Saturday, August 17, 2013

Criticizing Your Mom is not Self-Criticism: A Brief Primer in False Humility

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gul Dukat

Fairly high on my list of things that make me angry, somewhere in between the persecution of Christians and Gul Dukat, the Cardassian Prefect of Bajor during the Occupation*, is that wondrous and extraordinarily common phenomenon I like to call "Fake Self-Criticism."  It is amazing how common this phenomenon has become; but it is no less pernicious for its commonality.

Gul Dukat, Master of fake self-criticism

To illustrate this phenomenon, let us imagine that we are children, and that we visit the house of a family we have recently become acquainted with, but don't yet know very well.  While the parents are still clustered around the dining table, the children remove to another room to do those wonderful things that are of the essence of childhood, like shooting rubber bands at each other and punching each other repeatedly. However, eventually, we end up in a conversation of sorts, and we start talking about our two families.

At this point, one of the children from the other family sighs loudly, looks down at the ground, and says piously:  "Well...of course, we in this family aren't perfect.  We make a lot of mistakes."  Curiously, we ask what he means, and, with another deep sigh, the child begins a litany: "Well, to start with, we make the children go to bed way too early.  And we never buy any Coca-Colas.  And we just don't work hard enough at our jobs, so our incomes are too low.  We also don't go to the movies hardly at all, which makes it very hard to keep up with popular culture.  And our cooking isn't as good as it should be.  You know," the child continues gravely, looking up at us, "it's not easy to say these things, but self-criticism and honesty are moral duties."  And he continues on in a similar vein:  "We've been much too lazy to buy a large-screen TV.  And sometimes we're much too strict about reading at the table.  And we haven't trimmed the bushes with the chain-saw in ages..."

"But wait!" we say finally, after thinking the matter through thoroughly.  "This isn't self-criticism!  You, the child, don't actually do any of these things; and you couldn't if you wanted to!  All of these things are just things your parents do wrong, in your opinion!  This isn't self-criticism at all!"

But the other child is angered by your comments:  "How dare you?!  Do you know how long I've been a part of this family?  I grew up in this family!  How would you know anything about it?  This is my family, and I won't let anyone tell me I don't have the right to be part of it!"  He then storms out of the room angrily.

You've made Gul Dukat angry!  You won't like him when he's angry!

Now, the point of this little fable is very simple: to criticize a group to which we belong is not the same as to criticize ourselves.  In fact, it is usually the exact opposite.  For in the vast, vast majority of cases, what we are really doing in criticizing the group is criticizing the leaders of the group--who are most definitely not us--or else criticizing the other people in the group--who are also not us.  This is true whether the group in question is our family, our country, our religious denomination, or whatever.  Thus, many who make harsh critiques of "America" or "we Americans," really mean by that "those government leaders I don't agree with" or else "those other Americans who are bad"; and many who make harsh critiques of their religion really mean by that "those religious leaders I don't agree with," or else "those bad members of my religion I don't like."

These are the best-case scenarios: another, worse scenario is also very common, and it consists of criticizing a group to which we once belonged, or which we identify with in some intangible way, but which we have either repudiated, left, or at least have substantially rejected.  This is quite common in religion especially.  I think I've lost count of the number of ex-Catholics--those who do not practice their faith and reject the doctrines of their Church--who begin their tirades against the Catholic Church with some variant on, "Well, I was an altar server growing up..." or even, quod absurdum est, "As someone deeply committed to my Catholic identity...".  However, you can find examples of this in almost every area of life, and for almost every group.

In all these cases, in fact, what is happening is quite simple: we are criticizing other people under the cover of criticizing ourselves.  This is quite a tempting offer.  It lets us enjoy both the thrill of criticizing others uncharitably, and the pleasure of doing our moral duty, at the same time!  It lets us get that ego boost of acting humble, and that ego boost of condemning others!  It lets us be hard on others, which is fun, while also getting that penitential satisfaction of being hard on ourselves.  It's really a win-win all around.

"I'm handsome, and I criticize myself fakely?  Hellooooo ladies."

Now, all that being said, there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with criticizing others, provided it is done charitably, carefully, and for the good either of the person we are criticizing or some other person or persons--this is especially true of criticism of public figures.  Likewise, to criticize someone's actions is not the same, necessarily, as criticizing them.  One can say, for instance, that Politican X has put in place a policy that is ill-advised, or that Friend Y has has committed an action that is wrong, without thereby implying any strong negative judgment on these people.  It is very possible--and indeed essential--to love the sinner and to hate the sin.

Nevertheless, if we are going to criticize others, let us be aware of what we are doing.  Criticizing your Mom is not self-criticism, and it should not be undertaken in the same way, in the same spirit, and for the same ends.  If we criticize others, especially as Christians, we are called to do so in a spirit of love, charitably and justly, always conscious that they are not us, and that we do not know what is in their hearts and minds.  When we criticize ourselves, we are called to act somewhat differently, because we do know what is in our hearts and minds, and, put simply, because we are ourselves.  These two modes of criticism should not be confused or conflated.

However, if you do want to practice fake self-criticism, hopefully I've given you everything you need to do so.  Yippee!

Gul Dukat says, "Works for me!"

*Gul Dukat is a character from Star Trek Deep Space Nine, which is the best TV show ever.  He is also a fabulously handsome Cardassian who deeply regrets the things the Bajorans forced him to do during his military occupation of their planet.  He's also very sorry that the Bajorans can't admit how much they love him.  It's hard to say it, but his superiors in the Cardassian government really weren't as compassionate as he was; and he apologizes for that too.