“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” – Margaret Thatcher (great line regardless of whether you supported her or not)
We have a conscious choice to make when we start writing anything, whether to be positive or negative. Given the near infinite flexibility of words to create a specific tonality, even one phrase out of place, one ill-timed sarcastic barb, can radically alter the message we are trying to send. If one tends toward the cynical, toward an overwhelming frustration with the way of the world and humanity’s seeming unwillingness to get its collective act together, keeping an upbeat theme is that much harder. Throwing up one’s hands and then crapping phonetically over everything that rubs you the wrong way is the escape valve for the bitter, the apathetic and the cowardly. One can liken optimism somewhat to the idea of faith, in the steadfast committal to believe in something in spite of physical evidence to the contrary. Human beings are tremendously flawed creatures capable of doing terrible, unspeakable things to each other, but do I want to live my entire life resigned to accepting the limits of our collective potential being defined by the worst of us? Must we always be forced to play in the dirt by those who choose to wallow there?
Criticism is a word with almost universally negative connotations, because in the age of the Internet, where “coolguy69” can dump polemics of visceral hatred (usually not phrased or even spelled as eloquently) on websites and message boards around the world and skulk back to his mother’s basement free of the responsibility of standing behind his words, we’ve forgotten that the point of criticism is, fundamentally, to offer suggestions for improvement. Snark gets noticed – when dealing with attention spans so overwhelmed by sheer volume of input they’ve been reduced to microseconds, the quick jab with the blade garners the headline and the retweet, instead of the drawn-out approach of reason and thoughtful consideration and counterpoint. We then pat ourselves on the back for what clever smartasses we are, forgetting in our momentary endorphin glow as the clicks and likes add up, that we are contributing nothing, advancing nothing, signifying nothing. It is as Shakespeare so cannily observed 400 years ago, a tale told by an idiot – and deserving of no further consideration.
I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the hipster loudmouth at the party who sips his appletini while he pontificates upon the downfall of Western civilization, throwing in handy Cliffs Notes references to Albert Camus and the collected works of Francois Truffaut while he constructs a dizzying, grand unifying thesis of how the human obsession with reality television and Facebook is merely foreshadowing the zombie apocalypse. Instead, I want to be the optimist. And that’s easier than you might think, because the evidence is everywhere. For every Joseph Kony in the world there are a hundred million good, decent, honest people, working hard, raising families, treating friends, neighbors and strangers alike with the respect and tolerance we should all merit by the mere fact of our existence. Not easy to remember when the Konys suck up all the news coverage, which is why sniping at the big bad universe is always the quicker, more seductive path – the dark side of the op-ed. When discourse has become so polarized, left and right so implacably divorced and compromise an archaic concession of the ideologically weak, is it not morally better to try and calm the waters – to try and point towards better days ahead – instead of stirring them further? Sighing and sneering won’t get us to the future that I continue to hope for in moments when I behold the wonders of nature, the possibilities of human achievement, and the smile of a child.
I don’t have a problem putting my name and photograph alongside my words, because I’m of the belief that if you wouldn’t carve it in concrete on your front porch, you shouldn’t publish it online. I can do that comfortably because I am proud that I have chosen, as the old song says, to accentuate the positive, and if I’m to be criticized for what I’ve written, I can take it, secure in the knowledge that I’ve given my best. It’s difficult at times; I get frustrated, even downright pissed off at a lot of what goes on out there, and many first drafts full of ugly vitriol have gone into the digital bin when I have stopped, taken a breath and asked myself what good it would do. That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves. Are we doing any good with our words? If not, then why are we bothering to write them?