Recently I have again engaged in the enlightening experience of responding to harsh critics who attack not only what I have said, written or done, but also who I am.
I’ve learned over a lifetime of speaking and writing to millions of people (I calculate that at least 5 million people have heard my voice in writing and another 500,000 in speaking) that something I say or write can trigger hostile reactions that seem totally unwarranted, at least in my eyes; but in the eyes of the other person, it is simply the truth as he or she sees it.
I can attest—from 50 years of experience in sharing at least 500 talks and testimonies in several different wards and branches of my Church (located in many American states and in several other countries) and in speaking to other diverse groups—that speaking (writing, singing, acting, or dancing) your truth from your head, heart and soul will invite some hostile reactions.
It seems that this is particularly true at home, where no man is a prophet. In and around my home (Provo, Utah, USA), I may be written off and dismissed by half the congregation before I say a word. Sometimes the spirit of what I say wins them over, but usually not if their mind is made up (pre-judgment or prejudice). I am jailed, and they become my wardens.
You may have had the experience of speaking or singing before a rather hostile crowd (or at least a few critics whose minds are made up before they hear a word or note). As you showcase your talent, sing your song, play your game, share your convictions, or present your conclusions, you invite critics. Now you face the dilemma: how can I best respond?
I have learned to be thankful for critics and to pray for enemies.
Four Short Cases in Point
These four cases (among many others) illustrate the challenge of responding to critics.
Case 1. About 12years ago, I was invited to speak at a national convention of about 600 Black leaders in Atlanta, Georgia. When I arrived, I learned that I would follow the keynote speaker, Kweisi Mfume (born Frizzell Gerald Gray), former CEO of the NAACP, as well as a five-term Democratic Congressman from Maryland. Mfume spoke eloquently about injustices heaped upon Blacks and how more Black leaders were needed to right wrongs, seek reparations, and continue with reverse discrimination against whites in education, law and professions.
I was the next speaker, assigned to speak for 30 minutes on how best to develop effective Black leaders (I was one of only three whites present in the assembly).
Bothered by his comments and short on time (I had about 18 minutes), I decided at the last minute to abandon my prepared remarks and speak extemporaneously on the topic using the case study of illegally persecuted Mormon converts and pioneers, circa 1830-1850.
Since my remarks countered, rebutted and refuted the approach for developing leaders advocated by Mfume, I was basically shouted down, threatened and kicked out (and never paid).
Afterwards, I apologized for my “in your face” rebuttal and kept in touch with certain Black business leaders who agreed with me. I also learned to have empathy for MFume, after learning that he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, 1948, the eldest of four. His father, a truck driver, abandoned the family and his mother died when he was 15. Mfume dropped out of high school at 16 and worked three jobs at a time to support his three sisters. He also ran with the wrong friends, was locked up a couple of times, and became a father to five children with several different women (he also adopted one child). At age 23, he determined to change his life for the better. He returned to his studies, obtained his GED, studied at The Community College of Baltimore, where he served as the head of its Black Student Union and editor of the school newspaper. He next attended Morgan State University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1976, and earned a Master of Liberal Arts degree in 1984 at Johns Hopkins University. In recognition of his heritage and his success over his beginnings, he changed his name to Kweisi Mfume (from Ghana, meaning Conquering Son of Kings).
While our views differed widely, I learned as a commentator to display first some empathy (or as SR Covey said, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
- Victoria’s Secret. Once I was invited to speak on leadership with the entire executive team at Victoria’s Secret (Columbus, Ohio) from 10:30 am till noon, and then do a two-hour afternoon training session. However, after presenting some observations on Counterfeit Leadership, I was summarily dismissed before noon and evicted from the premises.
Before leaving, I thanked them for inviting and hosting me in (although no one had treated me civilly) and for having the courage to face some hard truths about their culture.
Two days later, in the evening, I received a phone call from the person who so rudely evicted me. He apologized profusely and confessed that I had said exactly what they needed to hear but did not want to acknowledge, and that I would receive my full fee and reimbursement for expenses. I learned that every top team has their “secret garden” of “undiscussables.”
