Saturday, November 1, 2014

In the face of public criticism

You may not have seen it, but in the last month I was the target of more public criticism than I have ever been previously.  The story is that I'm on the committee which worked on this survey of asexual communities (no longer collecting data, preliminary findings now posted).  I would say the survey is not particularly professional, but neither is there anything horribly wrong about it.  Accordingly, the negative feedback we get is fairly mild.  But we do get some criticism, simply because we're a big target.  We have over 10,000 participants, mostly from Tumblr--and you know, bloggers, they're complainers.

But I'm not going to talk about the specific critiques.  I just want to talk about the experience of getting public criticism.  Public criticism is interesting, because we all engage in it, but few people ever experience much of the other side.  Despite this, we all build mental models of how the targets of criticism react, and how they should react.

The committee, as I said, is not particularly professional, we're just a bunch of disorganized volunteers.  So we didn't bother to come up with an official response to feedback.  We all respond as individuals.  There was one person who thought nearly all the critiques were correct, and felt really bad about themselves.  Another person thought nearly all the critiques were wrong and ignorant--but didn't say anything publicly.  As for me, I use my skeptical values to inform my response.  But I'm well aware that skeptical values are just high-minded ideas, and not practical tips for this specific situation.

Public criticism makes you experience a lot of irrationality.  My closest point of comparison is when I was in a dysfunctional relationship.  In the relationship, I went back and forth, day to day, between thinking the relationship was great, and thinking it was terrible.  In response to public criticism, I went back and forth, day to day, between thinking it would be good to respond to something, and thinking that it would be a bad idea to respond.  Either I'm being irrational on one day, or irrational the day after, although I don't know which it is.  When experiencing these kinds of emotions, I found it was always good to wait a day to see if they were at least time-consistent.

The reason for these conflicting emotions is that there are many conflicting values and priorities.  I want to be able to admit errors and avoid being defensive.  But I also want to be honest about the things I think are not errors.  I want to explain to people why we did what we did.  But I also want to be practical and act in the survey's best interest.

Yes, a big part of it is that explaining the whole truth is not really in the survey's best interest.  If I say too much, I can bias survey results in multiple ways.  And then, it's like I'm using the truth to create lies.  Honesty conflicts with itself!  Another problem, if I slammed a critic for saying something wrong, that would discourage other people from giving feedback, even if those people have good feedback to give.  That feedback is needed to improve future surveys.

To make peace with the fact that some people will just never know why they're right or wrong about the survey, I find it useful to think about the power dynamics here.  The survey team is like the brain, and the complainers are like the feet.  The brain has nearly complete power over the feet.  The feet can only complain.  Sometimes we should not act on the complaints, because we need to walk this hike and there's no way to do it without making the feet at least a little uncomfortable.  Sometimes we should act on the complaints, like if we accidentally walked over some broken glass.  In both cases, the complaints of the feet should be acknowledged and validated.