On Being Criticized (In The New Media Age)

criticAs a follow on to the post of the 24th, On Being Critical, it seems useful to think a little about how to navigate the choppy waters of criticism and especially how to deal with it in our new media age. There’s a distinction to be made between criticism defined as “thoughtful evaluation” i.e., constructive criticism and defined as “condemnation”  or “denunciation.” In our radically egalitarian age, everyone is a critic and everyone is the subject of criticism. The difference between the two is intent or spirit. The Latin word for spirit/intent is animus. We still use the word in the sense of hostile intent: “I say this with no animus toward the previous speaker.” From animus comes our word animosity as in, “She had a genuine animosity toward her rival.”

Constructive criticism is always welcomed by the fair minded. I always tell my students that the goal is not to be “be right” but to “get it right.” In our historical theology seminars, after spending most of the semester reading, discussing, and analyzing primary sources our students will write and deliver papers just as they would give a paper to an academic society. After a student has read her paper to the seminar, she must stand there and receive criticism. This is an excellent discipline. It teaches students to focus on the issues and not on persons. It also teaches them that even the best papers have flaws and that being criticized is not the end of the world. The clock continues to move. The earth continues to rotate on its axis and the sun still shines. It is meant to clarify an argument or to provoke the scholar to consider another interpretation of the evidence. Constructive criticism is meant to be helpful, to improve. It is other-centered. It is not intended to show that I am right and you are wrong but to enable the scholar presenting her work to continue to make progress.

Destructive criticism has the opposite intent. It does not mean to help but to wound or destroy. The animus of this sort of criticism is hostile. This is the sort of criticism about which most of us are concerned. There was a time when only public figures, actors, politicians, and professional athletes had to be concerned about this sort of criticism. Today, however, everyone is a performer (if only on Facebook or Twitter) and everyone is a critic (or so it seems).

Businesses, schools, churches, and governmental authorities are struggling to get to grips with the new reality of pervasive public criticism. It was one thing to see an occasional letter to the editor in a print edition of the newspaper. It’s quite another to see a spurious rumor spread across the internet in a few moments. One reaction is to try to silence the critics or to control what others are saying. It’s impossible to put the internet genie back into his bottle. One will have more success nailing jello to the wall. There are too many outlets, too many opportunities to criticize. There is no controlling it. Some businesses have reacted by demanding to see what their employees (or prospective employees) post on Facebook or Twitter—even demanding that employees or prospective employees reveal their passwords to Facebook or Twitter. Such a demand is invasive and probably unconstitutional.

Behind the impulse to control the criticism lies a misunderstanding of the new media. There was a time when information (true and false) was controlled a relatively small group of elites. There was a time when the folks in local government knew the reporters and the editors and there was a reciprocal relationship. That’s not to say that negative stories were never run but there were mediators and filters between the source, the story, and the public. Behind the scenes there were phone calls and confirmation and background interviews. Some stories were killed and others modified.

The information oligarchy is dead. The internet is not just a giant electronic newspaper that the influential can control with a timely call to the right editor. It’s a radically democratic platform. Even newspapers have eliminated layers of mediation. Reporters take their own photos. There are fewer editors. There are fewer layers between source, story, and the public. On the web, anyone can gain an audience by saying whatever they want (true or not) about anything. To compound the problem it’s not clear that internet consumers are as discriminating as they should be.

How should one, whether an individual or corporate entity, respond to criticism? The first thing is not to panic. Being criticized on the internet is not the end of the world. Judging by news coverage, it isn’t usually the criticism that does the damage, it’s usually the response. We all, whether individuals or companies, must get used to being criticized. It is going to happen. In the internet age, criticism is like air. It just is. We should not imagine that we can do something to make it go away. The failure to accept the existence and potential of pervasive and constant criticism is perhaps the greatest obstacle to dealing with it appropriately.

The second step is to evaluate the criticism and, perhaps, upon the critic. There are some who are so relentlessly and thoughtlessly negative that, after a while, we rightly tune them out the same way we tune out the noise made by tires on the road. If, however, there is validity to the criticism, we should admit it. We all make mistakes. It is a mistake to “deny, deny, deny” even if there is truth or merit in the criticism. This is a cynical ploy that will eventually backfire. Lance Armstrong is a great illustration of this sort of cynicism.

Third, part of the power of criticism is that we (used to) perceive it as unique. Once we realize, however, that it’s ubiquitous and pervasive, then perhaps some of the sting is gone. Criticism just is.

Fourth, another part of the power of criticism lies in our desire to be liked by others. The new media age reveals what was always true: we’re not liked by everyone else but neither is anyone else. Virtually no one is universally liked. Another idol bites the dust.

Criticism has always been a part of life. What has changed is that we are all now, potentially, “critics” and we are all now, potentially, the subject of public criticism. It can’t be controlled. We can’t avoid it except, perhaps, by “going off the grid” but short of that we will all need to learn to accept criticism gracefully and to reply appropriately when necessary. Criticism can be painful and useful—sometimes simultaneously. We need to determine, as best we can, the animus of the critic. Is he trying to help or hurt? The latter may be ignored (or not). If it’s constructive, however, then we need to learn from it as we can. There isn’t much we can do to control what others say about us but we, by God’s grace, can control how we respond and criticism in our new media environment is an opportunity to grow in  grace and wisdom.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!