This blog post isn’t about why I don’t reply to every email I get. The reason there is really just about being too busy too often. Sorry! This is about responding to what you find on the internet. Bloggers and authors: Should you reply to everyone who criticises you? I think the answer to this is obvious, but here’s what I have to say anyway. While the kind of criticism I have in mind is online, I suppose this advice applies in “real life” as well.
First, an example. Some time ago I offered some thoughts on the Apostle Paul’s unusual comments in 2 Corinthians 12, re-telling an account of a man who saw things in “the third heaven.” In short, I explained why I don’t think there’s any good evidence that Paul was describing an out-of-body experience. For some reason, a blogger over at the “Choosing Hats” blog responded to this blog entry with one of his own. Fair enough, it’s what bloggers do!
As I explained over at the blog entry in question (as politely as possible), I just don’t think that the criticisms were particularly strong. For example, one of the things that I drew attention to was a misrepresentation of my account of how I discovered an issue with the wording of this passage, wording that is, I say, garbled in the NIV version. The Thinking Hats blogger claimed that I based my case on an “Aramaic” version. When I pointed out that actually I was first tipped off by an English translation from an Aramaic text, but I then checked this against the majority of traditional English translations only to see that they all agreed – followed up by checking the word order in Greek with the assistance of an interlinear, which also agreed with these English versions – I was told that my reply was “shameful,” and that the blog author had now “lost respect” for me. This response was an unpleasant surprise. In reality, this wasn’t an occasion to accuse me of shameful behaviour, much less to lose respect for me. It was simply an occasion for someone to receive polite correction about how they had misrepresented me (in public, remember), or to explain their comments when politely questioned about them. The trouble, I think, is that this correction frustrated a negative assessment of my interpretation of Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians, but why should that be a problem? Surely my critic would welcome a more accurate version of the facts, and would want his comments about me to be as truthful as possible, right? As it turns out, the blog entry and the brief exchange that followed had the opposite impact of what my interlocutor might have hoped, with a number of people contacting me and also replying to my original blog entry, expressing their dismay at this sort of misrepresentation of me.
That was that, I assumed. But no, for some reason the story has resurfaced, although now the it has changed somewhat. Clearly it had gotten under somebody’s skin. This time the comments – again, made by the same blogger – were made while discussing a recent debate between one of the bloggers at Choosing Hats and Chris Date, where the blogger recognised (begrudgingly, perhaps) that Chris bested the arguments of his debate opponent, making the case that the biblical position on the doctrine of hell is annihilationism (or at least that’s how I read that blog post). For some reason I was mentioned in passing in these comments (a fact that I found a bit bizarre in and of itself) as “a philosopher from New Zealand (who apparently thinks a scholarly treatment of the biblical text involves going to the KJV and an interlinear).” Short memories abound! (And apparently when someone disagrees with me on an issue of theology or exegesis, my theology and biblical studies degrees are best not mentioned, let’s just refer to me as a “philosopher.”) First I’m relying on an Aramaic version, then I’m relying on the KJV and an interlinear. Neither of those versions is correct as this blogger knew only too well (especially after I took the time to re-trace my steps to explain it for him the first time), so it’s a little disappointing that a Christian blogger has said this under the circumstances. Given the changing version of the story, I got the impression (and still have the impression) that it doesn’t matter what his story is, as long as he has one at any given time, and it’s bad. At the risk of sounding uncharitable to some, I do think the more recent and equally unfair version of events was partly the product of frustration at one of the bloggers having just lost a debate on a subject they care about (a subject where they know that I agree with the person they lost to). I don’t know. I contemplated adding a comment to the more recent version of events, just offering a friendly reminder of what had been pointed out before, but as is standard fare for this blogger now, comments weren’t allowed, so that was the end of it. It was providential that comments were closed, because on reflection I realised that it’s best not to comment on such things. And that brings me to the point.
