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How To Respond To Unfair Criticism

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Despite what a certain current president might like to claim, few politicians and generals were treated worse than Ulysses S. Grant. The newspapers of the Civil War era were horrendous—they were race-baiting, conflict-driven, scandal-rags that didn’t think twice about making up stories if they thought it would sell papers. General Grant was a simple soldier who didn’t particularly like politics and wasn’t skilled at managing his reputation in the press. Combine that with his attrition tactics—the genius of which few observers fully understood until the war was won—and you get a man who was regularly savaged in print.

Yet it was because of that, that we, the students of history, were given a wonderful lesson in how to respond to unfair criticism with dignity and patience. It comes from an exchange between Grant and a reporter whose articles had implied all sorts of malfeasance by Grant at the battle of Shiloh. Grant could have complained, he could have pointed out all the ways the reports were wrong, he could have even reacted like his friend General Sherman who wanted to shoot a similar reporter as a spy, but he didn’t. Instead, Grant simply said to him:

“You paper is very unjust to me, but time will make it all right. I want to be judged only by my acts.”

A Stoic knows they will be the recipient of unfair criticism. They don’t whine and bitch about it. They don’t get distracted by it or make impotent threats. They certainly don’t take it personally either (In fact, Epictetus liked to joke that when someone unfairly criticizes you, feel grateful that they didn’t point out your real flaws). No, they didn’t do any of that. Because they had a job to do. Because they knew that trying to control other people’s opinions was like trying to control the weather—and that a public life guarantees public scrutiny.

And they knew one other thing: They knew that if they stuck to their ideals and ethics and did their work well, in the end, proper judgement would be rendered. We would do well to remember the same thing.

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