- Church member. Recently I testified in a Church meeting of some truths that are extant in the Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale, implying that Jonah was not actually swallowed by a whale but rather that the belly of the whale might symbolize a state of separation, depression, addiction, desperation, incarceration, hospitalization, detention or any condition or circumstance that limits liberty and freedom. I noted that I’m not a literalist when interpreting scripture, especially the Old Testament. I’m more literary, believing in symbolism. I said, “at some point you and I will all be swallowed by a whale—if it hasn’t happened yet, it will.”
And the whale may represent any overwhelming condition or massive challenge that seems insurmountable, inescapable, and interminable. On our own, we lack the power to extricate ourselves—no matter how intelligent, rich, wise or popular we may be. What puts us in this condition may seem random or the result of sin, crime or rebellion, and the only way out is via our repentance and return to obedience and Christ’s atonement.
Following my testimony, one man (who lives near me) condemned me for preaching “false, vain and foolish” doctrine, along with “personal opinion” contrary to official Church interpretation of scripture. I could feel the eyes of several members of the congregation staring at me. Later I was asked why I did not react to his condemnation. I responded, “I know this man and feel love and compassion for him. From our personal interactions, all initiated by me in an attempt to be his friend, I know of the burdens he bears. So, for the past three years, I have made a concerted effort to be cordial to him, greet him and stop to chat with him.
“During the meeting, even as he spoke in condemnation of me, I was admiring him for his passion, conviction and knowledge of scripture. I was grateful that he was in church with his wife and three returned missionary sons. I was not offended by his words.”
After the meeting and for the next few days, I tried to greet him again to thank him for this rebuke. Finally I went to his home and, not finding him there, left a note, expressing my appreciation for him and vowing to heed his counsel.
- Neighbor. After sharing something that I had written, a close neighbor emailed me to accuse me of “regurgitating my self-serving content” without adding any redeeming value. She felt that “it is apparent that you are unhappy with your life” and that “publishing your observations discounts whatever good you are trying to accomplish.”
My response to this critic was to write her and thank her for the joy and inspiration she has added to my life. I confessed to being a closet fan of hers as she sings in a choir whose music videos are posted on YouTube. “When I listen to these videos, I often scroll down the comments, as you may have done on occasion. Many are complimentary; others are critical; and some are downright over-the-top nasty. As a singer (writer, dancer, actor, athlete, or any field performer), you learn to take it all in stride. Not everyone loves you or your music or message.
“I have no clue what it is like to be you,” I wrote. “Likewise, you have little or no clue
what it is like to be me. I will always give you the benefit of any doubt . . . sorry, you are my friend for life, and beyond . . . and there is no obligation to agree with me on anything I may write or say. Please know: I will always be cheering for you (and yours).”
Close encounters with critics can be enervating and/or invigorating.
Rejected for Words, Works, Ways
I have read how Christ was rejected, particularly by his own leaders. You might say that Christ deserved to be rejected by them.
His words. After all, he called them hypocrites in the harshest of human terms.
His works. Many of his works were offensive or threatening to the Jews and Romans.
His ways. His ways were not the common ways (higher ways, not highways).
I too tend to be rejected by leaders who tend to promote their own kin and kind . . . to be labeled and black-balled by administrators who imprison me for life with no pardon or parole, no commuting of sentence or early release. Every errant word or suspect deed of mine serves to reinforce their perception and prejudice and justify their punishment.
In all religious societies composed of priests, there is the ever-present threat of priestcraft, along with high callings and canonizations for the “ins,” rejection of the “outs,” and uniformity of acceptable conduct—one style, one mode, one manner of expression.
I confess to meriting rejection in some measure, as I am a sinner. Still, I have not committed the more serious sins, and yet I am seen as threatening by some.
My works. My profession as a writer/journalist/publisher causes concern.
My words. I am known for creativity, originality, candor, authenticity and objectivity (which is usually seen as negativity).
My ways. My non-conforming ways are seen as disobedience.
Thankfully, I received consolation from a Wise Friend. As I read your words,” he wrote, “these words came to mind (from 3 Nephi 12: 10): “And blessed are all they who are persecuted for my name’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 And blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake; 12 For ye shall have great joy and be exceedingly glad, for great shall be your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you.”
Please understand: I am not comparing myself to Christ, merely making the point that messengers of truth still tend to get criticized and shelled if not crucified and shot. And yet I am grateful for my enemies and critics: I continue to learn much from them.