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.