Here are a few things I try to remember, but am frequently tempted to forget:
- It usually takes very little time to discern whether or not someone is operating as a good-faith critic. Good-faith critics value clarity before agreement (as Dennis Prager has phrased it). They try to understand before they seek to win. Bad-faith critics are like hit-and-run drivers. They play to the crowd—whether conservative or liberal. They can be passive-aggressive—harsh to others but quick to play the victim when challenged.
- If the person is not a good-faith critic—humbly open to counter-considerations, striving for fairness, seeking to understand, offering actual arguments—there is little use dialoging. It really is a waste of time, and we are called to be good stewards of the finite amount of time each of us has. Mortimer Adler writes, “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any one of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgment.’” For those who don’t do this, he says: “There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort. The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms.”
- Even if the person is a good-faith critic, there is little point in trying to have a genuine dialogue 140 characters at a time. Other venues work better. Unless you can point to a longer-form piece that defends your position or offers criticism, it’s often a waste of pixels.
- Nevertheless, we should welcome and seriously take to heart good-faith criticism. As Adler says, “When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent.”
- In all of this, Christians should remember to offer and receive criticism Christianly, remembering that our speech should “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6), that “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37), that we are to “love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10); that we are to “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29); that we are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15, 25); and that we must learn to bridle our tongue so that we do not deceive our heart (James 1:26).