Again with the negative waves, Moriarty?


You know what gets my goat? Not haters, no. What gets me down are the happythink police who conflate negativity with abuse. Can’t be kind 24/7/365? They’ll tell me to stay apart and shut up. Might as well slap a big red “N” on my bodice and be done, but no. The judgmental assault on my chosen way of handling harsh reality–on my very identity–is all wrapped up in good intentions. 


Being told I’m unacceptable isn’t mean to be hurtful, I’m told. (And yes, I do get publicly lectured for raining on the positivity parade.) Demanding that others be positive at all times is only an emotional defense, it’s said. Insistence on constant happythink is an attempt to make the world better for everyone. 


Nuh-uh. Nope. That bullshit doesn’t fly. Defenses are self-oriented. Shine a light on inner darkness. Erect walls of happy. Paint rays of sunshine on them. Collect positives. Be positive. Those are all defensive measures.  Issuing directives to others about tone and presentation is all about suppression, dismissal and exercising social power. It’s offensive, not defensive. And yes, I mean offensive in all senses. 

 The dismissal of criticism with abuse scares me most. The emerging insistence that negatives must be presented with kindness to be considered valid/constructive/legitimate sets perilous precedents. Lumping true criticism in with destructive hostility gives trolls a shield to hide behind. (See also: “I’m just trying to be helpful.” “Fair and balanced.” “It’s just my opinion.”)

Abuse is not analytical. Criticism is. Solutions can’t be framed without undertanding the problem. The rest…that’s just style points. The definition of criticism as applied to art is “an analysis of merits and faults.” Any commentary failing that simple definition is an abusive attack dressed up in a criticism-costume.  Any commentary meeting it is criticism. A negative that leads to positive. It’s the manure every garden needs.


Here’s a less stinky analogy. Offering harsh analysis on a steely platter instead of a fluffy blanket does not make it an attack. Frank presentation of faults can be painful, but gentleness can be too. Ask anyone who’s suffered the attentions of a tentative nurse trying to find a vein. 

 It is not always constructive to mention merits. Sometimes, yes, even often, but expecting faults to be left unmentioned unless equal merits are pointed out isn’t reasonable. “If you have to say something bad, always say something good” is like saying, “If I want to discuss astronomy, I need to allow an astrologist on the panel too. For balance.” No. Merits do not always balance faults. One may far outnumber the other, and weak praise is damning. Ask Shakespeare. 

Demanding adept diplomacy as well as the effort of analysis makes people far less willing to offer criticism at all. And when that happens, art suffers. 

Here’s a related problem: insisting that only praise counts as constructive criticism. Dressing up negative analysis with puffy praise stickers doesn’t make it constructive. Context does. Constructive criticism is analysis offered while a work can be rebuilt. A critical review is aimed at the audience/market for a finished product. Period. That’s the only difference. Criticism type is defined by situation, not presentation.

If a review contains nothing but complaints, that’s as valid as one that holds nothing but praise. The only difference is in how the author feels about it. And constructive criticism that focuses with laser precision on faults is no different in function than a critique that dwells on only positives. (Again, please remember that this refers only to analytical commentary. Not things like, “This sucks.”) 

 I’ve saved the worst for last. I loathe the hoary chestnut, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.”  If there’s ever a vote for which statement best encapsulates all that is wrong with the modern world, this one gets my nomination. It equates a lack of praise with tacit disapproval. What a mess! It creates an emotional imbalance that requires hearing praise simply to stay centered, and that leads to an escalating need for praise. Knowing that silence means people might be holding back unkind things plants seeds of doubt as destructive as dragon’s teeth.

It’s a persistent little belief, too. So popular. So hard to eradicate. Took me years to get that one out of my system.  

Creativity lives in the still, quiet spaces of the soul as well as in the raging power of anger and pain, just as it resonates in joys and flights of spirit. Silence should feed fragile inspiration, not destroy it with doubt. 

If you can’t say anything nice, say it as nicely as possible, but say it, so the listener knows that silence is not hiding unspoken faults. Trust is built with painful truths, not false walls. When silence means tacit acceptance,  confidence builds slowly with every layer of sedimentary quiet. That’s golden.

For every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven. Even the bad stuff. That’s why I’ll keep on broadcasting my negative waves whenever the situation calls for them.



5 Words I Wish I Could Use–and Why I Can’t.

I love language. I was a lucky, blessed toddler whose parents read to her on a regular basis. I love the way words feel and move, how they leave the body on a breath, how they spill out on a page, each with a unique height and depth and cadence. That legacy of warm, loving embraces and laughter informs even the hard words I learned later, even the nasty awful ones. I love words, so today I’m indulging in a eulogy to socially-freighted vocabulary.

Look at these wonderful words: articulate, elite. entitled, intellectual, privileged.1, 2

Each one has rolled in enough sociological mud to be exiled to the verbal woodshed forever. They were once complimentary. They should be positives as well as adjectives. They aren’t. I wish they were, but if wishes were horses, I would have a huge hay bill to pay off. Huge.

A short digression into personal history. My first experience with the perils of vocabulary came at age ten. I was at sleep-away summer camp, babbling away with my tent-mates (they liked me! we read the same books!)  at dinner. Our unit counselor did not approve of us. At some point, I described someone’s behavior as animated. She proceeded–loudly and at length–to mock me in front of the entire camp for thinking I was so smart when I didn’t even know that animated meant cartoons.

