Responding to Criticism

By | December 16, 2013

It seems that Dave Ramsey has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism recently over a blog post published on his website. The original post contains a list of certain statics comparing rich vs. poor. I wouldn’t find the list by itself worth commenting on. However, the list, criticism, and Ramsey’s response combine to bring up a number of issues worth looking at.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that I am breaking my general policy of not criticizing any specific person on my blog. In light of this I want to state that it’s not my desire to share “dirt” on Ramsey. I know nothing about him other than he is a popular teacher in the area of managing finances. I have nothing personal against Ramsey. In fact, I am signed up to take one of his classes which a local church is promoting this winter.

This brings me to a point worth mentioning. Just because I am going to be critical of one thing Ramsey said doesn’t mean he is a bad person nor does this necessarily discount what he teaches. We should have the ability to separate the message and the messenger. Everybody makes mistakes. Good people can teach bad things, and bad people can teach good things. We need to be able to critique the things people say and teach—especially those who are well known and influential—and we need to be able to differentiate between honest critique and personal attack. The former is healthy while the latter is not.

The main catalyst for my writing this post was reading Ramsey’s response to the criticisms he received. I was somewhat shocked and taken aback by his response right from the beginning: “There has been so much negative and ignorant response…” Later he says, “What saddens me is that some members of our culture are so doctrinally shallow and so spiritually immature that the reaction was often rude, inappropriate or outright abusive.” Now I can imagine the latter part of this to be true. Many have noted how free people feel to attack others from behind a keyboard. Nevertheless, Ramsey begins and later continues his response by demeaning those who have criticized him. His response quickly reminded me of an article Frank Viola wrote, titled “Scratch a Christian and You’ll Find Out What They’re Made Of“. This and other similar articles by Viola are worth reading.

I can believe that people mistook the intention behind Ramsey’s original blog post. Typically if not always, there are a number of different things which can be taken from a piece of writing. The author my have one thing in mind while a reader takes away a different angle. And both people can be right, and both people might actually agree on the different points once understood. Beyond this though, people can misread, misunderstand, and plain distort what was said. And as mentioned, some people subsequently feel free to attack others, even vehemently. This isn’t right, but as a public figure, I think a person should understand that their ideas are open to public scrutiny and they should attempt to not take this too personally.

The point I’m getting at is that much of what Ramsey said in his response could actually be accurate. However I still believe it was a poor response. At the very least, it demonstrates a lack of humility. Some of the criticisms he received may not deserve respect. But fighting back isn’t the only option available. It’s actually pretty easy to just not say anything, especially with some practice. I mean really, it takes very little time and energy to just keep silent and more or less ignore the unreasonable attacks. (This doesn’t mean they don’t hurt, but I’m talking about how we respond here.) And really, we should realize that fighting back isn’t going to do much good. It’s doubtful we’re going to change anyone’s mind this way, especially those who are most critical. It just adds fuel to the fire.

If any response is offered at all, being more gracious demonstrates greater character. You can acknowledge other’s opinions without defending yourself. Not defending yourself doesn’t equate to admitting you were wrong nor does it mean that other people’s criticisms are correct. Isn’t there wisdom in understanding that people are going to have different opinions and disagreements, and that not everyone has to agree with us? One of the things that Dallas Willard took away from the “Sermon on the Mount” (as I recall from The Divine Conspiracy) was becoming free of the need to manage other’s opinions and beliefs about us.

Beyond this, I wouldn’t have a problem if someone responded to criticism by clarifying what they said and sharing what they had in mind. As mentioned above, people can lock in on different themes from the same piece of writing. Explaining what you saw can be helpful to the other party in gaining an understanding of your thoughts, which can further develop healthy dialog. But in order to develop healthy discussion, respect must be shown. The problem with Ramsey’s response was that he mixed in some explanation with a significant amount of disrespect and a lot of self-justification. In essence, Ramsey’s response amounted to making a statement of “I’m better than you”. And I believe that goes against the Bible’s teaching that none of us are greater than another.

In part 2, I discuss ideas about poverty and wealth which are brought up by Ramsey’s blog.

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