When the mob tells you you’re wrong, how do you stay centered? Photo by @zacdurant

How To Cope With Criticism

Author And Philanthropist Dale McGowan Shares Great Advice

Dale McGowan sat down and shared a great story. Here is a bit of his bio from his site.

DALE McGOWAN has one foot in arts, the other in sciences, and the other in nonreligious life. He double-majored in music and evolutionary anthropology at UC Berkeley, then studied film scoring at UCLA before conducting a college orchestra while earning a Ph.D. in Composition from the University of Minnesota.”

Dale wrote Atheism for Dummies, Parenting Beyond Belief, and Raising Freethinkers. He also founded the humanist nonprofit Foundation Beyond Belief.

Here is part of our conversation.

Dale: OK well I realized when you asked that question there’s a little bit of a story to set it up. I was teaching at a Catholic women’s College in Minnesota. This is like 2003, and I was teaching in the Music Department but also teaching an interdisciplinary course that centered on critical thinking.

I became really uncomfortable with the disconnect between what I was supposed to be teaching in the classroom and this Catholic college and the way they treated the open exchange of ideas.

So, I started to act out just a little bit. It was a women’s college so feminism is something they give a lot of really serious lip service to. One of the things they never discussed was the fact most prominent feminists going all the way back more than a century were atheists and agnostics. I posted little biographies of these women like Joslyn Gage and Susan B Anthony on my office door hoping to get some sort of response. I got nothing. Nobody ever mentioned anything. They would just sort of go by in silence.

I upped the ante a bit.

I put a little bit about Thomas Huxley up there, and then posted a little Bertrand Russell up there, and got nothing. I really pushed the limit and put up information about Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and even little George Carlin.

Andy: Wow, George Carlin? Brave.

Dale: One day there was a knock on my office door, and it was not the Archbishop. It was a student. They wanted to start a humanist group on campus. She had three other friends who wanted to be involved.

We started with four people. Within a couple of weeks we had nine and then 13 and then 16 and 21. We finally had 26 people within a couple of months including a couple of faculty members as well as the Dean’s secretary.

It was great. We would do some readings. We’d do some discussion and that sort of thing. At some point somebody said, “Hey, could we bring a speaker on campus?”

The thing is the College in all of its public pronouncements made a very big deal about being open to the exchange of ideas. I said, “You know who would be really good is Annie Laurie Gaylor who I had heard at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She did a presentation on feminism and freethought. We should invite her on campus

The event was approved. Everything seemed to be going well.

Forty-five minutes before it was going to start a security guard showed up and locked the room. I asked what’s going on. Long story short, it turned out the college president had gotten wind of it or more likely a donor had gotten wind of it and told the president. She said it’s just not going to happen. The lovely thing is the philosophy Department heard about this and they were at the time studying the Enlightenment. Students walked out of their classes and held the first ever student protest in the history of the college.

I immediately became a lightning rod. One of the things I thought was that the faculty would rally around me in some sort of an academic freedom kind of thing. That didn’t happen. There were a few people here and there who sort of whispered their support, but there was a lot of cold shoulders and there was a lot of outright criticism. There was one faculty member at a faculty meeting who said, “Well, we should be able to not have events like this ’cause we don’t have to invite Nazis on campus.”

Andy: Wow, putting Nazis and feminists in the same category.

Dale: I started to feel under siege. I wasn’t sleeping. I mean, I was physically sick. This was my career. This was my income. I had every reason to believe that this is the kind of exchange of ideas at the college would have been allowed, and now here I was feeling like I had really done the wrong thing. I just felt like that’s the message I was getting from my colleagues.

I talked to a friend of mine who’s a professor in the Philosophy Department. She gave me the best advice I’ve ever had. I said, “I just feel I can’t function with this feeling of the criticism from my colleagues.”

“Here’s what you do. Who are the people whose opinion you value the most? Think of a subset of people or colleagues on campus who if you knew they felt you’d done the wrong thing it would really bother you. Make a list of a half dozen right now.”

I was able to list him right away. They were people I really respected.

It turned out every single one of them said something along the lines of I think what you did was terrific. I think it’s the sort of thing we should be doing. A couple of them thought it should have been done in a different way, but they all felt it was it was an appropriate thing to have done as a college faculty member.

That changed everything for me. I felt I didn’t have to buckle. I didn’t have to be doubled over because of this massive criticism from the general horde. I could focus in and define the voices I really wanted to listen to. I was suddenly able to function better. I was able to think better. I was able to defend my position when I talked to by other people because I had sort of selected these kind of lodestars that I could use as a way of just checking on my own judgment.

Andy: Have you used that advice in other situations?

Dale: I’ve used that advice many times since then. Whenever I’ve run into something that was controversial, and whenever I tried something that had a bad response.

I’ve given that advice to a lot of people when they’re under siege on social media or whatever it is. If you can just screen out and focus on a small number of people and take their input seriously everything goes better.

Andy: How old were you when you got that piece of advice?

Dale: Forty. I was just especially susceptible to the criticism of others. I think it was something that I allowed to really disable me.

Andy: I know what you mean. It’s the downside of being empathic. Thanks for sharing that story. I think a lot of people will find value in it.

I’m a comedy writer, podcaster, YouTuber, and activist. Millions have read my material and laughed. Support my work on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/AndrewHa

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store