The example that I’ve just described is a trivial matter. Although it may be a fine blog, the only reason I even know that this particular blog post exists is that one of the bloggers chose to offer criticisms of my blog entry, and one of them has debated a friend of mine. Nobody who has read my blog article will think much of this criticism, because it’s just a false description of events. This also isn’t a particularly unique experience – in the big picture, this one example just fades into dozens of others. There are scores of Christian blogs out there that include criticisms of articles at other blogs, and many of them are partisan attacks including multiple misrepresentations and snide comments much like the ones I’ve described. The internet brings out the intellectually ugly in people. So this is unremarkable and to be expected. I have no need here to correct or respond to it specifically, but I do want to offer some thoughts (for what they are worth) on this sort of situation in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) in general.
What do you do when this kind of thing happens? Someone misrepresents you, you correct them, a bizarre reply is offered, and then the misrepresentation (or a different version of it, in perhaps a more snarky form) reappears? Or what if it’s a different issue, not misrepresentation, but some other uncivil or intellectually dishonest tactic (something I don’t think people are morally entitled to do)? Or maybe it’s just a kind of remote trolling – someone just keeps mentioning you for the sake of offering negative comments on you or what you’ve said (and let’s face it, people are entitled to their opinion)? Maybe you’re a Christian blogger, and every time you comment on a specific subject (maybe something in science), an atheist blogger catches the scent and insists on writing an unofficial reply along the lines of “Oh look, the theologically minded nincompoops are at it again.” Or maybe it’s none of the above, and it’s just a blogger criticising something you’ve said and you’re wondering to what extent you should chase such things up?
Do you take the bait? Do you put on your serious face and decide that this is a matter of your integrity at stake (or better yet, they’re attacking you, a crusader for the faith, so it’s God’s integrity at stake!), so you must silence such things at every turn (trust me, you won’t)? Do you play the same game, continuously mentioning the people who keep mentioning you and continually hunting for the latest thing they’ve said so that you can make them look just as bad as they’re making you look (in spite of the fact that they’re actually making themselves look bad and now you’re doing the same)? Do you decide (if you’re a Christian and they’re attacking your faith in the process) that this is a matter of defending the very honour of God himself, so it is your sworn duty to be a soldier for Christ (read: provide even more bait than before)? As you can gather, no doubt, my answer in nearly every case is … That’s probably not a good idea.
If you’re someone who writes a blog not just to vent every idea that passes through your mind, but to make a positive difference in the way people think (whether or not you always expect people to agree with you of course), you have to ask yourself some questions before responding to criticism. Did I mention that you’ll face criticism? Rest assured, you will. This is all the more true if you talk about God a lot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. God’s really important (so say I), so what we think about God matters. When you’re trying to get people to believe things that they think aren’t true about stuff that really matters, they might have something to say about it. I don’t mind that at all, in fact I encourage it. I do it all the time! But how do you decide whether or not to reply to it? The reality is that if you start to get a few readers and critics and you decided to respond every time somebody criticised something you’d said, you’d write little else but responses to criticism! So I wanted to share the thought process that I try to follow when making that call – to respond or not.
Firstly, is the criticism made in good faith? If someone offered you the timeless line that “Your mother wears army boots,” would you launch into an evidence-based case that she doesn’t? Surely not. Even if you had a water-tight case, you know full well that the comment wasn’t made to persuade you of anything, and by responding at all you’ve just played into someone’s hand. Similarly, if someone knowingly misrepresents you, offers absurdly offensive comments about you and your views, or is quite clearly insincere in any appearance of helpful or honest criticism, why would you reply? For a good discussion? Sorry, it takes two to do that, so you’re out of luck. I used my own experience as an example of just this. When it has become clear that comments made in your direction from afar are not genuine contributions to any actually or potentially fruitful discussions, or where it’s obvious that no correction that you could offer would be listened to, you have to wonder why you’re responding to it. This is a case where you would be almost legitimising the comment – giving it more seriousness than it actually deserves, simply by giving it the time that it would take to respond. Here is where the Proverb applies: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be just like him!” The same would apply where a criticism is offered, so you offer a brief reply (which is conspicuously ignored), and then quickly a new criticism is wheeled out. You reply to that, your reply is ignored, and then a new criticism appears. Someone’s working their way through a list (maybe a list consisting of “lol, you defended belief in zombie Jesus,” followed up in quick succession by “miracles are impossible,” “do you really believe in talking snakes,” etc) – they don’t actually want a conversation with you. And on it goes. You commented for a purpose, and (hopefully) it wasn’t to feed a bottomless list of stock criticisms or objections. In the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Let go, Luke!”
