Fueled by attack media and the low accountability of anonymous cyberspace, criticism of anything and everything has moved from sideshow to center stage.
Honest debate is one thing, but civility has vanished. The level of vitriol against those with divergent views is palpably more vicious than at any time in recent memory. Today, it is difficult to find honest debate that doesn’t descend into a character attack.
The roots of criticism
The roots of criticism run the gamut from genuine disagreement to revenge. While civil discourse is healthy, criticism by attack is not. Such venom evokes a range of emotions inconsistent with the fruits of the spirit: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance..." (Galatians 5:22-23).
Each of us should be secure enough in our own moral bedrock not to allow the actions of another to dictate our demeanor. Remaining calm in the face of criticism, or calmly withholding criticism borne of anger, is the hallmark of restraint and good character.
The mirror of criticism
Sadly, when I criticize others I often target the very flaws I refuse to see in myself.
For example, I may rail against those whose words or actions pierce my pride, yet I reject self-examination that would reveal my own reflection. I may lash out at an opposing view simply to preserve my emotional territory. Do I criticize my children when they test my patience, but conveniently forget the times I tested theirs?
Following in the Master’s footsteps requires a lengthened stride beyond strident pounding to the elevated climb of selflessness.
Besides, while it is easy to point the finger of criticism through a window, the glass may well reflect the mirror of our own hypocrisy.
Judgment versus criticism
Every day we make necessary judgments about people and situations. Indeed, Jesus counseled us to judge righteously in discerning good from evil: "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24). For more on this subject, read the excellent talk by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "‘Judge Not,’ and Judging," (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, August 1999.)
Though Jesus frequently criticized hypocrisy, he also warned his disciples about judging others before conducting a diligent search of the "beam that is in thine own eye" (Matthew 7:3).
Judgment is like a delicate soufflÉ: Overdone by the heat of jealousy or anger, even righteous judgment can deflate into criticism without the watchful eye of restraint. Thus, the Master’s warning: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged" (Matthew 7:2).
There is a vast difference between righteous judgment to protect our safety and character, versus allowing the actions of another to change our character. The scourge of criticism diminishes character.
My Arizona desert is home to the scorpion. Scorpions do not attack non-food sources except when disturbed. If disturbed, they react without restraint, delivering a shock of paralyzing venom.
Like a scorpion disturbed, criticism stirred by the venom of retribution is toxic, paralytic and a shock to one’s peace and peace of mind.
Treat others with respect
May we be slow to criticize others, especially when motivated by anger. Engage in honest debate, but do it with courtesy and respect for opposing views. May we seek change in ourselves before trying to change others. May we lead the way, not force the way.
Treat others as you want to be treated in your finest hour. When you do, you’ll have more of them.
William Monahan is a 1980 graduate of BYU Law School. He practices law and teaches law and ethics. A former Phoenix stake president and current high councilor for the QC Chandler Heights Stake, he is active in Interfaith, and a U.S. Air Force veteran