Top 4 Ways to Criticize without Scapegoating

Criticism.

It’s an ugly word. Just reading it there makes me cringe. And there’s so much of it going around. There is a positive form of criticism, of course, but criticism usually has negative connotations. The news, Facebook, and Twitter are prominent places where a mean, nasty, and excessively critical spirit is spread like a contagious disease. If you need any evidence for René Girard’s mimetic theory, look no further than the contagious spirit of criticism.

Mimetic comes from the Greek word for imitation. Girard claims that we have a natural tendency to respond to negativity by imitating it – and here’s the key – without thinking about our response. It’s a non-conscious reaction that often spirals us down into a pit of mutual criticism.

Criticism almost always leads to scapegoating. Scapegoating is an ancient ritual that binds a group of people over and against the group’s victim. The victim was blamed for all the problems within the group. Sacrificing the scapegoated victim restored a sense of goodness, peace, and harmony back to the community.

And yet, if you are like me, you know that there are things in the world that need to be criticized: violence, war, injustice, and oppression, for example. These are obstacles to a more peaceful world. But when we criticize anything we risk becoming run by the same hostile spirit that we are criticizing. It is a human fact that the more against something we become the more we become just like it. So, how do we criticize without scapegoating? Here are my top four ways:

4. Ask yourself – Is this worth criticizing? Or is it a distraction?

Before we make that comment of Facebook or Twitter or at the dinner table, ask yourself, “Is this really worth criticizing?” Being able to criticize without scapegoating requires that we ask this question. I’m often critical of things that don’t matter. Sometimes we get into a rut of criticism, especially with the people we are closest to. I would know nothing about this, but I’ve heard that spouses can start to keep score. We can start to criticize everything about the other person and the other person can respond mimetically by criticizing everything about us. If you find yourself in this position with your spouse, family member, or co-worker, put down the scorecard. A life full of criticizing others isn’t worth living. It’s toxic distraction from what really matters. Instead, find ways to bless the other person. All it takes to transform a relationship infected with criticism is for one person to put down the scorecard and start blessing the other.

3. Don’t gossip

Just don’t do it. And when you do, gently catch yourself and stop. We can gossip about things that don’t matter – someone’s clothing or hair style. Or we can gossip about things that actually do matter – like someone in an abusive relationship. Whether the topic matters or not, gossip is always a form of scapegoating. It unites a group of people over and against another person. If it’s worth criticizing, it’s worth talking directly with the other person. Jesus offered this wisdom to conflict resolution. Don’t gossip, but talk directly with the other person.

2. Ask yourself – Is this criticism really about you?

In his book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard claims that we choose, “to be indignant at the evil by which [we are] consumed.” One can say the same about criticism – the more critical we are of someone else, the more likely we are projecting our own issues upon them so that we don’t have to deal with our problems. So, to criticize another person without scapegoating them, we must first do the hard work of introspection. Jesus’ log to speck principle always applies when we criticize others. You must “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Criticizing others is also scapegoating when we knock others down so that we can feel better about ourselves. Criticizing often gives us with a sense of superiority over and against another person. We feel righteous when we criticize another person, but that feeling of righteousness is a good clue that our criticism isn’t really about them. It’s about our self-righteous desire to feel good about ourselves. If that’s the case, we will become addicted to criticizing others so that we can gain a sense of goodness over and against an enemy. If we don’t have an enemy to criticize, we will create one. It’s a cycle that will continue until we stop our addiction to being good over and against our neighbors and start to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

1. See the bigger picture

Getting trapped in a cycle of criticism shrinks our worldview. Offering healthy critique always has the bigger picture in mind. When we see the bigger picture, we don’t make criticism personal. We keep our criticism to the “thing” and not about the person. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” Criticizing “blood and flesh” – other human beings – misses the bigger picture. It scapegoats individuals. We begin to think that if we just defeated our enemies the world would be a better place. But when we defeat our enemies through violence or harmful criticism, we only strengthen the “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” Harmful criticism, like all forms of scapegoating, distracts us from the bigger problems in our world. So, if it’s worth criticizing, don’t make it personal. Healthy criticism doesn’t try to defeat the enemy; rather it tries to heal our relationship with them by critiquing the violent powers of the world.

