frid-Nielsen | Monday, October 15, 2018

The last few years it has been possible to detect a growing criticism of - and perhaps even outright negativity towards - the transformation our city is undergoing.  Byens Ø, T. B. Thriges gade, etc. The article Bygges Byen Bedre? (Can the City be Built Better?) from earlier this year is just one example of this, while a group like Bevar Siloøen (Preserve the Silo-Island) is an example of a group that might be termed actively critical of transformation itself.

A few months ago, I attended a series of talks about civic activism and urban transformation with a focus on architecture. First of all, I learned a lot by being there. But I also became aware of a dynamic that I hadn’t noticed before: That those who take a critical stance toward modernization and transformation of city spaces are unfairly expected to provide alternative solutions along with their critiques.

The Demand For An Alternative?

By which I mean to say that while a group or individual who opposes a particular political decision may well have a stronger case if they are able to present an alternative, it cannot become a prerequisite that in order to be allowed to criticize a decision, a citizen or citizen’s group must at the same time also be able to formulate a solution which has measurably better outcomes than the original proposal.

Counter Arguments

There are a lot of good arguments to support this stance, but I’m going to present two that I hope can set a proper tone for discussion the next time two conservative city councilors sneak in the back door and hijack an article about urban transformation in order to score a few cheap points on the citizen-engagement-scale.

My ambition with this article is to inspire reflection about political engagement. Regardless of whether the debate concerns our surroundings or the infrastructure and service we get for our tax kroner, we have a right to an opinion about the city in which we make up the population.

The Sudoku Lover

Imagine a random person; or perhaps rather imagine an average person. This average person has an array of skills, among which are an ability to solve Sudokus. It turns out she isn’t entirely average, however, because she loves solving Sudokus and spends 3 hours every weekend solving these Japanese math puzzles. Her constant training has the effect that she is now a mid-level Sudoku-loving Sudoku- solver.

This average Sudoku-lover subscribes to her paper precisely because it has made space in the back pages for no less than 3 Sudokus. She buys the paper Saturday and Sunday and as a result spends a half hour reconfiguring numbers in the squares of each Sudoku over the course of a weekend.

Cross Words

One Saturday morning she discovers to her great disappointment that the three Sudokus have been reduced to one, in favor of an expansion of crossword puzzles over her beloved math puzzles.

She immediately sits down and writes a complaint to the newspaper she had otherwise enjoyed for so long. In this mail she declares that she is prepared to find another paper if they don’t reinstate the three Sudokus and immediately banish the imperialistic word game to the corner which had been good enough for it all these years. On Monday morning, the paper answers that the change is due to a notable drop in the number of Sudoku-solvers among their readership and that crossword-enthusiasts once again outnumber Sudoku-solvers.

Support and Facts

The slightly cheeky customer support employee who is manning the keyboard this particular Monday morning tells the Sudoku-lover that she is very welcome to come up with a better alternative, which he can pass on to the back-page editor. The Sudoku-lover naturally declines, feeling that she has a lost cause on her hands.

But what neither the employee nor the Sudoku-lover know is that recently a number of newpapers and weeklies have been in the process of an aggressive marketing push specifically targeting the Sudoku-solving segment because they actually represent a larger customer base than crossword-enthusiasts.

Thus, the Sudoku-solver had in fact unknowingly presented a better alternative, but since none of the involved parties could evaluate the proposal in light of relevant data, this never became apparent.

Adapted Desires

Another, more academically based line of argument takes its genesis in sociologist and political theoretician, Jon Elster’s concept of Adaptive Preference Formation, which denotes a mechanism in the human cognitive system.

In an oft-paraphrased anthropological study supposedly stemming from the middle of the 19th century, a group of scientists note that slaves in the American south’s cotton fields don’t seem to have a burning desire for freedom. When asked about their wishes, most answer – quite contrary to expectations- things like more food, better sleeping arrangements, etc..

The study has since been taken to show how we humans adapt our desires so that they exist within a more realistic framework. And thereby, that our circumstances determine our desires, which combined with the aforementioned study explains why slaves weren’t able to formulate a desire for freedom until their outer circumstances changed enough to allow it to be experienced as an actual possibility.

The veracity of this supposed anthropological study has been called into question many times, but none the less it serves to illustrate the mechanism which Jon Elster brings up, and which he quite convincingly argues exists in us all.

Incomplete Sketches

When you have to make a decision, you do it from an incomplete list of possibilities. If, for example, I have to move because I am being evicted from my current apartment, I make a list of possible solutions in my head and take my immediate choice from it. In spite of the incompleteness that characterizes this list. I hadn’t considered the possibility of living in Odense’s harbor before someone built apartments there and I hadn’t thought of the neighborhood around Skibhusgade before a friend of mine showed me that this was a place you could actually live; Just to name a couple of banal examples.

Unrealistic Alternatives

I haven’t mentioned Elster merely to point out that we make choices from incomplete sketches of our possibilities, but to bring attention to the fact that there are systematic flaws in the sketches themselves. When in a given political discussion we are asked to propose an alternative, we have to be aware that this alternative - according to Elster – is very rarely visionary, because visionary solutions are by nature unrealistic alternatives.

Obviously it can’t be my duty as an ordinary citizen to have to show  the tax ministry how to run its affairs, in order to be justified in criticizing it. And it cannot be my job as an average person to construct a local development plan that ensures reasonable construction in Odense’s harbor, in order to have the right to say that they currently have the wrong priorities. It is without a doubt my right to present objections toward any – from my point of view – unwise proposed solutions.

The Visionary

And that is precisely the point. Because the slaves who weren’t able to conceive of freedom– whether or not they were fictional –  were no less deserving of it. It has to be ok to voice a criticism, without single-handedly being able to propose your own alternative solution.

The hope is that the Visionary one day hears this cry and helps to formulate a viable alternative. But in order for her to hear it, it is important that the critique be allowed to ring out, loud and clear.

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