Positive thoughts about the negative

Published 6:20 am Monday, July 25, 2011

Every now and then someone complains to me that these commentaries are too often negative. Or, “You’re always so critical.” So, now I need to say something positive about being negative. I am often negative, but I can’t help it. I am critical, and this is precisely what I mean to be. Get used to it.

Within journalism, it is understood that news is, by definition, what does not usually happen or what should not happen. It’s, well, new. That the sun rose this morning in the east is not news because the phenomenon is not new. If it ever rose in the west or failed to rise at all, this would be news.

When bad things happen, even though they happen all the time, they are news in this second sense, because they aren’t supposed to happen. When we throw the switch and the light goes on, this is not news because it’s what is supposed to happen. On the other hand, if everyone threw switches and no lights went on, this is bad and, therefore, news.

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The purpose of a newspaper column of commentary (opinion) is to comment on the news. When bad things happen, they beg for comment. It’s hard to find a way to speak positively of bad things and, for this reason, most news commentary is negative—mine and that of any commentator doing the job.

I really don’t enjoy writing negatively, even about bad things. Really, I don’t. I do enjoy — I very much enjoy — writing positively about good things. Tell me a good thing, and I’ll jump at the opportunity to write about it — positively.

A lot of good people live in Austin and do a lot of good things. I have written about many, as there is occasion. Unfortunately, these have often been at the time of the person’s death, when it is certainly necessary.

These people have been doing good things all along, so why hadn’t I written about them before? Well, we are supposed to do good things, and this isn’t news. What would be news is an especially bad person who for once did something outstandingly good. Then I could write about it as a commentary on the news.

The purpose of writing negatively about negative factors is to alert to the bad so we can correct to what is good. Though the procedure is negative, the purpose is positive.

I restrain from commenting on far more negative factors or events than I choose for comment. I feel some things can reasonably be ignored, but others demand comment. To refrain is an abdication of journalistic responsibility and denial of social obligation. I feel most strongly moved to write negatively when news coverage misses serious negative factors or when other commentators have failed to pick up on them. Any recognition of failure to comment places an obligation upon others to do so. If someone else has done it, and especially if done adequately, I am pleased to leave it to this.

A principal reason for restraint is precisely the unpleasantness of commenting negatively. Whenever a negative commentary is required, I write with sadness. I also write with cheerful hope that doing the right thing about bad things will encourage someone who is able to make things right.

An eminently positive outcome of frequent negative criticism is to highlight the positive when possible. This is especially noticed when the positive is less frequent than the negative. It stands out and is noticed. It is, here we are again, news.

The person who never speaks negatively loses credibility, which he or she needs also when speaking positively. People conclude the speaker isn’t paying attention or doesn’t know the score. Even praise eventually loses its value and is no longer praise.

Some people never have anything negative to say about anyone or anything. I’ve heard this praised as a virtue, but it is not—at least not necessarily. My mother parroted her mother: “If you can’t find something good to say about a person, don’t say anything at all.” There are situations in which this is valid, but not all.

Our daily lives are overly full of bad factors and events and bad things done or said by people. When we refuse to say anything negative about them, we are socially irresponsible. We leave it to someone else to criticize it negatively—then we negatively criticize such for being negative.

Remember: When you complain that I am being negative, you are being negative. I’m positive of this.