Don't Say It if It Doesn't Need to Be Said

3 simple filters for communicating criticism without being a jerk.

Posted Jul 13, 2019

That movie/presentation/play/book/concert/tweet/post/person is awful! I have to tell someone/everyone about my opinion and thoughts. Because me.

There is a real compulsion for sharing our views with others. Because humans. But I suggest to please avoid resorting to intellectual vandalism just because you can.

As a scientist, author, speaker, and public figure, I have both given and received an awful lot of critical commentary. But critical doesn't mean pejorative, mean, or demeaning. The more things you do and the more arenas of activity you enter into, the more you are exposed to the random thoughts of others—a kind of slings and arrows of outrageous social commentary, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Some of my own experiences have been truly horrible, but a lot have been great, and some have been amazing. But most of it could have been better framed and phrased.

A lot of the negative commentary we come across never needed to exist. Conflating anger with criticism is childish. It also reeks of self-indulgence and entitlement. Resorting to angry criticism is the intellectual equivalent of relying on f-bombs because of an inability to effectively express thoughts and ideas using real words.

This brief post is about the 3 things I've learned over the years on both ends of (what should have been and sometimes was) useful critical commentary and assessment. If you agree with me, please pay it forward by implementing these ideas when you are commenting on a post, picture, performance or video, are an academic doing peer (not "superior") review, or are just sharing your thoughts with random strangers.

  1. Opinions aren't facts. Opinions can be based on facts, of course, but often are an emergent property of facts and visceral reactions. Please don't presume to own the absolute truth that must be shared in a critical commentary. No one is the ultimate gatekeeper, so maybe please don't volunteer for the job.
  2. Annoyance isn't assessment. Lots of things we experience may not be the things we thought we wanted to read, watch, or hear. This can flare into annoyance that we didn't get what we wanted. This is not a justification to assess something negatively and in mean and derogatory terms.
  3. Want is not the same as need. Is what you think just something you want (and think you need) to say or write, or is it truly something that is necessary to be said or heard? This is the best filter I know for screening reactions and the vast majority of our opinions fall into the former category. So maybe keep them to yourself and use that to spur you towards actually going and creating something yourself.

Basically all of the above can be summed up by an adage my mom used to say all the time when she overheard me or my friends talking teenage smack: If you can't say something nice or useful, don't say anything at all. Courtesy and common decency literally cost nothing but can benefit everyone.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2019)