Do you want to be a better person than you are right now? i do, and that’s the assumption that i start this post with. It boggles my mind that there seem to be people out there who don’t want to be better people than they are now, but the evidence seems quite overwhelming to that regard. If it is true of anyone, this is not going to be helpful to them. But for the majority of people who are looking to become better at being you, there may be something in here for you… and i’d also like to hear some additional ideas in the comments section afterwards, so please stick around.
Critique vs Criticism
One thing that often seems to be missing from online conversations is the idea of critique. Many people view critique as criticism and tend to shut off, rush to defensive mode or label the other person an idiot. But this is how i see the difference:
Criticism tends to be a fixed statement:
eg. “You’re a jerk!”
It doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room and it can often be true, but may not often be the most helpful, unless it has been invited.
Critique, on the other hand, often comes in the form of a question or a statement inviting further investigation:
eg. “Are you a jerk?” “You may be a jerk.” “Have you considered that jerkivity may run in your DNA?”
With critique, the power of final decision has been handed to you. The invitation is to stand in front of the mirror and take a good hard look at yourself and ask the question, “Am I a jerk?”
…and if the answer is “No, I don’t think i am a jerk,” then that’s fine. You continue on with your life, checking in with the mirror every now and then to make sure it’s not true.
…and if the answer is “Yes, I just realised I actually am a jerk,” then that’s helpful. Because it gives you the opportunity to do something towards being less of a jerk.
But what if you don’t know? What if the evidence is inconclusive or you are concerned that your opinion might not be as objective as you would like it to be? Well, that’s when you bring in the cavalry.
Uh, wait, no, maybe not those guys. But i have found it super in helpful in life to have some people i respect who i know love me and will tell me the truth, whether it hurts me or not.
Do you have people in your life who you have invited to call you on stuff as well as encourage you when you get it right? Or people you can look to when you’re not sure.
Someone calls me a jerk. i’m not sure if i am a jerk. i send my mate Wayne a whatsapp message. He takes a look and confirms, “Yup, Brett, this time you were a bit of a jerk.” i can still take it or leave it when Wayne [Val, Mahlatse, Alexa, Linda, Craig, Jacqui, Ashley and others] has said that, but now i know that it is more likely and i have to take it more seriously. So helpful [but again, starting with the assumption that i am wanting to be a better person than i currently am now].
Can i mention that it is not easy when any of these people confirm that i have gotten it wrong or been too harsh or sounded too cocky or prideful or defensive or whatever it is they’re calling out? Just because i am friends with them and know they love me and want the best for me doesn’t make it easy to hear. Because of that stuff it is easier to hear, but not easy. But it is so completely valuable and necessary. Because i have blind spots… and so do you!
Ask the question[s]
This is something that tends to frustrate me no end because of how little people do it. For me, having someone else agree with my opinion on something is not as important as them having asked the question [because – gasp – all my opinions are not going to be correct]. So one of the main aims i have in life is to try and get people to ask the questions.
So even when criticism comes, this can be valuable. Someone jumps on and declares “You surround yourself with yes people and are creating an echo chamber on Facebook” – my gut feel is that i don’t think it’s true but i have heard it a lot of times so it really is worthwhile asking the question. However, at the same time the fact that so many different people keep jumping on and saying that might perhaps be an indication that it’s not true? So then i will self-evaluate and i will invite Wayne and others to help me figure out if it’s true. If it is then i need to change and if it isn’t then i can carry on with life and business as usual, while being aware that it is a possible danger to continue to be aware of.
Asking the question really helps you to grow. Because sometimes the answer is going to be no and i have grown in the position i already held which will be strengthened by having interrogated it. Sometimes the answer is yes and i will have grown by re-evaluating my stance on something or else changing it altogether. Win-win.
So at the very least, please ask the questions.
i have found that the term ‘white privilege’ provides such a great example of this. So many people hear the term ‘white privilege’ and get super defensive or run screaming or get angry and shut down completely. But you can often tell by their rebuttals that they have a different idea or understanding of what ‘white privilege’ is than the generally accepted understanding by those dealing with racial inequality.
Someone will say “But I’ve worked hard for everything I have” or “We grew up poor” as if the term “white privilege” suggests that you could not have been born poor or that everything you have was handed to you on a silver platter. But if you investigate the term a little deeper you will understand that what it is suggesting is that historically, if a black person and a white person were both born poor, that there are more opportunities or easier possibilities for the white person to overcome that and become rich or at least middle class. There are certain benefits or privileges that i have had at my disposal simply for being white [ability to get bank loans, less suspicion when applying for a job, able to walk around a community at night without making my way on to a neighbourhood watch WhatsApp group etc] which i did nothing to earn, but which are there.
So if you hear a term like ‘white privilege’ and it makes you mad or defensive, take a moment to ‘Ask The Question’ – What does this person understand when they say ‘white privilege’? Do i agree with their definition? Is that now something that applies to me.
The same happens often when a generalised statement is made that is true about the majority of a group.
eg. Men tend to exert power in conversations with women. Now, as a man, that statement makes me feel quite defensive and my gut response would be to say, “But i don’t exert power in conversations with women.’ Which might be true. Or i might be tempted to throw out a #NotAllMen hashtag.
But again, when confronted by the original comment, if i stopped for a second and asked the question, “Is that statement true of me?” and came up with the answer “No. No, i don’t think it is,” a great follow up question might be, “Is this true of the majority of men?” and the answer to that would be, “Actually that does seem to be the case.” So then it becomes particularly unhelpful to draw attention to a couple of exceptions when the thing generally acts like a rule.
Christians can be the worst
Finally, a call to my own family to be better at this.
Despite the greatest commandment in the Bible being a call to love God and people with, among other things, our minds, many people who call themselves christian show a consistent tendency to not use their brains when questions about their faith come up.
One of the worst ways we do this is by grabbing a verse, or a piece of a verse from the Bible and using it to say something we want it to say, while ignoring the context or the other verses around it.
The Prayer of Jabez was an awful, awful version of this which made some con artist a whole lot of money.
But the one that makes me and tbV the most angry and is one of the most widely spread examples of this is Jeremiah 29.11, an amazing verse which people love to quote and which goes like this:
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Wow, wow, wow, images of God as the big Aladdin genie in the sky right? Except that not just three wishes but all of the things.
The same people, however, tend to pretty much always leave out this little part that follows:
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
So it appears there is a condition and people love to gloss over that one for the big payoff that verse 11 offers.
Also, if you look a little bit more closely, that chapter is titled ‘A letter to the exiles’ and is a message from God to the people of Israel when they were exiled in Babylon. This is not a general teaching that is directed at all those who call themselves christian, but rather a specific promise and prophetic call to return to seeking God that was given to a specific people at a specific time.
When we fail to take context into account and whether or not the verse we want is directed at us and whether there are nearby verses that might call us to a much higher standard of living and accountability, then we are making up the message we hold to.
And so much more.
Let’s critique and ask the questions and invite accountability and honestly interrogate ideas and beliefs that are different to our own so that we can see if our ideas and beliefs hold up to the necessary scrutiny. Let’s take more time to listen and to really try to understand what those who disagree with us are saying and try to understand and be better able to articulate the things we are saying.
Because we want to be better people than we are right now, right?