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…