Secondly, how do you feel when you start responding? “What? Feel? How emotive,” you might think. Not so. Quite the contrary, in fact. You need to be careful that you not respond simply because of how you feel, which is why you should ask yourself this question. Here again the book of Proverbs gives sage advice: “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” There are times when people who make criticisms do so in such way that is simply intended to wind you up. To “troll” you from a distance, you might say. If they succeed in getting you all wound up and irritated, driving you to reply in a testy way, then you’ve given them just the kind of power over you they were looking for. You lose, they win. I’ve seen this happen more times than I care to remember, and I’ve probably succumbed on this one more times than I care to admit. On the other hand, if they were making observations in good faith, they actually weren’t trying to wind you up at all but for some reason their comment just rubbed you the wrong way, so you act immediately on that emotion and lash back at them, you lose and they lose. A potentially fruitful discussion goes down the gurgler. This isn’t to say that no snarky comment ever deserves a reply. Maybe sometimes they do. The book of Proverbs also says that sometimes you should answer a fool according to their folly so they won’t appear as wise as they thought they were, which I take to mean answering a fool in a way that their folly deserves. Maybe a simple, blunt, yet polite rejoinder is called for at times. Something like: “Hi, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your interest in what I was saying, but that’s not quite what I said. You claimed that I said X, but really I said [insert quote here].” This is precisely what I did in the scenario described at the start of this blog entry, and in retrospect it seems like it was probably the best thing to do. Don’t keep going back to it if the remote trolling persists (they don’t own your time, and you’re not their genie in a bottle to summon just by trolling you), but you can at least rest assured that you’ve sought to set things straight in a gracious, rather than testy manner. Take a deep breath. Wait a day – or two, or three, or a week if you need to. If, after that, you still think the criticisms are important enough to respond to (and maybe you won’t), take another look and respond, calmly and kindly.
Thirdly, what’s at stake? Hopefully you’re not just going to reply to show one person that if they say anything about you, you’ll show up and reply. What’s the actual issue in question? Is it some important principle, some fact of significance, some claim about you that damages your reputation and that people are actually likely to believe? How many people actually read the blog that you’re contemplating replying to? The blogger and a handful of his college buddies? Or maybe it’s a case of a well known and influential writer with a good deal of professional influence who has chosen to wage war against you in a very public way (I think here of the professional harm wreaked by Norman Geisler on Mike Licona over the last year or so). Don’t invest yourself in a turf war over just a few square inches of territory, but weigh it up. I think in cases where it’s quite clear that when someone of influence makes damaging claims about you, you’re perfectly justified in graciously but forthrightly speaking out (as Mike did). But the reality is that most criticisms of you online, fortunately, aren’t going to be like this.
