Have you noticed how many talk shows present dismissive judgments of others? Whether it is Bill O'Reilly on Fox or Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, they lure us in for a meal of scorn and derision. These kinds of shows often talk about others with suspicion, contempt or even hate. They use slanderous innuendo, freely casting aspersions on certain groups of people.

Why do we listen to judgmental speech? Judgmental media is titillating. It grabs your attention, like violence in movies. It is arresting. If you are feeling down, it can feel good to put someone else down further. But it is a road towards vice not virtue.

What does listening to judgmental speech do to your morality?

First, it makes you fearful and self-centered. "Those people" are out to "get ME and mine". Your defenses go up and you are ready to latch onto any handy scapegoat. Even soft-spoken innuendo can emphasize "us against them" thinking which is detrimental to any sophisticated morality.

Second, it gets you conditioned to trigger particular feelings when you hear particular words. When you label something, you feel like you "know it" and so you shut down your openness to it. You categorize it and move on. Our culture is particularly good at this now. So after listening to judgmental-speech, you may learn to have certain feelings when you hear the word "immigrant" or "corporation" or "liberal" or "conservative" ---feelings that are not necessarily based in any real experience of your own. You are encouraged to generalize from skewed information (or even misinformation) without looking at all the facts.

Third, it builds habits of self-centeredness. You get used to using snap judgments of others, harboring resentful or contemptuous feelings even when you are not listening to the particular show. Your heart hardens against fellow citizens, neighbors and even family members (e.g., men vs. women).

Fourth, it makes you less compassionate. If ridcule, contempt, superiority are your daily bread, there is no room for kindness, caring and compassion. In fact, positive and negative emotions (and corresponding attitudes) emerge from incompatible emotion systems. Can you stay mad if someone makes you laugh? Can you stay fearful if you focus on gratitude?

Fifth, it keeps you from using your moral imagination. When you are stuck in self-centered morality (what I call the Security ethic), your higher abstract abilities are less accessible (except for the paranoid ones). You can't reason very well or think creatively about alternatives. You get stuck in rigid, black and white thinking.

I don't know about you, but this judgmentalness is not something I subscribe to in my moral life. Unfortunately, judgmental-filled media is saturating our air waves so it is hard to avoid. I have to keep reminding myself, when I become fascinated by judgmental-speech, that it is not good for my virtue development and make myself change the channel.

How do we discern detrimental judgmental-filled programming?

Regarding a particular group of people, does the program make you feel:

  • More fearful or suspicious or distrustful of that group?
  • Contemptuous or angry towards them?
  • Less sympathetic?
  • Less respectful of them as human beings?
  • Superior to them?

These are signs of deteriorating mindful morality.

When I get into an "us-against-them" mode, I try to calm my reactions by breathing deeply and trying to shift attention from myself. I ponder: what would make someone reasonably think/act/reason that way? How do they think they are being moral?

Instead of listening to judgmental-speech I try to develop my moral imagination by reading about people different from me and the challenges they face. I read about humanitarians and those who solve social problems. I try to fill my mind with positive images and positive feelings for others. I try to enlarge my empathic response.

You become what you spend your time doing. Harboring negative emotions about others will make you more likely to act against them. Nurturing positive feelings towards others will make it more likely that you will act with their best interests in mind. Which thoughts and feelings you foster in yourself makes all the difference for your moral behavior.