There are two ways I come upon new ideas. The first, the short way, is when I seek out interesting things that other people have shared, or written about, or told me about. The second, the long way, is when something I do is critiqued by someone else.
My first instinct upon being critiqued is to resist or explain. That isn’t what I intended. That isn’t quite what I did. There was context. There were other factors.
That isn’t me, please don’t think it is.
But I also believe that the core of a person is much smaller than we often allow it to be, and the rest of a person is much more malleable that we like to admit. Circumstance, society, desire, stress, unmet needs, intentions—all these things change “who we are” from moment to moment. It may be that we always express some of our core, but there is so much noise in that signal.
Is it any surprise that sometimes a critique feels like an indictment?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to give feedback. It’s always been a topic of interest for me, since I grew up feeling, and still feel, pretty awkward in unstructured social situations. I appreciate and understand it much better now, because giving feedback has been a big part of my professional life, in Outdoor Leadership, in Wilderness Therapy, in Education, in Writing Support—and in activism. I come to all of those places with lessons from the others. I come to all of those places trying not to repeat mistakes I’ve made in the others. And I see lots of other people giving feedback around me, and sometimes making mistakes I’ve made myself.
The easy mistake is to go straight for the constructive feedback, and to actually be providing criticism when you think you’re being constructive. In some activist communities especially, I feel we’ve lost a lot of the constructive approach. Emotions run high, people put their identities on the line, and slights real and imagined draw quick, acerbic denouncement. Maybe it’s because we’re often online now, speaking publicly to people we only sort of know. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, I feel like my progressive community tends to abandon the middle ground and claim the high ground instead.
I think we need a habit of giving each other feedback, but in a way that improves our community instead of a way that excises things we don’t like. Feedback, I think, should not be battlefield surgery.