Criticism: Reflex or Rationalization?
Recently while hanging out with a mix of local and foreign friends (both long-time residents and visitors) we got on the subject of criticism – of Ukrainians, of Ukrainian society and of criticism in general. Are Ukrainians who have foreign friends immune to the criticism? Do they accept it? What is the limit of such criticism and is there implicit arrogance in it all?
I engage in Ukraine-bashing with friends when specific topics of conversation happen to set us off: poor customer service, lack of attention to detail among professional workers, excess vodka consumption, political malaise – whatever. This bashing often amounts to simply remarking on the mere facts of the case; we have a laugh and then go on about whatever larger issue we were discussing. There’s no ill intent to it; it’s just a matter-of-fact regurgitation of something we saw, experienced or heard.
My fiancée really has a bone to pick with me about this, but her beef with my Ukraine-bashing is unique in the sense that she hears more of my criticism than any of my other friends. She is my best friend and so I relate virtually everything to her about my day and my experiences – from the sublime to the bizarre and the completely idiotic. I rarely spare her the details of this or that thought. However, the more she hears of such things, the more she fights back and either demands we switch topics or she gets on the defensive and responds in kind about the idiocies of life in the West. But that’s just it – I don’t spare anyone or anything from my criticisms.
I am equally appalled by the slovenly and even piggish living and eating habits of Canadians and Americans; of the overbearing tone of westerners in general towards other people (the irony runs thick at such moments when it’s me talking, obviously); of the lack of culture and sophistication among many in the West (this is a moot point, we both admit). Virtually all of my close friends in Ukraine have been foreigners and we brought our western culture of criticism to bear on Ukraine and Ukrainians from Day One. Rather than complain just about life in the West, our new lives here meant we would focus such energies on the ins and outs of life in the former Soviet Union.
From my very egocentric worldview, I see many positives in criticism of Ukraine and of the many classic local examples of people or situations completely lacking in common sense. The Soviet Union utterly lacked social criticism as those who spoke out were often persecuted if not jailed; some even disappeared altogether. And this has also happened since 1991. In the West, I feel that the current climate of political correctness has ruled out many forms of social criticism and, especially in Canada, the media have been terribly compliant in surrendering to big business and government on the notion of free speech, reigning it in so as to not offend this or that group or business interest. But if no one criticizes, who truly benefits?
In the Ukrainian media I can find but a handful of examples of people or organizations actively pursuing a mandate of free speech, of government and citizen accountability and of common sense prevailing in favor of the common good. In general, Ukrainians like to complain, too, but perhaps they just don’t like to hear about it from an outsider. As someone who’s lived here for nearly seven years and experienced firsthand the Orange Revolution, I have a sense of the immense potential of this country like anyone else who’s been around a while and yet see huge problems; I want to speak out and delve into a forum of public discussion. I fear complacency. I revel in open debate. I just wish that a few more Ukrainians weren’t so cynical about the future of their country and would instead carry on the fight started that cold, snowy December morning in 2004 when a few hundred brave souls erected barricades on Independence Square and decided to challenge the government by speaking out about the obviously rigged election results.
A former colleague said that no one in this country wants to be a martyr for free speech. I guess by complaining about the way this country works sometimes, I want to prove him wrong and find someone who actually does. Or at least someone who isn’t afraid to speak their mind.