Have you thought about (HYTA) why we criticise others so readily, so much, so often?

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“People like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. They feel better then. They find it easier to live”
                                                                                                                    -Geralt of Rivia

This profound observation, even if it’s through the eyes of a fictional character, has always struck me as being a disquietedly accurate truth about our behaviour. We may wear the fresh coat of modernisation and believe we have advanced in all aspects, but we have not really changed much in our behaviour and decision making – we have merely become more cunning, more prone to easy self-justifications just so we won’t feel bad about who we are when we hurt others by words or by deeds, disparage their reputations or knife them in the back.

We make other people monsters, tear them down and usually misattribute their flaws, so that by comparison, our existence is bearable.

Though Geralt’s response is best understood in the setting of The Witcher – a mirthless, bleak backdrop of wretched human existence set against the wide expanse of human gullibility and exploitation – where he eventually comes to the astute conclusion that very often, the humans he tries to protect from the horrors are usually far worse than the clutching, devouring shadows, there’s no denying his response is still an accurate echo of our typical behaviour.

While we don’t invent monsters, we do invent lies and untruths, deliberate distortions and baseless exaggerations, and all of these are spun from the wheel of gossip and casual talk. We form cliques that converge on the same opinions, establish group superiority and exclusivity, and from there, we deride the efforts of others to bolster our standing. It’s not uncommon. From young students, teachers, senior management teams, we like to criticise people from our vaunted, shared, bricked battlements.

Even when we should admit our mistakes, acknowledge the opposition’s success, we instead stubbornly choose to consolidate our position and keep firing away at our arrows anyway. It’s just so much more comforting to hit away at someone, openly or in secret defiance, knowing that we are likely immune to any counter volleys. We thrive on the misery of others. We are one, and they are others – such is the manifestation of group think.

And chances are, without a strong self-awareness, or an exceptional person to guide and develop our thinking, we are likely to default to the natural tendency to criticise others without reflecting on ourselves. After all, the totality of our existence, the measure of our name, the reach of our fame, are achieved by comparing ourselves with others.

Consider a few scenarios:

Even with an average performance, there is SOME comfort knowing others (even friends) have failed dismally.

If someone you disliked got the position you wanted, it’s more fun to laugh and block out their speeches, even though truthfully, it was well-delivered.

It’s easier to blame others than ourselves, in which case, we have a tendency to attribute others’ mistakes to incompetence and ours to convenient bad luck or a misalignment of the planets. In Psychology, we can think of it as a mixed bag of the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias. We have a need to maintain our egos. Admitting to mistakes means we are lesser, not greater.

It’s just nice to know that if we are bad, we are not that bad. These modes of comparisons manifest themselves ever more strongly in moments of intense competitions – romantic, social, educational or financial.

Because we often subscribe to these thoughts, we do a great, great deal of harm when we mount unconstructive criticisms or obscure opportunities to scrutinise our weaknesses (and improve on it). We make our opponents appear as tyrants, and draw the line between good and bad, correct and wrong, with the fatalistic assumption that the morals in the world conform to such a stupid and simplistic definition. And we almost always imagine ourselves as the good guys who can do no wrong.

Some of the finest writings of criticisms come from Ratatouille where Anton, the unreserved, scathing critic, finally admits that  we should acknowledge the goodness in others who offer themselves (and their work) up to our judgements. It’s not to say others are perfect, and I will be the first to say that most systems are biased and flawed, but it doesn’t mean we are free to say anything and everything without sensitivity or contextually linking it back to ourselves.

And it certainly doesn’t excuse us from demonising others, easy or tempting as it seems.

I leave you Anton’s last words, a fitting ending I think, to why we should resolutely make it a point to develop strong self-awareness about our tendencies for self-aggrandising gossip, barbed arrows of criticisms and group assault on “others”:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so…”

Would it be that if we had a better heart and heightened sensibilities, the world would be a slightly nicer place to live in. Alas, both are often sacrificed on the false pedestal in pursuit for glory and inflated egos.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) your attitudes towards gossip and criticisms?

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