Whether we like it or not, Facebook has become a de facto replacement for the town square. It is there we meet and greet our friends, discuss projects and plans and, on occasion, air grievances and unpopular opinions. It’s this last one that drew my attention recently.
Augusta writer Tara Wood recently posted, with well-placed pride, that her work would appear in the recently published I Just Want to Be Perfect, a collection of essays on motherhood. It should be noted that Wood’s particular perspective is somewhat irreverent, always funny and yes, often makes use of her adult words.
I bring this up because the news of her accomplishment was greeted almost universally with enthusiasm and praise. I say almost because there was a dissenter, someone we will, for the sake of not re-stoking the fire, call Mr. X.
Mr. X, it seems, took umbrage at Wood’s proclivity for profanity, in part, because she is a woman. Wood has every right to work blue, just as I do. Gender has nothing to do with it. This did, however, cause me to ponder the effect, positive and negative, social media might have on those with strong opinions.
I, like almost everyone, get angry and frustrated when I see unfounded, uninformed and unreasonable opinions posted. On the other hand, I have offered my own unsolicited opinions, professionally, for more than half my adult life. Does that make me a hypocrite? Am I different from Mr. X when I urge Wood to let her profanity flag fly or merely the other side of the same coin? Is the fairly vigorous berating Mr. X received justified? These are difficult questions with complicated answers. I can offer no absolute right or wrong. All I can provide, as a professional provider of opinion, is the rules I follow when writing a piece of criticism. An opinion is an opinion, after all, whether it’s a long deconstruction of a record or a quick tweet.
Here are the rules:
• Write intellectually, not emotionally. There is always a reason to love or loath something. “It’s just the way I feel” is never enough. Think about your response and what fuels the fire before presenting it for public consumption.
• Research. I have never written a review I did not research first. An opinion given off-the-cuff ignores essential perspective. Let’s go back to Wood. Where does her work fit within the context of American humor? Does dismissing her work require ignoring the contributions of George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers and Moms Mabley? How has Wood’s voice evolved and how has language contributed to that? There’s a lot of reading that goes on before we write, particularly when offering a creative critique.
• Opinions should help, not hinder. Here’s a secret. I want every book, band and exhibition I review to be amazing. And when they aren’t, I want to provide perspective not only for the potential audience, but the artist as well. There’s a difference between offering a critique and being critical. A review that doesn’t necessarily glow is proffered in the hope that an opinion might inspire. I am, after all, a lover, not a fighter.
• Be prepared to make a stand. If you are not comfortable discussing a subject in a public forum, don’t bring it up. I have a lot of controversial opinions and I’m willing to discuss – in a civilized way – every one of them. I am dismissive of the Eagles, don’t believe Citizen Kane was the best movie ever made and think that Star Trek lacks dramatic tension. I’m not saying my opinion is right or wrong, but I stick with it no matter how heated the opposition.
• Avoid hyperbole. The opportunities to call something the best or worst, perfect or a waste of time, are few and far between. The truth is life is mostly lived in that gray area between absolutes. I believe that in every success there’s room for improvement and in every stumble some semblance of victory. An opinion should address both.
• Be pro. This one is the most important. It’s essentially my take on the Golden Rule. Don’t attack. Don’t be cruel. Don’t be intentionally hurtful. Remember there is someone at the other end of an opinion. If you disagree, disagree with respect.
Which brings us back to Mr. X. We live in a society where free speech is more than valued, it is protected. I do not agree with Mr. X’s opinion – at all. But I do respect his right to voice it. Call off the tar-and-feathers. Tell him – or any other friend with an opinion other than your own – why you disagree. But be cool about it. Discourse and disagreement are part of life. So is discussion. Let’s focus less on the former and more on the latter.