A musician whose work I enjoy recently released an album of experimental music. This was followed by a blog post of a less-than-complimentary review. The thing is, the reviewer complained about the album being exactly all the things that it’s supposed to be. One commenter said that it’s like going to a death metal concert and complaining that it’s too loud; it’s supposed to be loud! This is why they usually send food critics to review restaurants and opera critics to review productions of Die Fledermaus rather than vice versa; it’s helpful if the person doing the reviewing has some knowledge of and appreciation for the genre of the thing being reviewed. All the better to judge the actual merits! But all that notwithstanding, sometimes even a part of your target audience just doesn’t care for what you’ve done. And sometimes they actually loathe it.
I’m familiar with reviews, having been on both sides of that particular exchange many times. Nobody likes receiving a negative review but they are necessary. More than that, they’re important, and not just because creators can use them to improve their work. Sometimes it’s essential that some people hate what you do. I’ll explain.
Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, also writes business books. In one of them, he posits that any idea that everyone likes is doomed to fail. In order to succeed, something must inspire passion. But passion is polarizing. It cuts both ways. If you do anything substantial enough for some people to love, it goes without saying that other people are going to hate it. Not in the same numbers, perhaps, but you can’t inspire passion for something without also raising ire against it.
This is true of so many things. The Beatles may be a venerable institution now but in 1962, when The Lawrence Welk Show was rising in the TV ratings, not everyone was enamored of the long hair, guitars, and “yeah, yeah, yeahs” of the four lads from Liverpool.
The Simpsons is as mainstream as anything today but in 1989, thanks to such irreverent catchphrases as “Don’t have a cow, man” and “Eat my shorts,” people actually protested it. Schools banned Bart Simpson T-shirts, fearing that the animated bad boy was also a bad influence. It took less than two years for The Simpsons to cameo on Sesame Street (as part of the song “Monster in the Mirror” in season 22).
People love The Beatles and The Simpsons but they were game-changers. You can’t change the game without ruffling a few feathers on the way.
While I’m no Beatle or Simpson, I have also experienced this phenomenon. My favorite comment on one of my books was also the most scathing. I had received a number of very positive reviews for the first volume of The Nach Yomi Companion but I was concerned that it was something that “everybody likes.” A particular rabbi, whose work I greatly admire, gave the book an enthusiastic review on his site, praising the tongue-in-cheek approach and pop culture references. One commenter (who hadn’t read the book, just the review) chimed in, “It would be better for the Torah to be forgotten than to be studied in a manner such as this!” This pleased me greatly. I had no illusions that my approach was going to be to everyone’s liking but this fellow didn’t just say, “Eh, not for me.” No, he hated it, even unread. He hated the very idea of it! “There’s the passion,” I thought, knowing that if nobody hated it, nobody would love it either.
I have encountered this several times. All of the most popular, most viral things I have ever created have received overwhelmingly positive feedback but also the most virulent criticisms. I imagine that other writers have had similar experiences, as have artists, musicians, and even politicians. Nobody hates the “good” stuff; someone invariably hates the “great” stuff.
Being polarizing is not proof that something is necessarily positive so much as that it is significant. The 2016 US election, the 2017 French election, Brexit – each of these was incredibly divisive. That’s not an indicator that the winning (or losing) side is necessarily better, but it does say that something important was going on.
You know who else was pretty polarizing? Our forefather Avraham. In Genesis 12:3, God told Avraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse the one who curses you.” People were not generally of the opinion that “Avraham’s okay, I guess.” There were going to be those who would rally around Avraham and support him but there would also be those who would curse and condemn him. Avraham was doing great things and that’s going to inspire polarizing passion. Nevertheless, the verse concludes, “and through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Avraham’s descendants, the Jewish people, also inspire some polarizing passion. (Actually, the other side of Avraham’s family, our Muslim cousins, also inspire some pretty polarizing passion but we don’t happen to be talking about them today.) Whether we’re talking about Jews as a religion or Israel as a state, you have to admit that some people are unduly obsessed with the tiny Jewish nation, spouting such crazy propaganda as Jews control the banks/media/government or that Israel is responsible for all the wars in the world today. There are real problems out there (Kim Jong Un and ISIS immediately spring to mind) but the UN takes the time to condemn Israel for things like not sharing Iron Dome missile defense technology with Hamas (who were the ones lobbing bombs at them in the first place!).
This, too, was foretold. Isaiah 53 is considered by Christians to be a messianic prophecy but most of the Jewish commentators say that the subject of the chapter is the Jewish people. The prophecy says, “He was despised and forsaken…he was oppressed even though he humbled himself and didn’t open his mouth…(all this) even though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth….” (See: pretty much all of human history.)
So, yes, sometimes hate is undeserved. And nobody enjoys being hated. But if you’re doing something new or different, you’re going to attract haters; if you’re doing something really big, you’re likely to attract a lot of haters. Conversely, if nobody hates what you’re doing, that’s probably a sign that what you’re doing isn’t all that important. So, make experimental music. Write tongue-in-cheek books. If you can, go out change the world. The bigger you go, the more backlash you can expect. Embrace it.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.