Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been much criticism. It has been levelled at almost everyone involved from all corners. But, why does it happen? Is it justified? Is it helpful?


What is criticism, why do we criticise? Criticism is the act of passing judgement on something. For me, there are three variants of criticism, each with its own characteristics and purpose. I will call them Malign Criticism, Reactive Criticism and Considered Criticism.

Malign criticism is intended to demean and hurt. It is based on a dislike or distrust of the person being criticised. The critic opposes the intentions and motivation of the object of the criticism to the point that anything they do must be wrong and must be criticised. It is aimed more often at the person than the action, questioning their character, integrity and morals. It uses tactics of ridicule, sarcasm, mockery and derision. It is a personal attack with the intention of undermining credibility and trust in the minds of others. It can be the result of a conscious, calculated campaign of opposition, or it can be an unconscious response based on entrenched attitude.

Considered criticism is the conscious, rational examination, analysis, conclusion and response to other people’s views or actions. It is free of emotional influence, based on facts and evidence, the result of careful consideration. This critic will avoid personalising their criticism, remain objective and try their hardest not to cause offence. It is essentially collaborative and constructive.

Reactive criticism is the most common form. We all indulge in it from time to time and, for some, it is almost a way of life. Reactive criticism is an emotional response, usually unconscious, to any action or behaviour that, in some way, evokes negative feelings within ourselves. We criticise others when something they say or do makes us feel bad or offends us. We criticise ourselves when our own actions have unfortunate consequences and make us feel bad. Sometimes we are critical of our own thoughts even though we have not actually done anything. Evidence reveals that those most critical of others are also most critical of themselves.

Why criticise?

Humans are nothing if not purposeful. We conserve our energy and only exert effort with a reason for doing so. Why would we use up our energy on criticism, what is its purpose?

Malign criticism has the purpose of inflicting harm on the opposition, our competitors, our rivals, our perceived enemies. Its aim is to rally our allies against the common foe. It is about power, competition and winning. It is about proving ourselves right and the object of our criticism wrong. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the favoured weapons of politicians and the media. It can also be used by one person as a weapon to dominate, control and manipulate another. A well-known US President has turned it into an art form.

Considered criticism on the other hand is intended to further debate in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The outcome may be an argument which contradicts a stated position but that argument will not be intended to hurt or demean any other person. That may be an unfortunate outcome but will not be the purpose. This form of criticism is commonly found in the arts and science.

Reactive criticism, despite being the most common form, is the most difficult to explain. Superficially, it seems to serve no purpose at all, rarely having any concrete external effect. There is no real expectation of anything outwardly changing as a result of the criticism. It is not intended to be harmful or manipulative. The primary purpose of reactive criticism seems to be inward effect, changing our emotional state. When we feel negative emotions of fear, anger or disgust, we are motivated to act in ways which reverse those emotions. Reactive criticism is cathartic, it relieves frustration and lowers our level of angst. This is similar to swearing and, when criticism is strengthened with the addition of swearing, the effect is more cathartic. Additionally, when we criticise, we are mentally reshaping events. Nothing may change externally but, internally, we have lessened its importance and its impact. All this makes us feel better in ourselves and about ourselves.

Of the three variants, reactive criticism is the easiest option. It requires no mental effort or time. It is an efficient, instantaneous, emotive response to an external stimulus. Humans are very good at those, even when the response may be inappropriate and unhelpful. When something is easy and helpful to us, we use it a lot.


The Covid pandemic is the ideal environment to generate criticism in all its forms. It is serious, threatening, complex and emotionally upsetting. It affects all of us and all of our activities. None of us are emotionally or physically immune. It requires action without precedent, no-one knows exactly what to do or when or if those actions will be effective. In these circumstances, we are all emotionally charged with our own views of what should be done, what is right or wrong. Not criticising would take immense effort and self-control.