I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins’ vocal refusal to debate William Lane Craig when asked to do so by a number of atheists hopeful to see the clash: “That might look good on his C.V., not so good on mine.” When Dawkins said it, it was amusing simply because it wasn’t true. And there’s also a certain aspect of this approach that is really not the sort of thing that I want to emulate as a blogger, along the lines of “Oh poo, I’m much too important to comment on a lowly blog like THAT.” That’s not the sort of attitude I want to cultivate, either in myself or in others. There is very rewarding interaction to be had with bloggers “big and small,” so to speak, and you’re never “too important” to gain valuable insight from somebody you’ve never heard of. There will be many situations where what you thought was bound to be a minor skirmish actually turns out to be genuinely thoughtful probing from someone who is benefiting by engaging with your comments, so be careful about dismissing criticism as “irrelevant.” If you’ve been blogging for a while, or if you’ve graduated and are now an esteemed professor of something or other, just remember – you were once like that other guy.
But in some situations there’s a level of wisdom in the concern Dawkins suggests as well. If somebody that you’ve never heard of before makes a criticism of something you’ve said, you respond to it, and then later it rears its head again for no obvious reason, or they start making what you regard as inappropriate comments, or it just looks like they’re not interested in listening to you, ask yourself some questions. You’ve had your say in responding (or maybe you chose not to respond at all). Other than you, few people in the world even know that these comments are being made, and perhaps due to credibility issues, nobody’s going to take the comments about you seriously anyway. In terms of simple costs and benefits, is there any point in dragging it out? Does their displeasure with you matter that much?
Fourthly, what do you think will happen as a result of you responding? Is this a case where you can more or less tell that by replying you’re just going to pour gasoline on a fire? If so, don’t even bother. Looking at what was said, is there actually a chance of the other person hearing your response, or will it be auto-rejected to prevent having to concede that maybe they could learn something? Are you so put out by the comments that you really can’t see any possibility of you being interested in learning from criticism? Maybe this can indeed be a case where people learn from each other, and if so, great. If that’s what you see as a genuinely possible outcome, then this is what blog discussions are for. Go for it. It may even be the start of a great friendship!
And lastly, what would you be doing if you weren’t responding to this criticism? Time is one of the most precious gifts you have, so think about how you’re investing it. When I watch an interesting Youtube clip, I’m sometimes amazed at the almost endless string of tit for tat comments that I see by people who go back and forth trying to one-up one another in the “who’s the most snarky, condescending prat in the world” stakes. Other than general distaste for the content of the comments, the one thing that strikes me above all else is this thought: “Good grief, these people place absolutely no value on their time!” I’m reminded of the rather sobering practice of some Puritan writers, who at their work desk prominently displayed two items: An hourglass with sand trickling through it, and a skull. Time is ticking away my friends, and you are mortal. You’ve actually got things to do – or at least you should. God has given you plenty to do! Would your time be more wisely invested writing that next article for publication, putting together your next blog on some issue that you think is important, or responding to somebody who just said that you’re “mindlessly incompetent.” Or even if the criticism is more civil in nature, is responding to it clearly more important than the other things you should be getting done? Let’s see why my options are: Write for publication, work on podcast episodes (which are planned but not even written due to the scarcity of time), try to find better ways of providing for my family, work on important professional / ministry / academic networking, engage in my own reading/research, or respond to that guy…. hmm…. What to do? Granted, sometimes it will be responding to that guy. Often criticism does warrant a reply. If I do reply, I have to be careful not to get snagged, so that my time starts disappearing into somebody’s comments thread. If it’s a context where a good faith, irenic discussion can be had, try to make sure you understand each other, try to respond succinctly and clearly, if necessary follow up with observations on any reply, but again – let go. Your time is given to you to invest wisely. I don’t want to be so continuously absorbed in myself that I never interact with others and their criticisms, but you get the point. You have a lot to do. What is the time that you’re taking to respond taking you away from?
Looking back over the comments I’ve made here, I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I think that criticism in general is trollish in nature. It’s generally not, although of course it can be. But whether it is or not, these five principles are the ones that I try to bear in mind before I go down the road of responding: Is the criticism made in good faith? How do I feel before replying? What’s at stake? What do I think will actually happen as a result of me replying, and what would I be doing if I wasn’t replying? Hopefully weighing these things up will amounts to an answer to the question: Is this really wise?