Confusing the Critique of an Idea with Its Misuse

I’ve been noticing a lot of critiques that seem to conflate ideas with the misuse of those ideas. Critique is valuable when it helps us explore, clarify, or unpack an idea and/or its application. Criticism that conflates ideas with their misuse are not only inaccurate but they also perpetuate the idea and its misuse as synonymous. This leads folks to going away from what they acknowledge as helpful concepts but won’t take them on because those “words have become tainted” and they don’t want to be criticized themselves. Here are a few examples of this confusion that seem to keep getting steam with salacious social media headlines and titles (but that’s another blog post).


There is this critique of mindfulness that points out how helpful the concept was for the author of the critique but ignored the realities of terrorism in the world. If mindfulness doesn’t include being mindful of and present with the realities, horrors, and tragedies of the world then it isn’t really mindfulness. This critique is a good example of mis-understanding a concept and then building a critique on that mis-understanding. Another example is those who criticize mindfulness and meditation because companies are using it to increase productivity. It would be more accurate to critique the mis-use of mindfulness to increase productivity than to dismiss mindfulness all together.

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the empirical study of what works. In this opinion piece in the New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich critiques positive psychology by conflating the science of what works with positive thinking (wishing things were better), pretending, and The Secret. She critiques positive psychology by critiquing things that are not positive psychology. This not only is an unfair critique but reifies the conflation and mis-understanding that she rightly points out are so dangerous. Here is a counter to this essay.


Have you been reading critiques of yoga based on Lululemon using it to sell $120 yoga pants? Well $120 yoga pants are certainly fair game for critique, but basing a critique of yoga practice on a company’s marketing strategy is confusing the criticism of the idea (yoga) with a critique of its misappropriation ($120 yoga pants).

Grit & Resilience

The criticism of grit and resilience usually comes in one of two forms. The first is to point out how some ideologues have used the concepts of grit and resilience to minimize oppression and engage in victim blaming (if they just had more grit they would be successful) like this. This usually includes a very short mention of Angela Duckworth’s excellent research and its explicit rejection of this idea. The second strategy is to point out how some school systems want to create standardized tests on grit and resilience and use it to evaluate students rather than tend to the inequalities of the school system. This is a good example of this critique. These critiques usually include and briefly mention Angela Duckworth’s research and her explicit rejection of this practice like this New York Times piece by Duckworth titled, “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit.”

These criticisms have conflated the misappropriation of the concepts of grit and resilience with the actual concepts themselves. In reality cultivating grit and resilience in those who experience, navigate, and work against oppression is critical to achieving social change at the systemic levels. And to those who say any efforts to help people navigate oppressive systems undermine efforts to change those systems, miss the immediate need to do both. Indeed, teaching people how to navigate systems of oppression so that they can not only survive but also thrive as they work to change those systems is liberatory social justice pedagogy.

In Support of Critique

Honest, rigorous, and constructive critique can help new ideas flourish, challenge conventional thinking, bring awareness to misapplications, and illuminate not only injustice but paths to liberation. So let’s have more critique. Let’s just be careful to be clear what we are critiquing. We need more critiques of the harmful misuse of these ideas.

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