Trying to Learn From Criticism, Even When It's Misguided or Rude

Writing about politics for a living is a terrific job, the best I've ever had. But one of the things that comes with the territory is that because you put your work in front of the public, anyone is free to criticize that work, which sometimes includes not just saying "I disagree with you about this," but also saying, "You're scum and I hope you die." As a man I'm generally spared the rape and death threats that women writers endure, and on the whole the criticism I get doesn't bother me too much. It may not be particularly pleasant to be told you're a fool, regardless of who's doing the telling, but I developed a pretty thick skin for that kind of thing a long time ago.

The question that's concerning me at the moment, though, is how one should handle a wave of criticism when you think that there might be glimmers of merit in it, even if you're convinced that 99 percent of it is crap. In the last week or so I've been on the receiving end of two such waves (mostly on Twitter), and I'm grappling with how to respond. At this point, let me say that if you're tempted to tell me yet again that I'm a jackass, please read all the way to the end of this post to see if I addressed your concerns.

Figuring out how to respond is difficult, because we have a natural tendency to get defensive when criticized. We all know that our intentions were good in pretty much every situation, right? And while it's relatively easy to take criticism seriously when it's offered in a measured way that assumes those good intentions, it's a lot harder to wade through a bunch of insults and invective to see if the person spewing them might have a point.

I may be wrong about this, but my sense is that most people who send me nasty e-mails or tweets aren't actually hoping to convince me of my errors; they just want to issue a kind of electronic primal scream. But even beyond the simple "screw you" messages (of which there are plenty), there are some criticisms that are maddening even if they can be easily dismissed on substantive grounds. Perhaps the most common criticism I get for anything I write is "You didn't mention X," which usually means, "You asked one set of questions, when I think you should have asked a different set of questions." For instance, last week I wrote a post suggesting that we have some kind of a Marshall Plan for Gaza, injecting a huge amount of money into the place to build up its infrastructure and economy. It was a thought experiment, and one explicitly offered without much detail, but the idea was that this would not only alleviate the material misery in which Gazans live, it might also lessen the appetite for Hamas' brand of political action, which often comes down to "We'll launch a bunch of rockets at Israel, then they'll respond by killing hundreds of civilians, then the world will see how terrible they are."

The idea that one can be a strong critic of Israel's actions and also be a strong critic of Hamas – and do so without drawing whatever moral equivalence people find most appalling—is apparently incomprehensible to some, but in any case, there were things I didn't discuss in this one post. Perhaps most importantly, I didn't discuss Israel's blockade of Gaza; in fact, I didn't discuss a lot of the reasons the Israeli government's actions have been reprehensible in so many ways and for so long.

The reaction was furious, but almost none of it said, "A Marshall Plan for Gaza wouldn't work because…" Instead, what made people angry was that I hadn't talked about whatever they thought was the most important problem to solve in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite the fact that I never wrote anything like, "This will solve this conflict in its entirety and then the region will live in peace and coexistence forevermore," many people reacted as though I had. In one particularly infuriating and endless Twitter exchange, I was accused of "blaming Palestinians for their own deaths" because I said that Hamas baits Israel into bombing Gaza, which they absolutely do. No matter how many times I insisted that Israel still bears complete moral responsibility for its own actions and for every civilian it kills, everything that I said about Hamas was immediately thrown back at me with some variation of "How can you say the Palestinian people…", to which I would respond, "No, I said that about Hamas, not the Palestinian people," to no avail.

Now let me give you the more recent example. Yesterday, I wrote a post asking where libertarians, who express a great deal of concern about the misuse of government power, were on the question of Michael Brown's killing and the subsequent events in Ferguson, Missouri. I singled out the most prominent (supposedly) libertarian politicians, particularly Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash, who at that point hadn't made any comment on it. In response I got about a zillion tweets and emails saying things like "Libertarians have been talking about police abuse forever!" Indeed, had I said, "Libertarians have never talked about police abuse," that would have been completely wrong. But that's not what I said. In particular, many of my correspondents wrote, "How can you ignore the work of Radley Balko, your colleague at the Post?" Here's an example from Ed Krayewski of Reason magazine:

Most importantly, perhaps, Waldman ought to familiarize himself with the work of his fellow Washington Post scribes and specifically Radley Balko, formerly of Reason, and the only reason (drink!) I was even exposed to Waldman's ridiculously misguided column. Balko's extensive coverage of police issues over the years wasn't mentioned at all.

