How does one deal with public critics, naysayers, and haters?

December 04, 2023 09:44
Photo: Reuters

Part of the following was based on a few scrambled notes and thoughts I had put together in a personal journal a few years back. The rest, of course, is history – or rather, the byproduct culminating from history. In putting together a piece that wrestles with the perennial question that many worry about – from pop stars to politicians, from academics and intellectuals to the ordinary layperson – I have found it useful to take pause, stock, and, indeed, heed my own advice.

We live in a world where criticism, naysaying, and ‘hate’ are ubiquitous. The three are fundamentally distinct in important ways – critics may not be motivated by malicious intentions, which is the sole remit of haters; those who engage in naysaying may not be offering any substantive or useful criticism at all – opting instead to merely pontificate on your purported inadequacies. Haters can hate without criticising or naysaying you; indeed, some of the most virulent hatred is often sprouted by those who have nothing substantive or well-reasoned whatsoever, in justifying their assertion that you are not worthy or deserving of being loved.

So we must disaggregate and de-bundle the three. Yet there are also striking similarities. All three kinds of stakeholders could, in theory, render one more deflated. They perpetrate and encourage fatalism and determinism. They give way and rise to some of the most debased and primordial of human sentiments – the sentiments of fear, of anger (as you react to them), and of defensiveness. It is not so much swords and daggers that hurt us in the contemporary era – it is guns, germs, or the germination of vengeance and negative sentiments that often drag us down. And indeed, it is the above nemesis that we must confront with audacity and flair.

Hence we must return to the question – how do we deal with the above three kinds of individuals? The first step is to identify the explanation and root cause for the negative sentiments they are displaying towards you. Is it jealousy? Is it anger? Is it vengeance? Is it out of a desire to prove something given the long-standing chip on the shoulder? Or is it in fact something that you have done wrong and would be much better off admitting? These questions matter, for they enable us to determine if there is indeed more than meets the eye and something that merits our serious reflection and reconsideration – when it comes to our actions, choices, and decision-making processes. In short, are we at fault, if at all?

More often than not, we’d be surprised to find that whilst some of the criticisms we receive in public are indeed sincere and constructive, responding to a deficiency and defect in our routine, much more of it is vacuous and nefarious. Some engage in vocal, vociferous panning of you to make themselves feel better; others do so in order to vindicate their previous, fatalistic judgments of you and your abilities (or the lack thereof). Insecurity is a powerful, arguably too-powerful force that motivates many subconsciously. Hence in appraising the root causes of the accusatory pressures you face, do not ever feel that you must cower and cave into the demands and prescriptions raised by those who can only muster the courage to strike at you in the name of public discourse and deliberation.

The second step is to remember that this is way more common (albeit by no means normal or acceptable) than you think. As social beings living in a community of many, whether we be successful or unsuccessful, our actions would inevitably draw the ire of some others. In the case of those who flourish and thrive, the Tall Poppy Syndrome is particularly conspicuous – that is, ‘tall poppies’ are likely to be criticised and scrutinised with extra levels of attention, for the controlling image (stereotype) and discourses surrounding it do not permit for any deviation from the ideal benchmarks. Any falling short of perfection is seen as akin to a fundamental failure. It is this perverse perfectionism that gives rise to a culture of unduly demanding and harsh judgment in the society we inhabit.

Yet the power of hate comes not from its expression, but from its recipient’s taking it seriously. The Neo-Nazi flag’s being in Skokie was a despicable and dark moment in human history, yet its force and impact were thankfully blunted in virtue of many recognising that contemporary fascism is little more than an apologia and incarnation for barbaric, abhorrent, and fundamentally vulgar atrocities. We cannot let our lives be written and dictated by those who believe that they can control us with mere words. Criticism inoculates us – it makes us stronger, better, and faster as we continue to advance causes that are dear to us.

The third and final dimension – and this may well come across as somewhat pious or counterintuitive – is forgiveness. The most powerful tool we can deploy against those who are filled with hatred, spite, and unbound jealousy, is forgiveness. It is the acknowledgment of their deeply rooted woes, worries, and distraught mental states, and the incorporation of said acknowledgment into how we interact with these fragile and frail others.

Not all, but some who partake in bigotry and abuse are often victims of oppression themselves. In face of these individuals, we must draw upon empathy and our openness to conversation, as a means of situating ourselves in the shoes who spend their days and nights criticising us, especially as public figures. This is not to say that what they do is hence therefore not heinous or problematic, or that we should actively treat their upbringing and personal backgrounds as excuses for their skulduggery. It is, however, the case that we have more to gain from turning the other cheek as opposed to being inundated and entrapped in a vicious cycle of disillusionment, revenge, and suffering.

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Assistant Professor, HKU