I'm editing a journal -- and I'm under attack!

I arrived at my views through deep and careful thought, but readers seem out to get me!

Published September 20, 2005 8:42PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I hail from afar (Scandinavia) with a problem probably endured by most: feeling unappreciated and rejected.

I am the editor of a small, idealistic journal that in my community is well respected and sometimes even controversial. I left a very secure job a year ago for this one and have put all my heart into it. To prepare for my job I delved deep into my beliefs, looked carefully at the society and world we live in and came up with a journalistic policy for our journal that is heavy on the issues that I believe are important and, more often than not, ignored or worse, shabbily reported: racism, discrimination, the war in Iraq, Islam and the Arab world.

But this has not gone down so well in my community. The criticism has been unkind, sometimes bordering on the racist (I am of Arab descent). And I am, honestly, totally crushed. It is starting to take a rather heavy toll on my private life. I have trouble sleeping and am so cut to the bone by the response that I isolate myself even from my friends, just in case they say something unkind -- because I can just about handle that much.

I am very committed to my job and what I see as my calling to be a journalist, but ultimately I am more often asking myself: Is it worth it?

More than a penny for your thoughts ...


Dear Trapped,

Most of us have a certain need for positive reinforcement and a certain capacity for absorbing criticism. These needs and capacities vary from person to person, and they can usually expand or contract in response to what's going on in your life. If you're exposed to criticism regularly, for instance, you learn what to pay attention to and what to shrug off, and your capacity for absorbing it and evaluating it grows. On the other hand, if you never encounter criticism, you can be paralyzed and overwhelmed by it at first.

The need for positive reinforcement and the capacity for absorbing criticism lie along a continuum. At one end is the person with infinite ability to absorb or ignore criticism and no need at all for positive reinforcement; a person like that might almost be a sociopath. Such a person would have the ability to hold the most extreme of views and carry out the most ruthless plans without regard to the protests of those most gravely affected. To be so routinely deaf to complaint is to be isolated from the human community.

At the other end of the scale is the poor, pitiful person cringing in the corner with an infinite need for positive reinforcement and no capacity at all to absorb or deflect criticism. This person is helpless, often hysterical, infantile, powerless; this person is isolated not by lack of empathy but by extreme vulnerability.

Somewhere between those extremes most of us eke out our anxious, needy little lives. We tell ourselves criticism is useful when it is often only pointless and meant to sting; we tell ourselves to keep going in the face of massive public indifference (when that indifference might actually be a form of wisdom!); and we secretly dream of posthumous fame.

About praise and criticism, we are basically children. Oh, we learn to hide it well. And some of us, I am convinced, truly do go around comfortable with the knowledge that while we're not perfect, we're doing the best we can with what we have, we've made the best decisions we could make, and while chance may not have smiled on us at every turn, the world has not been unduly cruel to us. Ah, what a healthy perspective we have! We walk down the street with our healthy perspective, hands in our pockets, whistling a tune; we turn a familiar corner. There a crowd has gathered outside our building. Could this be a Nobel Prize welcoming committee? They're holding signs and chanting. What do the signs say? The signs say, You suck! You're an asshole! You're an imbecile! Your opinions are worthless! They're chanting One, Two, Three, Four, You're a worthless media whore! Five, Six, Seven, Eight, A pox on you and on your mate!

It can be quite a shock to confront this crowd. Why should they be angry at you? You didn't do anything to them! All you did was put forth certain ideas that you arrived at after genuine, heartfelt reflection. If only they could see the thought process you used! If only they could sort through and discard, as you did, the easy but flawed alternatives! If only they could realize that while a certain approach may be currently in vogue, you're thinking 50 or 100 years ahead!

But no. They are angry not just because your ideas differ from theirs, but because you offend them in some visceral way; you offend some private cherished illusion that they will not even admit to holding -- because to admit the source of their fury would be to relinquish some of that fury, and the fury feels too good to relinquish. If you feel injured by their behavior, keep this in mind: They actually do want to hurt you; they want to make you feel some pain. To make you feel their sting is at least to connect. So if you feel hurt, you are not crazy. When they call you a jackass, or they call you scum, they are not making considered critical comments. They are committing aggression; it's sublimated, perhaps, but it's still meant as an attack, not a helpful critique. It's meant to sting, not to educate. Oddly enough, that is because while they may claim to have contempt for you, they actually crave a connection with you.

The phenomenon you describe is real and has causes. The fact that you are hurt by this doesn't mean that you are weak or ineffectual. It does mean, however, that you have real enemies and that they are being effective.

It also means you need to take steps to mitigate the effects of this phenomenon. You can stem the tide of intense, vitriolic criticism without necessarily softening your views. But you need to better understand your relationship with your readers.

I had a job once where I was having trouble. I was performing well, according to my standards. But people were upset with me anyway. My boss sat me down and said two words: Managing expectations.

You're not managing expectations, he told me. You may be doing your job well, but you're unsettling people; you're giving people what they don't expect. If there are going to be changes, you need to sound people out on them ahead of time. You need to give them time to prepare. You need to give people the feeling that they're involved and they've been consulted. If you don't, it doesn't matter how great a job you do, you'll be making people feel powerless and disconnected from the process. And they will often retaliate. If they have the power to do so, they may remove you. If their only recourse is to denounce you, they may denounce you.

So it's necessary to manage the expectations not just of co-workers but of readers. My guess is that your readers care a lot about the journal. They have a personal relationship with it; it does something for them. It reminds them who they are. The depth and complexity of their relationship with it may surprise you

So give some thought to your community and what it means to be a part of it. Here's an idea. Pick two people from each camp -- two ardent supporters and two furious detractors. Get the five of you in a room. Ask them to make their positions clear to each other. Stay out of it. Just try to hear them talk to each other. Use what you hear to better understand who these people are and what they want.

Put your ideas aside for the moment and think about the well-being of your community. Think about how you can serve best that community as editor. What kinds of knowledge and opinions do they need to better understand their world?

Your ideas may be correct. They may be profound. But it's the people who read your journal who are important here. Try to understand what they want from your journal, and try to create that for them. Make reading your journal like receiving a gift from a close and cherished friend.

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