Want to be a better artist? Stop defending your prejudices and start listening
Alicia Elliott on why acknowledging oppressed groups' criticisms instead of rejecting them is so important
If you've ever participated in a writer's workshop, you may be familiar with the Milford-Style Critique. What happens is this: your peers come to the workshop having read and critiqued your work. You, the writer, sit in the circle and listen as everyone goes around and critiques your work. You are not allowed to speak — you just have to listen. It's terrible. At the end, after hearing all the critiques, you're allowed to ask questions to help you better understand the critiques. From there, you transition into an open discussion on how to address any criticism and create better work. That's not so terrible.
Every writer knows that their first draft is never perfect. Every writer also knows that hearing your writing isn't perfect is basically the most upsetting, infuriating thing you can hear. You rage; you discredit; you pretend everyone else is a moron who doesn't understand your genius. Then you realize they may have a point. You can't see your own work's flaws as clearly as they can; you're too close to the material. You need that outside perspective to improve your writing and, ultimately, become a better writer.
There is a trend I see amongst Canadians today when they face criticism from marginalized groups: deny, defend, don't back down. There is often little to no reflection on the part of the person being criticized — only pure anger levelled at whoever dared voice that criticism. After all, who cares if what you're saying or supporting has negative effects on others' lives? It's rude for those affected to point that out. That kind of information hurts your feelings.
The 'deny, defend, don't back down' response is a reaction everyone has when their own unconscious biases peak their ugly heads.- Alicia Elliott, writer
It's interesting that so many Canadians are willing to embrace this rather callous approach in a nation that otherwise prides itself on its "polite" national identity. It's even more interesting that these people often insist it's their "right" to say whatever they want themselves — it's all "just words," after all. But when they themselves are called specific words — white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, etc. — they react with unrestrained anger and vitriol, as if you've just doused them in gasoline and struck a match.
But before you get too high and mighty: this knee-jerk reaction is not just an issue for those who are socially conservative. The "deny, defend, don't back down" response is a reaction everyone has when their own unconscious biases peak their ugly heads and are gently (or not-so-gently) swatted down by those most affected.
Last summer, I met a person who had recently come out as genderqueer. I misgendered that person as "she" and their reaction was angry and quick: "THEY." That was all that was said — a simple correction. Nothing more. Pretty tame, all things considered. Still, I was so offended at their response that I went into a silent, fuming tailspin. Why couldn't they have just explained what pronoun they wanted me to use when we met? I can't read minds. I didn't know. Why were they so mad at me? It was one mistake.
But with time and reflection, I realized how hypocritical and idiotic that reaction was. That person had to constantly reassert their identity — and humanity — every time a person like me erased them with a mistaken pronoun. Who wouldn't be angry in that position? Who wouldn't be tired? And was I really that inconvenienced when they pointed this out? If anything, I should have thanked them. I needed that person to remind me of the ways I was failing them so I wouldn't fail them — or those like them — again. They made me better.
If we can't [learn], the world we live in will continue to be an awful first draft that no one wants to read.- Alicia Elliott, writer
It's hard to recognize the ways that we all enact discrimination. Despite our best efforts to not be racist, sexist, homophobic, colonizing, etc., we have been socialized in a country that is systemically all of those things. And so we may unintentionally say or do things that uphold those forms of discrimination. That we only recognize discrimination when it's screaming in our faces and not when it's whispering in our ears shows how deeply entrenched those prejudices are. Yes, of course we all make mistakes. But if our reaction when our mistakes are pointed out is to immediately deny, defend and refuse to back down, we're never going to move forward.
I wonder what it would be like if we applied the Milford-Style Critique to our own lives — if instead of reacting first, we listened, asked questions and created respectful dialogue on how to fix our mistakes. What would we learn? What would we unlearn?
It may be hard to put aside your ego, but it's an essential part of really listening to and learning from those who have knowledge and experience you don't have. If we can do that, we can become better artists and better people. But if we can't, the world we live in will continue to be an awful first draft that no one wants to read.