WHY DO WE GET SO MUCH PLEASURE IN BEING HARD ON OTHERS?
The desire to fit in and feel better about ourselves are powerful urges. Unless we can channel these, darker instincts often take over.
In an early episode of the Simpsons, Maude Flanders, wife of the nerdy evangelical Ned, said she had spent a weekend at Bible camp ‘learning how to be more judgemental’. Jokes have power because they usually contain a hint of truth and the image of the Christian judging the lifestyles of other people has been an enduring and pervasive one. But the hypocrisy in this judgment itself has been exposed.
Privately, pretty much everyone is judgmental of everyone else and this has been revealed by the emergence of social media, where commentary divides broadly into two. People encourage and affirm friends and family in likes, comments and re-tweets, but reserve their bile for those they disagree with. It is quite shocking to read online comments sections, where people express the kind of disinhibition they show behind the wheel of a car. Out of the abundance of the heart, the fingers post. This division between those we approve of and those we despise is hardening as social media develops.
Why are we so prone to judging others? Let’s be honest here: there is an immediate satisfaction in beating people up with our words. It’s like tucking into a salty, fatty takeaway where we get an instant hit but later regret our relish when we think what it’s doing to our insides. But still we buy our takeaways. Judging other people also bolsters our self-esteem by diminishing them. In a reversal of John the Baptist’s relationship with Jesus, it is as if we must increase and they must decrease. This is especially tempting in an era where we are relentlessly invited to compare ourselves to others. A third reason why we judge others is even more pernicious and difficult to untangle. We build up relationships with some by gossiping about others. It cements friendships, creating in-groups and out-groups.
Two of the three reasons I have offered for judging people are rooted in the innocent human desires to build friendships and feel better about ourselves, which shows what we are up against when we try to deal with our tendency to be hard on others. There are particular risks when our lives are in transition, perhaps when we go to university, start a new job, find a new neighbourhood or join a club or an online forum. We have to find a way into new networks and the surest way of doing this is by assimilating the culture. When this culture is already tarnished it can be hard to gain acceptance without compromising who we believe in. Not to affirm the judgments of others can make us look prudish. And our involvement in the group is at stake.
There are no simple, off the shelf answers to how we resist the invitation to judge others. All too often we join in. Even if we don’t, we often feel we don’t handle the situation well. We reflect back and, rather like the slow motion pictures of a header at goal that misses, wonder how on earth we messed it up, without accepting how difficult it can be to get things right in real time, on the spur of the moment. Perhaps one tactic is just to deflect the invitation to judge, to change the topic casually and undemonstratively or to focus our attention on the person in front of us, because everyone likes attention.
If people finding their way into new groups face the challenge of fitting in without compromising their faith, those who have been well settled in groups for years have a different temptation. Their friendships can be so firmly established that they become complacent in criticising others who don’t belong to the group. Some people can show an alarming lack of self-awareness in the way they judge others, as if they have inoculated themselves against the words of Jesus and James not to judge. Breaking perennial habits is the greatest challenge to Christian maturity.
To judge another person is to label them up, like a package. Our judgements reduce people to the scope of the words we use, inhibiting and controlling them. We defy others to say there is more to the person we are putting down. Simple statements like: ‘he’s flaky’, ‘she’s high maintenance’ or ‘they’re ignorant’ sum up complicated people in overly neat words. They work because there is often an element of truth in them. But he may be flaky because his marriage is falling apart and he can’t concentrate; she may be high maintenance because of an anxiety disorder which plagues every day; they may be ignorant because their parents discouraged curiosity. There are often good reasons why people are the way they are, but our casual discrimination is too lazy for that inquiry. As the Mishnah says: do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place.
Judgement often comes in short, pithy form, without wider appreciation of the context someone is living in. Perhaps this is why Twitter is notorious for being a platform of contempt. You have to sum people and situations up in 140 characters and they are often people you know little about.
We should not limit the potential of God within someone. This is something Jesus understood when he called Simon to be a follower of his. Simon was a fisherman who worked nights with his hands. He was courageous at times, for sure, but also impetuous and prone to speaking his mind before engaging his brain. On the face of it, he was not an ideal candidate to lead the new Church and there were probably hundreds of people living in Jerusalem and working with their brains, not their hands, who fitted the person spec better. But Jesus saw potential and in a powerful piece of symbolism, unlocked this by giving Simon a new name: Peter: the rock on which the Church would be built. Can you imagine what kind of impact that would have made on Simon, to be told by God’s own Son that he would be an immovable stone on which the new kingdom would be laid? This is how to bolster another person’s self-esteem; to expand their sense of self and possibility.
The Church of God, despite its origins in this naming ceremony of Jesus, is not immune to making hard judgements not just of those outside the fellowship but those inside too. In fact, we make a specialism of this. Leaders are a particular target and we justify it because they are supposed to deliver the goods. Ordained clergy, worship leaders, wardens, lay ministers, Sunday club and home group leaders. But we are all potential targets. We think we know someone because we see them each Sunday, but we only show the paucity of our fellowship when we make shallow judgements of complex people. The sad thing is, in a church with dense, overlapping relationships, the person we judge often gets to hear about it and they become wary and demoralised.
One of the greatest gifts is of encouragement. People flourish when they are named and described in ways which release their potential, like Peter the disciple. It is ridiculously easy to encourage someone else, as simple as judging them, for it takes only words to do it. And it is a perfect antidote to judgement because it fills our conversation with good things, reducing the scope to be nasty about others. How odd, then, that it is so lacking in the modern Church.
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