There has been much malign criticism in the media and politics, aimed at polarising public opinion and undermining political opponents. This was too good an opportunity to miss for those so inclined. No government at any level or any location would be capable of making decisions that were always proved right. With the benefit of hindsight many of them were inevitably going to be wrong. This is an open door for the malign critic to exploit. Nicola Sturgeon has said many times ‘this is no time for politics’ and then proceeded to score political points. James O’Brien on LBC has accused ministers of ‘sacrificing the elderly in care homes’ and ‘abandoning our children’. Kier Starmer has maintained a delicate balance of doing his job as leader of the opposition, which requires him to criticise, and not appearing to be opportunist with malign criticism.

Few of us witness it but there must be and have been unprecedented levels of considered criticism amongst authorities and advisors. Information will have been gathered, opinions expressed, actions proposed, actions taken and actions not taken. Critical consideration of all the data and options must have been rife, probably heated at times. In my view, it is to the great credit of those involved that they have, in the main, kept their criticism private and not resorted to malign criticism if their considered criticism did not win the day.

As to reactive criticism, I find it hard to believe that there is any single person in the UK who has not indulged to some degree. I know I have and I know all my friends and family have. I know many others have by reading, listening and watching the media in all its forms. We have criticised government, national and local, for its actions and inactions. Too little, too much, not quick enough, too quick. Rules are too specific, or not clear enough. The police are not strict enough or too heavy handed. Individuals and groups are irresponsible, inconsiderate, ignorant and foolish.


A good example of criticism in action during Covid is the recent furore about exam results, first in Scotland and then England. What to do about exam results when there are no exams?

Ideas would have been put forward and subject to considered criticism. This process is conscious, rational and reasoned by people well versed in the history, the process and the data. Doubtless, experts from many fields will have contributed to the final outcome. If you are not personally involved as a student, parent or teacher and you consider the problem from the view of society as a whole, the proposal for moderated predicted grades is entirely rational and fair. After all, it cannot be that, in a year when education has been significantly disrupted, the average result for that year group should be significantly better than for previous groups. On the other hand, it would not be fair to penalise that year group because their education has been disrupted. Job done.

I may have missed it, but I do not recall much public criticism of the proposal until the results became known in Scotland. It should have been no surprise that the predicted grades were exaggerated. Humans are biased to over-confidence. We are filled with hope and optimism. Teachers want the best for their students and have high aspirations. This meant that moderation would have, more than likely, lead to an average reduction in grades. This would inevitably lead to much reactive criticism from those affected by the downgrading with cries of ‘rubbish’, ‘unfair’, ‘it’s not right’. I can only guess that the judgement would have been ‘OK, there will be some reaction but we can tolerate that because the process is demonstrably fair’.

Maybe what did come as a surprise was the scale of the downgrading required and the weighted impact towards students from schools in disadvantaged areas. Doubtless, this outcome will be pored over by academics to explain the reasons why. Now there was a clear opportunity for the malign critics to take over from the reactive critics. A government deliberately targeting the disadvantaged, picking on the weakest part of society and protecting the wealthy and privileged few. The media and politicians were quick to join in with the armchair critics to take the government to task.

Faced with this malign criticism and the risk of losing a no-confidence vote, the Scottish government made a politically expedient U-turn. This has resulted in pass rates for 2020 being some 14% higher than 2019. This is rational nonsense but emotionally acceptable. It also gave an opportunity for the UK, Welsh and NI governments to change their approach and not fall down the same hole. UK and Wales seem to have kept digging and managed to turn criticism into activism. (Update: U-turns are now complete, a full set)


Theodore Roosevelt expressed a view of critics in his speech to the Sorbonne in 1910, popularly known as ‘The Man in the Arena‘ . He said ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood’. He also said 8 years later ‘To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else’.

How could he be right in both statements? Only because, as is often the case, there is no right or wrong answer to the question ‘should we criticise?’. What is right is that increased understanding of behaviour enables us to take conscious control of our actions and make better choices. My choice would be not to use malign criticism in any circumstances, to use considered criticism when trying to influence and to let rip with reactive criticism when it makes me feel better and does no harm to others.