Without loyalty to one’s own, criticism simply a destructive weapon

A casual scan of academic journals would make an alien reader think Canada is a country committed to genocide and soaked in patriarchal white supremacy

I consider cheering for humans a matter of loyalty. So much so that I’ll cheer even when I know our species is going to lose – which is what happened at the end of War for the Planet of the Apes, easily the summer’s most misanthropic movie.

If it wasn’t for my loyalty to humanity, I might have been happy with how the movie ended. The computer-generated chimps and orangutans are so likable – and so human – that audiences may feel their allegiances shift, a little, and conclude that the planet is better off without humans.

At least I can say I rooted for the right team. Right to the bloody end.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) probably feels differently. Not long ago, the animal rights organization sued David Slater, a photographer, over ownership of a photo that a monkey named Naruto took of himself.

By law, the person who takes a photo owns the copyright. So if a monkey takes a selfie, does the monkey own the copyright?

The court said no, monkeys don’t have bank accounts or rights to ownership.

Unhappy with the sound logic of the judge’s ruling, PETA is appealing the ruling, leading everybody to ask: What do these people have against their own species? Where’s the loyalty?

Similarly, what do people have against their own country?

A casual scan of academic journals exploring Canada’s history, culture and politics would make an alien reader think Canada is a country committed to genocide, soaked in patriarchal white supremacy and forever unredeemable. Not just unredeemable, but illegitimate, fundamentally immoral and deserving of deep, eternal shame.

Who can take these criticisms seriously? What Canadian doesn’t look at their neighbours writing in these journals and wonder if they live in the same country – and if they even want to live here?

Democracies improve themselves through debate and criticism. But often – at least on the fringes where pseudo-academic protest movements make noise – criticism has been run through a centrifuge that separates out the loyalty.

The consequence is dizzying.

Without a sense of loyalty to (or dare I say love for) the object of contemplation, criticism transforms from a tool used to improve and understand into weapon designed to destroy.

Think of the critic reviewing an author he hates. Or the historian chronicling a country whose founding she believes is somehow illegitimate. The critique is prejudiced from the start. It’s partisan.

If you recoiled at my use of the word loyalty, check yourself. Loyalty’s not a dirty word. Without loyalties, it’s impossible to find direction in life, and hard to belong to a place or to a people.

The problem emerges when people place their loyalty in lower rather than higher causes. Like the sniping literary critic who betrays the mission of criticism to expand human understanding through literature. Or the critic of Canada who wants to delegitimize and shame our nation, rather than make this shared project of ours better. Or the politician who’s more loyal to the party than to the people. Or the sectarian whose fanatical loyalties rationalize murder.

C.S. Lewis worried that schools were raising “men without chests” – students who had nothing between their brains and their bellies. No heart, no understanding of virtues like loyalty, no motivating principle. The risk is that without training the heart, students will see nothing worth standing for – or, without loyalty to a higher good, become prey to the propagandists peddling evil.

This isn’t to say critics must take loyalty or purity tests. It’s a reminder that audiences are good as sussing out the critic’s loyalties, and determining whether the critic wants to help or harm.

Or, to paraphrase Confucius, we want our critics to pull at the same thread as we are.

Because when we don’t, we ruin the fabric.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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