A friend recently asked me, “What was the best online criticism of your work that you ever read? Not something crazy or mean but something that caused you to think, ‘That person has a point. I will adjust accordingly.'”
I do like to blow off steam from time to time by sharing the especially ridiculous criticisms I receive. (Did you know I’m a rape apologist whose Nazi-friendly dogwhistles are funded by George Soros, and that my obvious rejection of femininity fuels my intense hatred of the Church? I didn’t either, until the internet told me so!)
But I never assume that criticism is wrong just because it hurts my feelings, or because it comes from someone I don’t like. When someone challenges me, I always — yes, always — ask myself whether they’re onto something.
This isn’t necessarily an act of humility or a healthy quest for self-knowledge. Sometimes, like every writer I know, I’m just filled with self-doubt and self-loathing, and there’s nothing psychologically or spiritually healthy about that. But more and more, with the help of my therapist, I’m able to pick through hurtful responses, assess them, discard the nonsense, and glean something useful.
I write thousands of words every week, I so of course I have written many things that I regret; but the one that stands out the most painfully is an essay I wrote condemning vasectomies. Or, more accurately, condemning men who got vasectomies. It was years ago, but I still cringe when I think of it.
I wasn’t wrong. When men resort to surgical sterilisation, and when this decision is commonplace and even the fodder for casual jokes, that marks a terrible shift in our society’s understanding of what manhood, sex, and marriage mean.
But the way I expressed myself was wrong as wrong could be. Rather than condemning the practice, I condemned the people who resorted to it. Rather than speaking gravely about a serious matter that is painful to many people, I used jeering sarcasm and biting jokes. Rather than offering hope, I encouraged scorn. And I assumed the worst about people and their choices, without ever speaking to anyone who had made these choices, or even trying to remember that human lives and motivations are complicated and nuanced, rarely black and white.
To anyone who remembers this essay and my efforts to defend myself afterwards, I am deeply sorry.
But I’m still writing, and I still feel that I’m meant to keep writing. I try to learn from my errors, in that essay and in other ones I’ve come to regret. What have I learned?
It’s not good enough to be right. Saying the right thing the wrong way is no better than saying the wrong thing. You don’t have to qualify your words with a lot of mealy-mouthed equivocation. Say what you mean, as forcefully as the subject matter deserves. But correct without lashing out. Argue without trying to inflict wounds. If you have a good case, it’ll stand on its own merits without the dubious aid of nastiness.
Attack bad ideas, not people. Human lives are complicated, and very few people are all good or all bad. A guilty man who’s open to repentance will recognize himself in your words, and you’ll have done well; but if you humiliate someone to make your point, you’ll lose both the argument and the reader.
Never punch down. No matter who you are, if you have a public audience, you should never criticize people with less power than you. Thank the Lord for whatever prominence you’ve gained, and use that vantage point to afflict those comfortably ensconced above you, not below you.
Public errors may legitimately be addressed publicly, and if another writer publishes an essay for public consumption, I can respond to it in public without sinning against charity or committing detraction. Contrary to what some Christian readers say, it’s not necessary, a la Matthew 18:15, for writers to approach other writers in private about their ideas before responding in public. But private conversations, and matters concerning private matters, should never be addressed in public unless you have the permission of the people involved.
Always think of the likely consequences of saying what you want to say, and act accordingly. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of speaking the truth, especially if you can expect to get fame or money from it. But if you can reasonably expect that your words will hurt someone, you had better have a damned good reason for it. It may not be a good enough reason. If you want to get something off your chest, go ahead and write it down; but you don’t have to press “publish” every time.
And there it is. You can judge for yourself whether I follow these rules well or not, but I do try. Someone recently asked me, “Did you even stop and think about what would happen if you wrote what you did?” Many years ago, the answer would probably be,”Nope.” It just popped into my head, so I wrote it.
Today, the answer is almost certainly, “Yes, I thought about it all night long.” And I prayed about it; I probably ran it by some trusted editor friends; and if it was a tricky subject, I probably shed some tears. It’s exhausting, but I consider it part of my job.
Whoever you are, if you have an audience, you will inevitably make some mistakes, out of malice, carelessness, or simple lack of experience. When you do and there is a backlash, don’t give up, but don’t dig in, either. Take a pause, prayerfully assess the criticism you receive, and try to learn. There is always something to learn.