Wednesday, 28 March 2012

How Not to Respond to Criticism

Recently I was foolish enough to get embroiled in a Facebook discussion about some aspects of religion (this has happened to me before, you’d think I’d know better by now). I dared to suggest that someone’s beloved faith has a less than perfect history, and got duly dumped on as a result. I’m still reeling somewhat from that, and still annoyed at the idiocy of some of their arguments (eg that it’s atheists who exclusively start wars). However, it’s not that they disagreed with me that still bugs me, but the way they did so.

So call me an aspie perfectionist, but in my book, the mature response if something or someone you love is criticized, is to stop, reflect, and investigate if there is any truth to it. And if there is, to do what you can to correct this, if possible. This applies whether you’re talking about a beloved partner who has done something wrong, or a religious body that proves to have a less than perfect history. It is I believe the responsibility and the right of the members of that body to do their utmost to correct these past (and present) sins, and/or see to it that their leadership atones appropriately for them. (Those outside it can of course point out its faults, and resist any social/political changes those bodies are trying to achieve, but the actual job of correction falls to those inside.) Doing so does not mean having to leave their religion – they might still see much of worth in it, and prefer to correct rather than reject.

That’s what I consider a ‘mature’ response. Here’s how not to respond to criticism (most of these were used on me) –

1) “You must be ‘anti-us’” - therefore anything the critic says can be dismissed, because nothing they say could possibly have any validity whatsoever.

2) “You’re a [fill in any type of personal invective]” – insult their intelligence, their intellectual rigour (“You must get your factoids off the Net”), their moral integrity, their personal worth (“Where did you find such ‘friends’, X?”), etc, etc. This, along with 1), is the modern version of “if you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger”.

3) “It didn’t happen.” A point-blank denial of the events or phenomena the critic points out, regardless of the evidence.

4) “It happened, but it wasn’t us who did it.” Again, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. A variation on this is “It was a rogue element within our body that did it.” No responsibility taken, in other words.

5) “It didn’t happen to many.” The ‘minimisation of numbers’ game is an excellent distraction, which effectively bogs down the critic in trying to ‘prove’ their statistics, and totally misses the main point – ie that it happened at all.

6) “It wasn’t that bad.” A similar minimization and distracting tactic, this time re the effects. “It was a long time ago” is a variation on this.

These tactics and attitudes do neither the religious body or the individuals concerned any favours whatsoever. It means a kind of corrosion of the soul sets in for both. Harmful attitudes can continue to be perpetuated, and new and perhaps different wrongs committed. Something begins to stink in the state of Denmark, to paraphrase the Bard. Such denials and suppression of truths are among the many factors that drive people away from the churches in droves, and diminish any respect they might still have in the eyes of the population in general.

Facing truths, on the other hand, however hard, and dealing with past (and present) wrongs within a body or institution (whether religious or not) has the same effect on the issues as fresh air and cleanliness do on physical wounds – ie to promote healing, and strengthen the body involved.

I can understand the initial knee-jerk reaction of denial or anger – no-one is perfect, and it’s natural to want to think the institutions we love “would never do such awful things!” - but I feel it’s up to those who have been challenged, after that initial reaction, to look at these issues honestly, and most especially not to respond with furious insults, rigid dogma, and manipulative tactics. Obviously in this instance, they failed to do so.


  1. I understand what you're saying so fully, but I think the other person has to be in a place to receive the info you're trying to give them. If they concede to one part of their belief system being wrong, then more will have to follow, because usually the beliefs are intertwined together. Sometimes, people aren't in a place to handle that sort of thing, so we have to peacefully, politely and calmly plant a little seed of truth into their mind and let them do what they will with it. Otherwise, they tend to get defensive, angry and won't listen to anything anyone has to say that's not in total agreement with them. I think that's a hard things to do for an aspie, being on either side of this argument.

    I often keep my atheist stance to myself, because of the other people that are often affiliated with atheism are obnoxious in the way they try to hit people over the head with their truths. Yes, they may have facts and they may well be right, but religious folk often stop listening when others speak down to them with such condescension. They forget that other people's belief system is so deeply ingrained into their identity and if you're challenging that, you're in essence challenging who they are.

  2. Yeah, i know... (she says, with embarrassment), that's why i said i should have known better!! Maybe i planted a few seeds, but i doubt they will flourish.
    And yes, as an aspie i do find it hard to not correct what i see as incorrect statements! I don't think i was talking to them with condescension tho, just trying to bring a little balance into a skewed dialogue. I guess tho i really need to learn when to keep my mouth shut.

    1. Oh, it's a hard, hard feat. I so know!It's funny how I can say this to you about an argument that I have no emotional investment in (because I didn't see it) but then in the very same day get all mired down in the same sort of thing about something else myself! I don't think you were condenscending, nor do I think I usually am. We just don't understand when our side seems to clear why the other party can't see how they're wrong! lol Especially, when a lot of times the other side consists of people being ignorant in the way of recognizing human rights and being fair to everyone.
      But, in the end, when someone has a very deeply held belief, there are no facts that can persuade them otherwise. Sometimes, we might plant a seed, but a total switch around is unlikely. Let's see if I can remember that little nugget of knowledge today!

  3. Great comments all. I think it's important to remember that the emotional and rational minds are two very different things. How the message is delivered is key to how the other person responds. If they feel threatened in any way, you have lost them. Generally, it's a good idea to avoid highly emotional topics like religion unless you know people very well. Matters of faith are highly personal emotional issues that don't neatly map into discussions that are highly logical and reason based. Both sides are coming from two different places and are generally not open to perceived criticism. It's important to identify these topics before one steps in a big pile of stink.