Thoughts on receiving a negative review

This is a slightly edited version of something I wrote in 2009, not long after arriving at WSU from Los Alamos. It remains as pertinent now as it was then. Coincidentally, Gaza is again in the midst of increased mayhem.

Today I received a copy of a review of a paper I am an author on. Needless to say, the reason I am writing about it here is that the review was negative in a way that was not helpful. While the reviewer did make some good points, and we will address those points, it was done in an unfriendly way.

Have I seen worse reviews? Of course. So why write about this review? I suppose because it comes at a time when I am being reflective and when I am thinking about such things more carefully. The error that reviewer made was in not reading the paper carefully enough. Of course we can improve the paper and make it less susceptible to misinterpretation, and we will, but I think that the acceptance of this status quo of negativity and a cultivated attitude that looks for errors and ignores insights, ends up robbing our society of a great deal of original, creative productivity.

In my new position in the mathematics department at Washington State University, as I look around and get the intuitive sense for this university and put that in context of what I have observed at other universities, I see a pattern. And that pattern is tradition and conservatism and narrowness that has its roots in narrow self interest. It inhibits interdisciplinary work. It makes people far more apt to see the mistakes in other work, rather than finding the insights and innovations.  It makes people timid and afraid of adventure, of risk.

Do I like it in academia? Yes. There is still a decent amount of good and potential for a great deal more. There is freedom to develop truly new initiatives. And there are some students and colleagues who are inspired and inspiring.

But the threads I am disturbed about are simply local expressions of global states of human consciousness that we all observe in their horrific consequences: Gaza, the economic crisis, epidemics in Africa, etc.  Underlying everything are multiple threads, but the one that I see everywhere is an unconsciousness, a blindness that is deeply disturbing.

In this state, humans think there is no connection between their personal negativity and selfishness and the atrocities in Gaza. It is acceptable or even good to inflict inhuman atrocities on your enemy, but evil for those “terrorists” to strike back in the ways they can. The unconscious see a great gulf between them and the “terrorists”. They believe that some people are intrinsically good and some intrinsically bad. And the end justifies the means. The work of Chris Hedges — see for example, “I don’t Believe in Atheists” or “War is the Force that Gives us Meaning” or his columns in truthdig.com — feels and proclaims aloud the absurdity of these inconsistencies.

So what can my response be — be it to the reviewer, or the critical, narrow nature of some in academia, or the unmotivated, narrow minds of some students, or the unthinking, unconscious state of some people I run into in my daily life? Certainly, becoming negative and critical is not the answer.

It seems to me that the only thing I can do is to spend all my energy creating a personal atmosphere of rich, creative productivity and connection based on love. Generating happy beauty and a vibrant, living atmosphere, beckoning to those in the sphere of my influence to cooperate in creating little bits of heaven on earth, even if only locally, is the only real evidence there is for the existence of love or heaven … or God.