As it happens, I'm quite familiar with Balko's excellent work on police misconduct and the militarization of law enforcement, and one of the first things I did when I started writing this piece was to check Balko's blog on the Washington Post site to see if he had written anything about Ferguson. He hadn't. But since I assumed that he would before long, I didn't single him out for criticism. And to repeat, had I said, "No libertarian has ever written about police abuse," that would have been completely false, but I didn't say that; I was talking just about this one case.

Speaking of Reason, I can't tell you how many people have either tweeted or e-mailed me to say, "Hey jerk, Reason magazine has been all over the Ferguson story!" None of them seem to have read the actual post they're criticizing, in which I mentioned that Reason magazine has indeed been covering the story (Krayewski acknowledges that, but is peeved that the mention didn't come until the last paragraph of my post). And I should mention that not all the criticism I got was wrongheaded or rude. (Here's an example of a polite and sensible response.)

OK, now that I've established the context (and have all that off my chest), let's return to the question with which I began: Can we learn from criticisms even when so much of the criticism is groundless or rude? It's hard, but yes, we can. Let me give it a try.

On the Gaza piece, even if I thought it wasn't fair to assault me for not talking about what some people would have preferred I talk about, there's a lesson there. When you're offering a somewhat novel idea as part of a solution to a complex problem, it's probably a good idea to lay out what parts of the problem your idea wouldn't solve. It would have been easy for me to write that, obviously, Gazans' economic woes are part of a larger picture, and until we arrive at a two-state solution, one in which Israel can't cut Gaza off from the outside world, not to mention periodically reduce large portions of the area to rubble, the positive effects of economic development are going to be sorely limited. I didn't say that, and I should have.

On the libertarian piece, I did make a mistake, although a different one. I focused on a few prominent politicians and media figures associated with libertarianism, but I didn't explain clearly enough that there's a community of people who call themselves libertarians who might be thinking and acting differently. I just said "libertarians" when referring to those few figures, and a lot of individual libertarians thought, not unreasonably, that I was referring to them too. Again, making all that clear wouldn't have taken a lot of time or effort.

The lesson I take from that isn't just that one shouldn't overgeneralize, which ought to be obvious. It's also a good idea to ask, "Who is going to object to this? And what would they say about it? Is that objection worth addressing?" This is something I already do quite often – regular readers know that raising and then refuting the conservative arguments against the position I'm taking is a regular feature of my writing, both because I think it's worth understanding exactly what the other side is saying, and also because I was taught long ago that that's one of the most effective forms of argumentation. But in this case, I failed to do it. Had I asked the question, the answer would have been, "Libertarians are going to object to this. And they'd probably say that even if some Republican politicians who associate themselves with libertarianism don't want to talk about the Ferguson case, there are libertarians out there talking about it even if these guys aren't." Even a brief mention of that probably would have been enough to satisfy many of the people who took me to task.

I'm going to do my best to apply these lessons, and I'm going to keep trying to learn from my critics, as difficult as that can be (you can tell —even in this post I had to explain where they were wrong before I got to where they were right). Now let me close with a message for anyone who thinks I'm an ignoramus or a monster—or who thinks that about any writer, and might feel moved to respond to something they wrote.

The first thing to understand is that there's a human being on the other end of your missive, someone who's fallible but is probably trying to do their best. If your goal is just to make them feel bad because you disagree with them, or to whip up some Twitter hate at them, then by all means, go with the insults. That might work. What it won't do, however, is actually convince them of anything, or convince anyone who doesn't already agree with you that you're right. If you want to persuade someone, you have to meet them on something like neutral ground, talking in terms that, at least in theory, they might accept. If you start your email by saying, "That was the dumbest f-ing thing I've ever read, you cretin," the rest of your message might be so powerful and moving it would make Clarence Darrow weep with envy, but it won't matter, because they're just going to hit "delete" as soon as the venom starts.

The fact that we can all participate in this roiling, boiling debate is the glory of democracy. And of course it gets heated and angry at times. Like anyone else, I've contributed my share of indignation over the years. But we should all try to be as open-minded and thoughtful as we can, both as readers (which we all are) and as writers (which some of us are). That means at least entertaining the possibility – even if only for a moment—that people who disagree with you might have a point. It's never easy to do, even if someone else's opinion isn't being delivered inside a gift-wrapping of hate. But it's not impossible. 

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