There you have my top 4 ways to criticize without scapegoating. What would you add? I welcome your criticisms…

;)

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11 replies
  1. Sheima Salam Sumer
    Sheima Salam Sumer says:

    Dear Adam, this is such a profound and moving article. Could you please explain what you mean by “blessing” the other person? Do you mean complimenting them for their good qualities? Thanks so much for writing this!

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hi Sheima! That’s a great question and is part of the article that I thought could use some expounding, so I’m glad you asked. I’d like to know what you think, but essentially I think complimenting people for their good qualities would be a good way to start the process of changing a relationship. Of course, we have no control over whether or not the other person will change, but we cant take responsibility to change ourselves when we are in a rut of criticism. Part of that change would include finding ways to bless the other. For me, another part is to just disengage from criticism, to stop myself in my tracks and walk away. Personally, the deeper I get into criticism the harder that is to do, so it’s important to stop before it’s too late!

      Reply
      • Sheima Salam Sumer
        Sheima Salam Sumer says:

        Thank you for your reply, Adam. I agree with everything you said. I also really liked your point in your article about not gossiping about others. Sometimes I complain about other people to my husband, for instance, and I do this to “vent”. However, I wonder if it is better to just tell people to their face what you think. I don’t always do this because I don’t want to hurt their feelings, and I’m not sure how to say it in the best way…

        Reply
  2. Bill Dolan
    Bill Dolan says:

    Thank you, Adam. This addresses the tension I’ve felt since I started learning about mimetic theory – that is, to avoid participating in the cycle of imitation and violence, can you criticize anything?

    I have found the need to let go or surrender my impulse to negatively criticize. Your #2 resonated with me but I use the serenity prayer framework. God, give me the wisdom to know the difference between what I can and cannot change.

    If I am critizing someone/thing, is it legitimate for me to think that it needs to or likely will change? Or am I trying to get someone else to change their opinion so they’ll agree with me, so that I’ll be proven “right.”

    Why do I feel the need to challenge another? Is it because whatever I have to add may be something that blesses the other person? Do I think they may be in a place where they could hear, understand and be helped by a criticism or challenge? If not, it’s likely because I am trying to show that I’m right, better, enlightened, whatever. No good will come of that.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Bill! You bring up great points with your questions. And I love the serenity prayer, too. Your questions are spot on. In fact, criticism rarely, if ever, has the desired affect of changing another person. Usually it just reinforces our previously held beliefs and behaviors. I see this all the time while counseling couples who are caught in relational dynamics of criticism. As you say, “No good will come of that.”

      I think the best form of criticism, and I get this from Girard and James Alison – who both got it from Jesus, is a gentle self-criticism. Of course, we can be hyper-critical of ourselves and I often have a voice telling me that I’m not good enough. That voice doesn’t need to any reinforcement! But I do think we can gently hold ourselves with some self-criticism – to take the log out of our own eye, as Jesus taught. But at the same time, I think we also need to form ways of blessing ourselves. After all, if we can’t bless ourselves, how can we bless others. If we don’t love ourselves, how can we love anyone. It reminds me that the only person we can change in a relationship is ourselves, and the best change we can make is to gently hold ourselves in the paradox love and gentle self criticism. Does that make sense?

      Thanks for getting me to think about this more, Bill!

      Peace,
      Adam

      Reply
  3. Trisha Burlison
    Trisha Burlison says:

    Thoughts on blessing people if I may.
    For me, part of blessing someone is praying for them without telling God what I think is wrong with them and what I think he should do about. Asking God to bless them; bring good to them.
    Also me blessing them by finding positive ways to think about them and do things for them. As well as working on cutting off my negativity.

    Reply
  4. David
    David says:

    Is it possible to confront injustice done by someone, especially in a relative position of power, and not experience some form of positive feeling of righteousness?

    If that feeling is inevitable, does it automatically make the criticism a form of scapegoating and “mimetic rivalry” to some extent?

    They say much of communication is nonverbal. How is it possible to police or shape our body language and other subconscious cues from perpetuating scapegoating or conflict doubling?

    Finally, in the passage you mentioned about Jesus’s wisdom for conflict management, isn’t his final step “if they don’t respond to all previous attempts, treat them like Gentiles (people he referred to as dogs at one point) or tax collectors” a tacit endorsement of scapegoating/exclusion, albeit a last resort, as a morally justifiable Christian behavior?

    Reply

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