In my college years, I noticed a church sign promoting an upcoming sermon titled, “A Christian View of Time.” What caught my attention was use of the article “A” rather than “The.”
The preacher had enough self-awareness and integrity to acknowledge that he didn’t have the definitive word on the subject.
That is a good practice for expressing oneself, whether in a sermon, a media posting or a published opinion piece. Hence what follows is my (not the) imperfect but somewhat experience-grounded philosophy for sharing one’s opinion in public — whether a formally published piece or a social media post.
1. Take note that both topic and tone are read.
Speaking passionately, even firmly, has its place when addressing issues that take their toll on those without the power and pen to speak up for themselves. Boldness has a proper role.
But it must be done with care. This concerns tone as much as topic.
Saying something more loudly — or writing something littered with exclamation points — doesn’t make it more truthful. Well-crafted, fact-based and applicable words carry more weight than noise and over-punctuation.
If boldness bleeds into belligerence, whatever is being projected will come across as a clanging cymbal. It is the good cause, not a perceived know-it-all writer that should be elevated.
2. Admit when making a communication misstep.
Opinion writers — and social media posters — do well to admit when we don’t do well. More damaging than a weak or wrongly stated position is its continuing defense.
When wrong, admit it. We all make mistakes. Yet we can learn from those to avoid future ones — often by checking a few sources before regurgitating something that may not be true.
Good communication involves confessing our miscommunications — or misuse of the space granted to us. An honest opinion writer or speaker will admit to such failures without being defensive.
3. Accept valid criticism, but don’t feel obligated to respond to everything.
Not every response deserves equal attention. Those of us who’ve been doing opinion writing since long before social media have files of feedback.
Some, however, were moved quickly to the commodious “file 13” (or “circular file” as it’s sometimes called).
Chief among those are anonymous letters. Others are ones that completely miss the point of what was stated — and became a mere springboard for someone’s eagerness to jump on an unrelated soapbox.
However, there is benefit in hearing criticism — and opposing opinions — that are thoughtfully and civilly offered. Accepting such is easier when one’s opinion is considered as the first lob in an ongoing conversation rather than the final, definitive word on the subject.
There’s more art than science to when and how to respond to feedback. I respond less often than before — realizing that largely defensive and deflective reactions aren’t going to lead to anything constructive.
It becomes pretty easy — due to catchphrases, labels and other specific terminology — to know whether an honest, personal disagreement is being expressed or someone is caught up in the latest conspiracy theory or theological drivel that is driving their reaction.
Accepting valid criticism as well as different perspectives, however, can be very enlightening. And that should be the shared goal.
4. Self-deprecation makes a writer more approachable.
Pointing to one’s own shortcomings and shortsightedness demonstrates that the writer or speaker is a fellow struggler rather than a self-designated expert dispensing truth from above.
Self-examination as well as the counsel of friends (and we all need honest evaluators) can help in finding that needed balance of truth telling and confessing one’s imperfection.
Even doing so, however, doesn’t suit everyone.
One friend’s regular response, whenever I unmask Christian nationalism in ways he doesn’t want to see, is that I’m arrogant. It’s an attempt to invalidate the writer since the point being made is painfully valid.
But that charge helps me to be more careful when putting my ideas into the public sphere. It is good to find words and ways to demonstrate that the writer as well as the receiver is fallible.
I have a sermon that begins, “Have you ever done something stupid?” Then I remind listeners that they are not to point to those sitting beside them. Rather, it is a question for them.
But I start by telling of something really dumb that I have done — and there are several from which to choose.
Humor and humility are closely related. Directing some humor toward one’s own foibles and failures creates a more comfortable place for readers or listeners to fairly consider what is being offered.
Perhaps sharing one’s philosophy of opinion writing without being asked is not very humble. However, through the years I’ve had many aspiring writers seek such advice.
Now, everyone with a tiny keyboard and a thumb is capable of putting their ideas into the public sphere.
The chief piece of advice I offer is: Write to communicate, not to impress.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.