If You’re Writing To Change, You Will Be Criticized

A week ago, I published my latest opinion column in The Guardian, knowing full well that it would cause a shit-storm. As a fairly progressive writer and person, I’ve discovered over the years that it’s not the people with polar-opposite beliefs who can be the most offensive, and even hurtful, when I write something they disagree with; it’s the people who expect you to carry the same water who can get the most upset.

No one likes a traitor. Or, at least someone they decide is a traitor. They will cheer you on and put you on a pedestal as long as you stay in their line, but when you dare to step out and look at something differently, you’d better look out. So, what results is a whole bunch of writers and journalists who either pander to a certain choir, and pull punches that crowd wouldn’t like, or who split boring stories down the middle with quotes from two “sides” and call it objective. Of course, it’s also usually boring and does little to make someone think.

I don’t write or choose my topics that way. I don’t play it safe.

That was certainly true with this Guardian column. I was motivated to pitch it to my editor there when I saw a (Democratic) Facebook friend lodge a personal attack against the now-40-year-old Monica Lewinsky, who put herself back into the public eye last year after she wrote a powerful essay for Vanity Fair.

When I saw his belittling post, it immediately took me back to 1998 when the whole Clinton-Lewinsky scandal blew up. I did something then that I always try to do, much like when John Grisham lawyer in “A Time to Kill” asked the jurors to picture the rape victim as a white girl. I asked myself then what I would think in the exact same circumstances were Clinton—whom I had voted for with some reluctance after the Paula Jones accusations—actually a conservative Republican. My answer was that I wouldn’t be happy about an executive seducing an intern during office hours. Then, when Clinton lied and tried to cover it, I probably would have supported his impeachment.

I try to be consistently intellectually honest with myself and in my writing, so I wrote about that then, and let’s just say my progressive readers and friends weren’t happy about it. So, when I wrote the Guardian column about how feminists let Lewinsky and other young women down then in the most offensive ways, I knew exactly what the response would be, especially now that Dems are lining up behind Hillary Clinton, whom I have misgivings about, even though it would be great to have a woman president. But that alone isn’t enough reason to vote for her even if I am a feminist.

In a week, my Guardian column has drawn 540 comments (helped along by my editor’s headline; my suggestion was “Feminists Behaving Badly,” but I get that hers drew more readers, and headlines are an editor’s choice). And here’s the difference between me today and the me who used to worry about criticism: I haven’t read the comments.

I even stopped reading comments under a post of the column on my Facebook page because people I didn’t know started devolving into ad hominem attacks, calling me a “blowhard” and a “sanctimonious inquisitor.” An earlier Donna might have obsessed and tried to respond to every attack, but I now know better. If there is anything my now-30-plus years of publishing opinion pieces (especially the last 13 years in Mississippi) has taught me, it’s to avert my eyes from personal attacks in the same way that I choose not to look at car accidents unless there seems to be a way I can help. I don’t need it clouding my head. I sure don’t need to watch snuff films.

In other words, I don’t write to please everyone, nor do I expect everyone to like what I write. And I know that many people do not know how to, or choose not to, express opinions that aren’t soaked in personal attacks. At this point in my career, that kind of garbage makes me shrug my shoulders, even as I enjoy healthy, intelligent debate that a piece of my writing might cause. (a topic I return to frequently is the electoral conundrum American progressives must face and at what point must you get behind a candidate you don’t like because of, say, the dangers to the U.S. Supreme Court if she doesn’t win? That’s a conversation we can have without anyone being called a “blowhard” for trying to have it.)

The biggest thing I refuse to do is play it safe so I won’t be criticized. Safe writing doesn’t change the world, nor does it change my personal world. It’s thinking, and questioning, and even learning the intricacies of a different position so that you can counter them, or even find common ground, that are the possible outcomes to writing and dialogue that can make a difference in our communities.

It so happened that the same morning my Guardian column went live last week—or one could call it the moment my red meat was thrown to an international audience to chomp on—I read an entry in Scott Ginsberg’s book of daily tips, “Ideas Are Free, Execution is Priceless.” Titled “Execute something worth being criticized,” his April 19 post cut straight to the heart of why we must avoid safe writing: “If you’re not making people react, you’re not making a difference. If everybody loves what you’re doing, you’re doing something wrong.” Ginsberg’s words echo my belief: Safe writing is boring and likely to be ignored, and its writer will probably be forgotten.

I think of all my activist and journalism heroes, including those right here in Mississippi. Not a single one of them effected change by playing it safe. Hazel Brannon Smith died penniless after agreeing to print pro-integration newspapers (including the one my newspaper is named in honor of) in the 1960s. Florence Mars wrote the real story of the three civil-rights murders in my hometown—a book that inspired me when I was a teenager to do the kind of often-unpopular writing I do now. Ida B. Wells used her journalism skills to lead an anti-lynching crusade that could’ve gotten her killed and did get her printing press destroyed.

I believe it is our responsibility as writers to tell true stories, whether its reported stories about other people’s battles, or personal columns that reveal very private experiences, as I did in this one, that in turn inspire or help other people find strength to face or tell theirs. That means we must challenge the wisdom of the moment, and sometimes those become our most popular pieces.

What always lets me know I’m on the right track are the emails and messages I get telling me that I just wrote something that someone is feeling but is afraid to express. Since the Clinton column in The Guardian, I’ve heard from so many young women who were turned off by feminists, such as the ones who skewered Lewinsky but not Clinton, and others who are frustrated because people around them do not want them to criticize Hillary Clinton—a year and a half before the presidential election.

Our obligation as writers is to use our words to get others to think, and to feel, and to consider, and maybe even come up with creative solutions and compromises that make sense. Powerful writing never serves the status quo, whether the left side of it or the right side.

Scott Ginsberg really spoke to me with the end of his April 19 post: “Truth is: Criticism isn’t something you draw—it’s something you earn.”

The good news is that earning criticism gets much easier with practice.

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