I was smart. I didn’t argue with someone who had ultimate authority over me for five more days. It hurt like being flayed alive, and I still carry the conversational scars.  I can’t speak my mind with passion and eloquence unless I am too enraged to remember that pain. When I am angry, however, I become viciously articulate, and the people I admire most are those who who speak and write with skill and artful expertise in any circumstances.

The subtext of dismantling or constructing, the lengthy assault of syllables…oh, I miss that word.  Why can’t I use articulate to describe someone who has the ability to swing words as weapons or lift an audience to delight with the power of their vocabulary? It is magic, and a wonder to behold. Racist bigots stole one of my favorite compliments to use as a backhanded swipe at people of color. Awful racist bigots.

Of course, admitting to a love of articulate people leaves me open to accusations of elitism. To which I say, YUP. What of it?  I aspire to excellence. I admire those who achieve it. When did being a member of an elite become a bad thing?  When did it become a pejorative? Ditto for intellectual. These words should be good things, but they’re not these days, and I miss them.  I’mma just gonna leave this Isaac Asimov quote here and move on.

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'”

Next, let’s take a look at entitlement. What the hell happened to this innocent little word?  Look at the root form. En-title. It’s a transitive verb. It isn’t a state or a condition, it’s an action. It’s something someone does to someone. No one gets to be entitled without someone entitling them.  Except now.  Now its an insult to fling at people who used to get accused of being uppity and not paying their dues. Uh-huh.  The moment it became an adjective, it was sullied and lost to use by anyone but resentful grouches who feel threatened by any demographic that doesn’t appreciate their precious status quo.

Speaking of status quo, I’ll wrap up with privilege. The word is a tool of intellectual (!) discourse. There, its nuanced meaning of (more or less)  a constellation of advantages afforded to one group but not others has an important place. Race, sex, orientation, age, income, and ability do skew perspective. All the same, I miss being able to say “It’s been a privilege to meet/work with/know …” It’s too heavy a word for the lightweight use as a compliment now. Also, buzzwords make me twitch.

I was first trained out of the naive, ignorant use of articulate, and rightfully so. Years later now, I can appreciate how gently the correction was offered. At the time it came as a painful shock, and I resented it for a long time. Grief hits like that sometimes: anger first, before acceptance. The other words have fallen away over the last decade, casualties, one by one, of the culture wars that I think are going to get much worse before they get better.

That’s it. Those are the five words I miss most. All done. IF you were expecting deep social relevance or insight … wrong blog, sorry. This is my self-space. The World Revolves Around Boring Ol’ Me.  If you wanted serious personal revelations or rants about writing, go back a few posts. Or come back another time. I’m sure I’ll rant again soon.

Note 1: I’m using alphabetical order, for lack of any other objective ranking.
Note 2: there are many more than five words that qualify, but these are the ones that came to mind without hesitation. These are my favorites among the filthy, sticky, dirty collection of oldie-moldy well-loved Problematic Words

Yeah, about that.

Parents. Visit.

Stress and happiness inextricably intertwined.  Joy in hugging, reconnecting, sharing. Views so alien that one must ponder the possibility of changeling status.

You think adults can prevent student bullying? Seriously?  The answer is ‘no.’ They never could, and never will be able to do so. They are not members of youth culture, by definition, and barring 24/7 monitoring, they cannot possibly spot all the social maneuvering within that culture.  Set aside for the moment that most adults watch the wrong children for signs of bully behavior. Set aside the sad reality that our adult culture models bullying as a strength and promotes its continuance. Set aside the way authorities encourage inflated self-esteem and train for risk-aversive submissiveness. Set aside all those things and one point still remains: no system can be successfully policed from the outside.

Children can be beaten while only yards away from alert, caring, sympathetic adults who would intervene if they knew. The whole point of bullying, the whole focus is subversion of power.

Yes, teachers see bullying and good teachers deliver life lessons on those occasions, but they might see perhaps 15% of what actually goes on, and then only the most overt forms. They cannot stop whispers, elbows, stares. They cannot prevent snickers, cold shoulders, sly smiles. They cannot and should not be expected to affect social interactions outside the classroom or the school. These are the damages that build up slowly, like scar tissue on the ego lacerated again and again.

The quiet one. The odd one. The smart one. They get bullied.
The sweet one. The funny one. The sports star. The queen bee. They get bullied too.
Some of them are the bullies. Many are both abusers and abused.
Everyone gets bullied at some point. Some get bullied at every turn.  A few get strong and bully back, a a lot bide their time and change cultures until they find one where they fit in without a fight for dominance. A few get bullied to death. A very few lash out.

We have a worse bullying problem now than at any time in the recent past for many reasons, but focusing on specifics misses the point; despite all that adults say or do, children will bully each other. Give children powerful social weapons with which to hurt each other, steep them in a culture that values the individual at the expense of the whole and glorifies an ideal of power free of obligation , and what do you get? Bullying. Suicide. Homicide.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Yeah.  That always works.

Teach courtesy. Teach respect for difference. Offer lifelines and adult support. Most importantly, recognize that all those things  have a minimal effect; the visceral human impulse to build up strength by attacking someone weaker cannot be erased by force of will. It can only be rendered less powerful by establishing a culture of intolerance for violence of word as well as deed, and yes, by maintaining vigilance, not by modeling violence and stamping down hard on every rare incident seen, but with a strategy that smothers perpetrators in disappointment. Bullying cannot be tolerated, but presentation counts: ‘more in sorrow than anger’ is the successful tactic.

That’s my 2.79 cents on the issue.

And in other news, only 9049 steps yesterday. No wonder I’m cranky.