A License to Critique

This summer, amid protests for Black Lives Matter, anti-mask movements, and other instances of social unrest, rapper J. Cole penned the lyrics “My IQ is average, there’s a young lady out there, she way smarter than me / I scrolled through her timeline in these wild times, and I started to read . . . She mad at the celebrities, lowkey I be thinkin’ she talkin’ ’bout me / Now I ain’t no dummy to think I’m above criticism / So when I see something that’s valid, I listen / But . . . , it’s something about the queen tone that’s botherin’ me.” [i] Seen as an attack on a fellow rapper for critiquing his apparent lack of political activities, the song launched a conversation about the right ways to critique people.

Surprisingly, I found parallels between this pop cultural controversy and James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” After the young Miss Ivors confronts Gabriel about not properly supporting the cause of Irish nationalism, he makes a couple digs at her during his dinner speech. Focusing on her status as a member of the rising generation and acknowledging her sincere passion about that generation’s ideals and movements, Gabriel goes on to critique the way she shares those ideas with others. His ultimate “fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to the older day” still feels very relevant today. [ii]

Though expressed in very different styles of writing, over a century apart, one by an American rapper and the other by a (meta)fictional Irishman, the sentiment in both these quotes is the same. They express similar respect for the education levels of their criticizers. They both believe in the sincerity of the women’s causes. They also express a similar annoyance with the tone used to critique them, feeling that their accusers’ educational levels cause them to treat others with disdain. There seems to be an implicit assumption that after reaching a certain level of education, one can’t dare to critique those around them without coming across as snobbish. Both J. Cole’s and Gabriel’s words are interesting to me as a college student in 2020. There are numerous ideas I’m passionate about, and I like to think that my college education helps give me the vocabulary to express these ideas. But though I’ve taken classes on how to construct paragraphs and lines of verse that draw readers in, I’ve never given much thought to the ways in which my education might alienate me from others.

So, what do I do about this? Is there a way to speak about difficult topics in an educated way without coming across as snobbish? The first thought that comes to mind is the importance of one’s tone, speaking in kindness rather than anger. Perhaps the sticking point is not the message but the medium in which it is delivered. However, the idea that how a message is being shared, rather than the message itself, becomes the sticking point is complicated by the actual interaction that takes place in the story between Gabriel and Miss Ivors. Though Gabriel’s reaction might lend credence to the idea that she was angry, Joyce merely describes her as honest, later also drawing attention to her “soft friendly tone.”

If it is really someone’s education or message itself that angers others, can there ever be a way for me to share my ideas with those around me? As I begin to fear there be no way to do so, I recall a term from my Writing With Style class this semester: Licentia. Its Greek equivalent, parrhesia, is a term for what a modern audience might term speaking truth to power. In a series of lectures at Berkeley University in 1993, Michel Foucault explored this concept, drawing attention to a few important parts of the term’s original definition. He described it as “a form of criticism, either towards another or towards oneself, but always in a situation where the speaker or confessor is in a position of inferiority with respect to the interlocutor. The parrhesiastes is always less powerful than the one with whom he or she speaks. The parrhesia comes from ‘below,’ as it were, and is directed towards ‘above.’” [iii] Additionally, he writes about one very important component of this rhetorical practice, namely that parrhesia can only exist “if there is a risk or danger for [the rhetor] in telling the truth.”

Although our ideas of the truth have shifted since Ancient times, I think the concepts of criticism from below and truth are very important to understanding how I can share ideas I’m enthusiastic about as a college student. Rather than thinking that my education entitles me to preach to those around me, I should be aware that there are always things I won’t know, and there’s power in acknowledging that. As Alexander Pope wrote eloquently years ago, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” [iv] Staying humble, both in tone and content, may be one way that I can get those around me to want to listen to the messages I share.

Lastly, there may be something powerful about sharing thoughts that mark me as an outcast or a dissenter. Rather than being afraid of speeches, diss tracks, Tweets or other things being aimed at us, as students and advocates, we can and should take comfort in these criticisms. They show that our words have struck a nerve, that the truths we’re sharing are piercing the hearts that need to be touched. After all, we can’t have progress and change without a couple growing pains.


This post was written by Alixa Brobbey, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[i] Cole, J. “Snow on Tha Bluff,” Genius. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://genius.com/J-cole-snow-on-tha-bluff-lyrics.

[ii] Joyce, James. “The Dead,” Dubliners, ed. Margot Norris (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 177;163

[iii] Foucault, Michel, “The Meaning and Evolution of the Word ‘Parrhesia’: Discourse & Truth, Problematization of Parrhesia,” Foucault.Info. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://foucault.info/parrhesia/foucault.DT1.wordParrhesia.en/

[iv] Pope, Alexander, “A Little Learning.” Retrieved November 8, 2020, https://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/Classic%20Poems/Pope/a_little_learning.htm

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1 Comment

  1. Love the post, Alixa. Hip-hop meets Joyce–what’s not to like?

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