Islam: Day 22 – On criticism and gossip

My month of Islam has me especially aware of how critical I am of others.

I sat in a meeting yesterday at work and the participants were asked to give feedback on a presentation that is intended to be used as a sort of marketing tool.

The subject matter wasn’t important, and I had no skin in the game in the outcome of this presentation, but I thought the concepts everyone liked were completely wrong! It was bland, generic, and I thought no one would ever really “buy in” to the concept we were pitching.

After I thoroughly destroyed the presentation in my mind, I started mentally critiquing my co-workers for coming up with something so bland. Are they just not imaginative? Lack courage to do something interesting?

After a few minutes of this, I realized that a good and just person would not criticize others in the way I’m doing now.

Am I an expert on marketing? No. Do I know my co-workers well enough to truly know if they aren’t creative or lack courage? No.

If that’s the case, who am I to judge?

Rumi, a great Sufi mystic and poet, wrote

“The fault is in the one who blames. Spirit sees nothings to criticize.”

Of course, we can sometimes legitimately and objectively criticize someone, but I suspect 99% of the time it comes from a place of arrogance, not concern or respect.

Rumi also taught

Many of the faults you dislike in people are your own faults reflected back to you. Actually you are branding and blaming yourself. Even if you don’t have the same fault as someone you are criticizing, perhaps you will develop that fault later in your life. Think about that!

Rumi’s teaching is comparable to the saying “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” except that Rumi expands it to imply “people who live in glass houses or could be moving into a glass house in the future shouldn’t throw stones.”

Modernity makes withholding criticism especially difficult. Criticism is fundamentally human, but I think modernity offers many more opportunities for criticism.

Politics is an obvious example. The media turns the current polarized political climate into entertainment, and seduces people into joining a particular political camp from which they can malign the other (I’m guilty of this myself).

Or if you ever browsed through a women’s entertainment or fashion magazine (this is not something I do regularly, I swear), you’ll see that the magazine routinely criticizes celebrity outfits. It helps the reader feel superior, and gives the reader something to talk about with other readers.

Now, criticism is embedded into human nature, and criticism often turns into gossip. There is a good case to be made that gossip helps with social bonding.

Say you go out to a happy hour with a few friends from work. I bet it’s not long before you naturally start griping about the boss and or discussing another co-workers latest screw-up.

Throw in a few drinks and you’ll feel an incredible closeness with your drinking buddies.

So gossip, rooted in criticism, is helpful for solidifying relationships.

But is participating in gossip and criticizing others really good for us?

Or does it distract us from more important goals, like living a good and just life?

I think we can train ourselves to reduce how often we criticize others. Because I’ve been praying five times per day, I’ve become more aware of the negative thoughts that run through my brain.

As for gossip, I don’t think we can get rid of that part of our human nature. It’s too powerful. But maybe we can gossip about virtuous people. Talk about the good things people do, instead of the negative. Or if we do criticize someone for a legitimate character flaw, maybe we can do so in the spirit of improving ourselves, and not just to feel superior to them.

Maybe it’s impossible, but it’s worth striving for.

  • Great post, Dale! It’s definitely easy to get caught up in gossip, and the best way to avoid it seems to be to turn inwards, as with almost any negative thoughts.

    • Thanks David!

  • Common Tater

    Hey Dale, I’ve been following along since Cal Newport linked to you, and thought I might chime in here. Criticism is invaluable, because it identifies mistakes to learn from and avoid. If you had voiced your critique of your colleagues’ work (assuming it was the right forum to do so), either you or they might have ended up being better marketers because of the discussion.

    As someone who was raised Muslim and never (yes, never) gossiped, I’ve come to appreciate its value since moving away from the faith. I’ve learned a lot about social expectations and about the workings of the social machine. The problems with gossip, as with all criticism, is when we fall prey to the fundamental attribution error.

    • I’m not against legitimate criticism, I was just trying to make the point that most of the time (in my experience anyway), the criticism is unwarranted and really has more to do with my need to be right/contrarian/feel smarter than other people.

  • Arushi

    Hi Dale!
    This has been one post to which I related the most-yet.
    I am so glad how you are acknowledging the introspective edge you’re gaining by practicing these ancient practices. This is encouraging for a lot of us who also feel a lack of a higher power to start believing.
    There’s also an old saying by a very renowned Indian poet, Kabira, where he says that he’d rather keep his critics close because thanks to them he would have his soul cleansing, without even using soaps to clean his body!

    Sharing a recent incident ; I recently shifted out of my home and I am now living in a university campus, and it is such a small place that gossips – good or bad travels like wild fire that I feel super cautious of what I say and do, and what if I offend someone, unintentionally, next day that person would have spoken ill about me to everyone.
    Only if people could realize that talking about people and unconstructive criticism Is more harmful to the people to gossip.

    • I like your bit about the “introspective edge.”

      I’m curious to see how you handle university re: gossip. The difficult part is not partaking in gossip. It is often, socially isolating to not bad-mouth someone. If you don’t, people think you’re a weirdo. If you do, you feel guilty.