Anthropologist and essayist David Graeber coined the term “rights-scolding” to name the phenomenon of lecturing people on where they are wrong and what they should be doing instead. Rights-scolding is really a new term for an old practice. We used to call it “preaching.”
The definition for preaching I am using here is the baser form that is commonly used as “preachy.” People respond to such scolding about being poor because they are lazy, to check their privilege, or accusations of other moral failures with the words, “I don’t need a sermon.”
The scold believes two things. The objects of their ire need to hear what must be said. And they are the right people to say it. Scolding is good news for them while being bad news for other people. Therefore, it is not good news at all.
The Hypocritical Aspect
The ancient word from which we get the word “hypocrite” means actor. Specifically, it is an actor who wears a mask. Such masks were used in ancient Greek theater to reinforce to the audience that the people behind them were not really the people being portrayed. Our word hypocrite is a little different. The person wearing the mask us holding up an image on what they expect the object of their scolding to be without conforming to the image themselves. Think of Bill Cosby.
It is too easy, though, to accuse another person of hypocrisy and to walk away. There is no “Gospel of Hypocrisy” where a person may respond with, “Well, so are you!” The other person may be morally lazy, racist, or relying on unrecognized privilege. However, it does not follow that it grants permission to act in these ways.
Scolding As Duty
I said earlier some people see not just opportunities to scold. They see it as their God-given duty. And that is a problem. No one deserves scolding (or being preached at). Social media has made this bad behavior more common by bring scolds and their victims together virtually. We used to simply avoid relatives during the Holiday season who enjoyed pointing out the flaws of everyone else. One can now be found very quickly.
Rights-scolding is practiced in lieu of doing something useful. If racism is an institutional practice, it never helps to merely call out individual racists. Nor does it help to congratulate one’s self for doing so. Reforming racist institutions is hard work. If we choose to dissolve them, replacing them is not going to be easy. Rights-scolding is not helpful. It’s source is usually from positions of anger, herm-seeking, and well, privilege if you do not have to be accountable for your words. But it fools the people doing it by dressing up as “necessary truths.”
Pointing out evil is important. But it is only the beginning of overcoming it. It is not an end in itself. Words must be met with actions. Actions taken from fear or anger will not help in the long run. The actions should be taken from love and faith.