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Shut Up And Listen

The power of criticism in times of crisis

Diary of a Professional Teen is a weekly column of #deep thoughts by twentysomething teenager and youth expert Taylor Trudon. Every Thursday, she’ll talk about her feelings in relation to what it’s like to be a Young Person in 2016.

“You’re going to need to get thicker skin,” my high school journalism teacher told me.

I was the editor of my student newspaper; we had just published a scathing email from a classmate who did not appreciate my op-ed professing my adoration for bad reality TV. There were more important things in the world, she had written. Embarrassed for being called out so publicly, I complained to my friends and avoided eye contact with the author in the hallways. It was my first taste of criticism as a writer, and I was taking it very personally.

I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately, especially in the wake of the election, which felt personal to so many people. The sexist, BS-filled kind of criticism that Hillary Clinton was subjected to during her campaign and the years leading up to it; the wave of post-election criticism of what certain voter demographics did or did not do; the Facebook comments and tweets attacking young people when they voice their concerns.

What I wish I knew then and what took me years to learn are two main things. First, just because someone criticizes you, that doesn’t automatically make them correct. Crazy, right? The things you like and the things you believe in might not align with theirs, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have written what you wrote. Part of being a writer — and a Human Being With Convictions — is believing that what you have to say matters, no matter how trivial or dumb it may seem to someone else. So before you sit through a suffocating sauna of Outrage, take a step back and remind yourself why you wanted to write this very piece in the first place. When someone calls your words hot garbage, that doesn’t necessarily make them less valid. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and learning to accept that will be key to your sanity. (Besides, if everyone agreed, the internet would be boring AF.)

Second, it’s essential to be able to distinguish angry noise (oh, hey, Angry Girl From High School) from actual constructive criticism. Part of learning to take criticism is being able to set your emotions aside and ask, “Is this helpful?” This goes well beyond writing; learning to take criticism in any context is good. It can make you a better thinker. It can challenge you and force you to step outside your neatly-wrapped, privileged box.

It’s important that we critique those we wholeheartedly support and those we do not, because it holds people accountable. We need to be critical of our leaders, idols, friends, and our family. Giving and accepting criticism is how we become better allies.

Since Donald Trump has become president-elect, people are concerned about the impact his policies will have on traditionally marginalized or disadvantaged groups. They are trying to be allies in different ways — whether it’s donating to organizations like Planned Parenthood or participating in protests. Some are proudly wearing “The Future Is Female” t-shirts or safety pins to symbolize their allyship. Even when executed with the best intentions, these acts of solidarity can come across as excluding certain groups, offensive, or just completely disingenuous.

The reality is, now more than ever, we need to start being our own critics. We need to try harder. We need to hold ourselves accountable.

“But I wore my $55 14-carat gold safety pin from Etsy and now people are being mean to me on Twitter!” your offended friend says. Unfortunately, like Facebook statuses and hashtags, safety pins and t-shirts are a nice gesture, but none of these things will actually create change. Wearing a shirt with an empowering slogan might you feel good, but for the most vulnerable communities and identities who are scared for their lives, your shirt doesn’t mean shit.

When faced with these criticisms, people tend to get upset. But instead of getting defensive, this assessment needs to be internalized. Now is the time to really listen and process the efficacy of what you're being told about your allyship. It is not the time to throw your hands up and say, “Whatever, I tried.” It’s the type of commentary that may feel embarrassing, but is necessary. So if you encounter it, take it in. You can learn, move forward, and do better. Yes, your heart may have been in the right place before, but now your head is, too.

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