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How do you feel about negative reviews?

Not everything in life can be spun into a positive. There are some things that are as objectively not good as you can get. Most of us want most of life to be great. And for those things that aren’t great to be “life lessons” or to have a “silver lining”. But let’s face it. There’s shitty shit out there and that’s that.

At the same time, there’s almost nothing that can be deemed 100% bad. Almost everything & everyone has at least one redeemable quality. Society drives us to communicate as simply as possible, to distill our thoughts into memes or sound bites or 280 characters. There’s no place for nuance. No place for the grey. So anything not 100% tends to get lost in the cacophony. What’s worse is we then think the only way to be heard is to shout in kind. But every single time we try, our words get coopted or diminished or misinterpreted. Talking AT is not talking TO, and people will give what they get.

But despite the inundation of social media, ads, and abject simplicity, there are other ways to communicate that offer opportunities to say more, to be less reductive & more nuanced, to find more connection & common ground. To actually have a conversation.

How we use those ways depends on how much we’ve been pressured into believing that shouting is the only way. Because it’s still possible to talk a lot and only say one big thing: this is great or this sucks. Agree or disagree. Saying that in 500 or 1000 words is just as reductive as shouting it in two. And I’d argue it’s worse because it fools people into believing that you’re coming from a more informed, authoritative place. Fancy words can easily hide simplistic views.

And this is where we need to get into negative reviews. I’ve threatened quite often to explain the difference between a review and a critique. So sit tight, because here it comes.

A critic is a judge. Which implies power. Which, as we all know, can corrupt. And it does. Big time. So many critics think it’s their job to tear down creations & creators, thoughts & thought leaders, or whatever & whomever they’re reviewing. This is, to be as simple as possible, a pathetic power play. It’s someone with little to no actual power or creative force, trying to take down someone whose power comes from the act of putting something into the world that never before existed, and then waiting to be judged for it. It’s a way to siphon that power, to steal it & wield it for destructive purposes.

That’s a “review”. And while some of these reviews do include other more nuanced & constructive thoughts, their overall impression is the worst kind of negative. Biased. Personal. Condescending. Vindictive. Self-serving. Self-aggrandizing. Seeking to destroy & not enlighten. And deliberately misleading.

There’s a place for negativity. A place for pointing out flaws, and explaining why something doesn’t work or is just plain bad or false. In a culture that prizes black-and-white on every level, it’s vital that we don’t fall prey to the “everything is awesome in its own way” reduction. That’s as false as its opposite. We need to be willing to get didactic, boring even. To live in the grey. This is what reviewers who engage in constructive critique know & promote. They create a context and a safe space for discussing the negative AND the positive, for respecting the artist or thought leader whether or not they like what they’re hearing or reading. They don’t proclaim. They invite conversation & connection. They prove that it’s possible to be both critical AND respectful.

Critics who complain that negative reviews are discouraged, out of fashion, denigrated, and/or ignored sound a lot like white people who claim they’re being censored because they can’t cancel someone, or be hateful, disrespectful, and openly racist. Sure, say those things. You have a right. But if you’re brave enough to speak your mind, then you damn well better be strong enough to take the heat, to hear disagreement. Some part of you knows that what you’re saying is generalized, hyperbolic or histrionic. You might even know that part or all of what you say is unfounded in actual fact. But you feel powerless, so you try to regain some of that power by shouting simplicities & shooting down others. We’ve all done it, from all sides. It’s just that some of us are self-aware & humble enough to know how desperate, ridiculous & pathetic it is. And being unable to take in differing opinions, and not be right about everything, is just plain cowardice.

More of us need to be brave enough to be opposed. Brave enough to admit when we’re wrong, or when we might find common ground even amidst fundamental differences of opinion. Brave enough to accept that agreement is not weakness. It’s strength. Even in its smallest form. And it’s what will actually get us heard, understood, connected & respected. Which is ultimately what we all want.


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