Validation and critique: strengthening your heart

I won National Novel Writing Month today. This may seem like a massive accolade, and to anyone who has ferociously typed fifty thousand words in a month, it is. To those who look it up on the website and who quickly come to realise that everyone who writes fifty thousand words is a winner, the shine may be slightly tarnished. Even so, I complete Nanowrimo year after year and proudly display my certificate online and in my office at work.

To compound my difficulty in getting to fifty thousand words this month I spent the last four days in Aberdeen working long days. During this time a discussion about writing forums erupted on another blog post and I only caught the beginning of it! On reading back the thread on Authonomy that discussed the post and the comments left by other writers and psychologists, I was very pleased to see that the content of the post had caused this discussion.

One recurring theme of the thread (apart from the statements that my blog post was rubbish) was the matter of validation. Emma Darwin has answered this question in depth elsewhere on the excellent This Itch of Writing blog, but for the sake of clarity I’ll outline my opinion, based on personal experience because validation is subjective and linked to the individual, personal experiences we accumulate through lived experience.

I grew up in a working class area and attended a comprehensive school. I was a good student but for various reasons did not go on to university as planned by my parents. I therefore entered the workplace at a no-degree level and worked my way up. I quickly saw that in order to ascent the employment hierarchy more qualifications were needed. I took exams and passed. This validation gave me the motivation to try for better jobs and to start writing as I begun to believe in myself.

I eventually went to university and gained a degree. This was difficult as a single parent but it was, again, validation of my worth. I progressed to PhD level and really began to think. I had to complete a reflexivity chapter for my thesis into qualitative investigation of identity construction and this made me interrogate exactly what my motives were. One outstanding theme was the transition from ‘knowing everything’ to ‘knowing very little’. That is, from demanding my opinion is completely right and defending it no matter what anyone else said, to the ability to listen to others and learn from them. In other words, the ability to be critiqued.

I experienced a particularly difficult time during my final year of my PhD as I was proposing a brand new model of how to study identity. This needed a lot of defending and was critiqued by everyone who read it, including my examiners, who queried many aspects of it. However, these critiques and queries helped me to refine my thesis and write the book Identity, Health and Women: a new perspective that will be published by Pallgrave MacMillan next year. The need for so much review and critique is because of the difference between epistemology and ontology.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge that looks at what is true knowledge and what is false knowledge. Ontology is the study of something that ‘is’ or in terms of knowledge, true knowledge or accepted theory. So what turns epistemology into ontological reality? To cut a very long story short, epistemological knowledge starts off as an idea. It can be any idea or concept. The journey to ontological knowledge is accompanied by peer review, critique and personal review and concludes in a mutual recognition of a fact or theory. There is sometimes confusion over the word ‘theory’ in this sense as this appears to be both epistemological knowledge and ontological knowledge. This is because it is. Knowledge is constantly evolving and rearranging itself courtesy of critique.

An example of this is the theory of relativity. Until recently, Einstein’s theory of relativity was ontological knowledge. Yet chaos theorists have come along and evolved this theory, disproving parts of it. There have been two main responses: disbelief and critique. Those who disbelieve purport to ‘knowing everything already’ as they are sure, without question that they and Einstein are right despite more recent evidence to the contrary, and those who critique are questioning both the epistemological knowledge and their personal knowledge and therefore ‘know very little’.

So, how do we cope with this constant epistemological knowledge shift? Approaches such as postmodernism and post structuralism have scaffolded this lack of fixed truth and provide an explanation of relative truth and concepts created in language to account for the shift. Personally, it is more difficult. Until you have come to the point where you realise and accept that actually you know very little and other people’s idea’s, concepts and arguments can contribute to your own knowledge, then critique will present itself as lies, damned lies and can provoke a fight or flight response where one believes their core beliefs are being attacked. This consequently can provoke a counterattack in the from of an angry statement rather than a questioning critique.

Ultimately, one must strengthen one’s heart by learning more, gaining more validation from the questioning critique of others, as opposed to those who wish to attack with their own ‘truth statements’. Questioning and being less sure one is right can make the bite of critique less bitter and help to tolerate those who fail or refuse to understand one’s position statement. For critique is necessary for the evolution of knowledge, and those of us who publicly theorise or create or innovate must surely expect this relationship with our peers?

Taken from ‘Entirely’ by Louis MacNeice.

And if the world were black and white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
But in the brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.

4 thoughts on “Validation and critique: strengthening your heart

  1. This is fascinating, and connects with my interest in the way that one part of learning is, precisely, becoming aware of how much you don’t know/can’t do, as the inevitable twin of knowing more/becoming more competence: ‘learning to be bad’.

    At one end of the spectrum of competence are the ‘deluded’ X-factor-type ones who have no idea how bad they are by any objective measure. St the other are the terrific ones who honestly don’t think they are as good as they are, because their understanding of the art/craft in which they work is so wide and deep, they chiefly see what they can’t do, and take what they can do so well for granted.

    BTW, the link to your terrific post on fuming on the forums doesn’t seem to be working…

  2. For me, the courage to go forward comes from a concept of validation that is tied to audiences. I can’t expect validation from those who don’t know me, and I can’t expect validation of ideas I haven’t expressed. So I have to put myself out there–and I am in awe of your willingness/ability to do that.

  3. Congratulations! I don’t care if everyone who entered won, you deserve a big round of applause for throwing all your energy into this project, with your usual amount of thoughtfulness, intelligence and passion. Kudos!

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