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Advice for dealing with critics — from a religion writer with plenty of them

Momus, god of satire and mockery being ejected from Mount Olympus - Painting by Hippolyte Berteaux on the Théâtre Graslin ceiling- Via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nantes_-_Graslin_int_01.jpg)

(RNS) — A hand shot up in the conference hall about six rows back.

“Jonathan, as an opinion writer who covers religion and politics, you take a lot of heat,” the earnest man. “How do you deal with critics?”

I paused.

“Good question. How do you deal with them as an opinion writer?”

“I’m not an opinion writer,” questioner responded with a puzzled look.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said. “We all are now.”

In the internet age, everyone is an opinion writer. You may voice your perspectives through emails or articles, blogposts or books, texts or tweets, instagram posts or facebook pages. But everyone is opining regularly these days.

If you have courage enough to speak up in this divided and often uncivil moment in American history, you’ll soon find yourself facing a wave of criticism and resistance.

When you speak up, you’ll be told to shut up.

When you stand up, you’ll be told to sit down.

When you lean in, you’ll be told to back off.

The worst critics will overlook your ideas and arguments. Instead, they’ll call you nasty names, lob personal attacks, and pile on. They’ll make fun of your appearance or intelligence or your family members. And if you’re a person of faith like me, they’ll claim that you’re not a true convert. You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a false teacher. At least, that’s what they’ll say.

Like me–someone who makes a living writing about religion and politics–you too will have to face your own critics. Maybe you, like the young man who asked me a question at that conference, want to know how best to respond to critics or if you even should. I’m not sure I have the full answer, but I’m happy to share some advice I’ve developed over the last 10 years:

Create a policy and stick with it. Most people respond to with critics if and when they feel like it. That is, their decision to engage is driven by emotion. This is a recipe for disaster. Earlier in my career, I got into social media spats regularly. But one day, I realized that the majority of these online arguments arose when I was grumpy or tired or had read something that really offended me.

The best thing you can do is to create an objective criteria for determining when to engage critics and when to avoid them. This will take the decision making out of the realm of emotions and create consistency for your readers. Draft a policy and then do your best not to deviate.

Take your platform off the market. Many critics will come after you with the intent of chiding you into engagement. They aren’t always seeking understanding or hoping to have their concerns addressed. Rather, they want to co-opt your platform to magnify their own voice. This doesn’t serve anyone’s interest, and it will only annoy those who are forced to watch the debate unfold in their social media feeds.

So before you set out on this journey, determine that your platform is not for sale–particularly to the nastiest bidder. Make an effort to evaluate the intentions of the critic before engaging, not after.

Research before responding. There is no foolproof way to determine someone’s intentions online, but a little bit of research will get you close. When a critic attacks you or your work, do not respond until after you’ve done a little research.

I start by seeing if the person has a legitimate profile and checking how many followers the person has. This sounds petty, but it’s helpful. If the person has a blank profile and 3 followers, it might mean that they have set up an anonymous account solely for the purpose of attacking others. After this, review their thread to see if there is a pattern of anger or personal attacks or vitriol. If the person seems to be an anonymous or angry troll, do not engage.

Mute, don’t block. Many prominent writers have gained a reputation for blocking anyone who would dare challenge their views online. They think this insulates them from trolls, and to some extent, it does because they will no longer be show up in your feed. But it’s not effective because if your profiles are public, anyone can still see your feed by viewing it via a web browser.

The biggest reason not to block is that it often makes matters worse by adding fuel to the fire. It gives the critic a reason to keep attacking you. They’ll tell all who will listen that you simply can’t take criticism, and you’ll end up looking like a petty child with your index fingers showed into your ear canal. And they will use it to perpetuate their own narrative of victimhood.

If your research reveals that the person attacking you isn’t interested in dialogue but is an angry or anonymous troll, mute them instead. They will no longer appear in your feed anymore, so you’ll be insulated. But they will never know they’ve been muted. You don’t have to lose in order to win.

Offer levity instead of lightning. Sometimes you will feel you need to respond, but then you must determine how. Growing up, my mom used to remind me that you catch more bees with honey than vinegar. The phrase is true, as is turns out. Many times, I’ve sent a lighthearted reply to a critic online, and have been surprised to watch the anger evaporate.

When it comes to critics–the earnest kind, not trolls–the impulse is to act like Zeus, God of thunder. We sit atop our mountains and hurl condescending bolts down on the mortals who dare challenge us. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But it’s often best to act like Gelos, the God of laughter, instead. Don’t mock the person or minimize their criticism with a joke, but merely replace the lightning bolts with a little levity. I bet you’ll notice a difference.

Ground yourself in flesh-and-blood community. The single most important thing you can do when it comes to responding to criticism has nothing to do with critics. It has to do with your life outside of twitterfeeds and blog posts and instagram stories. Your professional life will only be healthy if your personal life is healthy, and that is as true when it comes to this topic as any.

If you’re like me, receiving criticism online can shipwreck your confidence and sense of vocational worth. Rooting yourself in actual community with people who love you and don’t care about how many “likes” you received that day will soften these blows. Additionally, this community can serve as a sounding board. You can reach out to them and ask them whether a particular criticism is valid or not, trusting them to tell you the truth.

You don’t have to be a professional writer like me to endure criticism. And with so many opinions bombarding us daily, often the most ridiculous, most inflammatory, most contentious perspectives rise to the top. Take time to create a thoughtful plan for responding to those who disagree with you now and you’ll avoid a lot of grief later.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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