Some Conversational Tips for Controversial Bloggers

I watched this morning in a bit of horror as evangelical blogger Matt Walsh created an internet firestorm with his recent blog post entitled Robin Williams Didn’t Die From a Disease, He Died from His Choice. The post, at current, holds over 3,100 comments (I’m lucky to get one on my page!) on the blog itself, much less on his Facebook page (which boasts over a quarter million LIKES) and 3 million views. It has, for lack of a better term, gone viral…and not in the good way. Without betraying too much of my thoughts about Matt’s post itself (I’ll just say, I think it was overly simplistic and more naive than it was “evil”), I want to use his post to illustrate some lessons I have learned over the years on writing controversial material. Constructive criticism I guess. Hopefully these points can be of some use to up and coming bloggers as well as a reminder for those who have been at it for years!

  1. Be Careful What You Write…and How You Write it: This is probably the most important thing I could say. If you are a writer and, if you’re like Matt a fairly popular one, you have a responsibility. You are a public figure (even if a self-proclaimed one) and all public figures share a certain responsibility of owning their ideas and the very consequences which come from their ideas. Though most bloggers never achieve the sort of iconic status of being a “world-changer” in the larger sense, they do create and challenge existing ideas which have the potential to change the world in the smaller senses and, more specifically, the eternal fate of individual readers. One can make others more cynical, more distant, and more put off to salvation. What we say is extremely important. But how we say it is just as important. Matt, whether you are right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong is very much beside the fact that for the sake of stating your opinion, a great deal of individuals were very hurt, deeply offended, and ostracized from your proclaimed goal of pointing people to true healing in Jesus. I don’t think this was your intention, but it is what a great number of people felt. If even everything you have said in that post is correct (I’ll address that issue in a moment), even I think it was poorly timed and, in many places, poorly worded. It is the responsibility of any blogger to be aware of this possibility, even if unintentional.
  2. Don’t Write on Topics You Don’t Know Much About: Simple as that. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, of course, but we have too many voices pretending to be experts on issues they have little clue about and have little to no training in. No, you don’t have to have a Ph.D in every field before being able to express an opinion on it or even to be right in your opinion (although, I want my brain surgeon to be an expert) but you should be informed by the experts. What many bloggers miss, including Matt, is the need to sometimes outsource what you don’t know to people that do. Like many, I wanted to ask Matt “what are your credentials here? have you studied psychology or depression with any academic depth? do you have any real cognitive understanding as to how the chemical interactions of depression actually manifest themselves in the thoughts and choices of the individual?” A blogger should always ask himself, prior to writing on any topic, “Do I really know this as well as I should or might I be missing something?” I run into people all the time in theological circles who have never even taken the time to read a book on a topic they are so passionately for or against! Merely “feeling” this way, even out of experience, does not justify one to be a leading voice on a subject. In my opinion, Matt’s post on the topic would have hardly been so controversial had he requested a clinical psychologist to guest post on the topic or, at the very least, betrayed a reliance on peer-reviewed sources to back up some of his claims.
  3. Your Opinion is Merely Your Opinion: Too many bloggers (I’m guilty here too) write as if their opinion is the blunt fact of life. I thought it a tad unfortunate that Matt’s bio to his site is simply “Matt is a blogger, writer, and professional sayer of truths.” Nope. A “professional sayer or opinions” perhaps. Maybe a “professional sayer of what I believe to be truth.” But Matt is no different from most of the bloggers in the blogosphere who write more confidently than they should, especially about issues which they have never really spent much serious time looking into. Conviction can be quite the virtue, of course. But conviction can also be quite wrong-headed at times and have drastically negative consequences. Part of the responsibility any good blogger shares is the responsibility of existing in a conversation. It’s why we call it “the blog-o-sphere”, for there exists within it a variety of voices on a variety of subjects from a variety of angles.
  4. Do Not Be Surprised–or offended–that People Disagree with You: This one always gets me. Controversial bloggers write on controversial topics and then get upset and offended that people disagree with them. Though Matt has certainly gotten a slew of hateful comments to his post (i.e. death wishes), he should not have been that surprised or upset when people questioned him. As a general rule of thumb in blogging, controversial topics get more attention than boring non-controversial ones. With this should come the realization that at some point along the line something that you write will likely accrue some drastically negative attention, whether for the right or wrong reasons. It’s expected. Indeed, if you can get past some of the more hateful comments, you might find some benefit in thinking through the more well thought out criticisms of dissenters. Too often in blogging, we only look to confirm our opinions with those of like mind. But we should take disagreement just as seriously, if not more so, for we must always ask ourselves the question “What are the ramifications of me being wrong?”
  5. Spend More Time Being Quiet Than You Do Speaking: As noted above, whether Matt was onto something with his blog or not or whether he was partly right or completely off the mark is beside the point of this post. There are times where reverence demands our silence. Recall YHWH’s harsh words for Job’s friends who, in the aftermath of his whole world falling apart, insisted on speaking up and sharing their opinions. Yeah, well there are a lot of times where bloggers just shouldn’t blog. Yes, you might miss capitalizing on a popular public issue. Oh well. Get over it. Are you writing for the sake of being a writer because it’s your passion or to generate popularity and attention in your name? Are you writing to better the lives of numerous anonymous people or writing to create controversy. When death happens, especially, we’d do a lot better as bloggers if we would just take some time and not immediately go to our keyboards to share our thoughts. Just shut up about it for awhile and allow those in grief and those wrestling with the issue to do so in some semblance of silence. There are too many voices in this world that speak without reserve. Don’t be one of them.

Addendum: A 6th point raised by a good friend and reader that I think is worth sharing…No need to elaborate: “Be careful what you sell, because a reputation can never truly be bought back.”

  • Here’s what really scares me about this, Randy: his blog post was pretty good, while also being quite bad. There was a lot of truth in it, and a lot of encouragement. It makes me realize I might write a post someday with a lot of truth and a lot of encouragement, without realizing I’ve missed something very important to a lot of people.

    Come to think of it, I’ve <a href=" that mistake, just not to quite the same degree.

    The best advice you gave here, I think, was not to write about what we do not know. Beyond that, I really don’t think I pray enough about what I write.

    Having made more mistakes in blogging than just that one, though, I want to add this. Suppose you or I make a serious mistake in blogging. The thing to do after being made aware of it is not to hunker down and deliver a “detailed response to the critics.” The thing to do, most of the time when people are hurt, disturbed, angered, is to own the fact that we’ve hurt some people, disturbed some, angered some.

    Instead he opened by recounting all the injury that came upon him from it, followed by,

    I’m not telling you this so that you’ll feel sorry for me. I’m telling you this because we can all learn from it. We live in a culture where rational discussion has become nearly impossible, and I’ve never in my life encountered a better personal example than this. I should mention that I did receive plenty of intelligent responses, many supportive, some offering constructive criticisms.

    He’s right that rational discussion has become nearly impossible; but to name this as his chief example is to misplace the problem badly. People get upset over upsetting things. They even communicate that they’re upset. How surprising is that? How philosophically rational are we supposed to be in that context?

    Finally, Walsh seems to have thought that by proving he was right he could show that he was also compassionate. The flaw there is self-evident.