Tag Archive: Formation


TV isn’t the only cultural means of training our judgmentalism.

There are other cultural examples which predispose us to such negative forms of judgmentalism. Take each new political season and the mud-slinging that goes on between candidates. The more we hear it, the more we’re exposed to it, the more of a “normal condition” such phenomena become, thus shaping our imaginations toward what is possible and even allowed in our own lives. Mind you, this is all happening pre-reflectively—that is, we’re not actually “thinking about” it. We’re just engaged in the practice of watching TV or listening to the political ads. It all happens quite passively, much like how we catch a cold—it just happens to us. To the extent that our exposure to such negative judgmentalism shapes our imagination of what is possible and normal, we are more pre-disposed to start emulating what we see as the new “norm,” mimicking the members of our “community.”

This situation is bolstered by another place we regularly find ourselves: the grocery store checkout lane. What do we see there? Magazines with the latest pictures on the cover of the most recent young Hollywood actress, billboard artist, or Victoria’s secret model caught with added weight wearing a bikini on the beach. Accompanying the picture is of course some judgmental headline wondering what possibly happened could have to the woman that she would have “let herself go” so carelessly (what they really mean is “disgustingly”).

The ever-present and always inviting Facebook is a further culprit in fostering a negative judgmentalism within us. No longer do we have to be in “public” to render our “private” (in our heads/minds) evaluations of others; now we can do so just by logging on to Facebook to see what our friends are posting today. Furthermore, we can obscurely call out whomever we want and rant about whatever aberrant behavior we’ve encountered in someone that we didn’t like. It might be your next door neighbor, your co-worker, or someone you randomly bumped into while you were running an errand. Or consider adding your voice to the choir of random complaints that abound in social media. Try the topic of sports, perhaps the “replacement refs” can be a good example? Why not use Facebook or Twitter?

How about reverse judgmentalism? What do I mean? That’s the kind of thing where you simply make yourself look impressive compared to everyone else. You’re rendering a judgment about someone else without actually being explicitly negative. Facebook and Instagram are now liturgically forming us in this regard. Just pose a shot of where you’re “working” today to make everyone jealous. Then check the comments in 15 minutes to see who subtly expressed their envy. Got the new iPhone? Be sure to let everyone know. And by the way, you’re already playing into Apple’s game of creating desire through simple proliferation of its products in the hands of others. After all, that’s how you came to want one–from a position of lack that was created in you. Did you just run a marathon or ride 16 miles on your bike? Please tell us. Are you eating something better than my bowl of cereal for dinner? Share a picture.

Reverse judgmentalism strikes me as exactly what Elizabeth Bernstein’s Wall Street Journal article “Are We All Braggarts Now?” is all about. Like the story told in all the Dos Equis beer commercials, we’re now locked in a competition to appear more and more interesting. That’s enough to explain our felt need to brag or be reversely judgmental (biblically, depending on the situation, it might be called Pharisaical). And culturally, we’ve got plenty of training opportunities which create in us a habitus from which we operate along these lines without even thinking about it.

Simultaneously, if at any time, we are confronted as being judgmental (like in any of the situations I’ve listed above) our immediate desire might be to find a way out from underneath that accusation. Being called judgmental makes us squirm. That’s because, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, we’re also formed according to an explicit cultural narrative to be non-judgmental, tolerant and accepting. And this mode of being is, for us, in conflict and competition with the implicit judgmentalist training I’ve been discussing. So how do we navigate this conflict?

Perhaps a more important question might be, when can we understand ourselves as judging in a manner that might be considered appropriate, and when have we slipped into the kind of negative judgmentalism that I’ve argued in these posts we’re being trained to embody?

I’ll discuss these competing formations more in the next post.

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I want to argue here that TV can function liturgically for us. Watching television has ritual characteristics. Certain shows happen at certain times. They are regularly repeated. There is a certain flow to the event with the show being interspersed with other pieces and parts—commercials with various kinds of messages that are in themselves mini-rituals and which participate in the large consumeristic liturgy Smith might compare to the “mall” in Desiring the Kingdom. Perhaps most importantly, as a liturgy, watching television engages us on a level where our desires are captured and we’re made captive to a certain narrative which sets out for us the good life and invites us to participate in it. As I proceed below, I suggest Reality TV trains us liturgically to become judgmental.

Reality TV is a big training ground for the kind of judgmentalism that all of us disdain—that is, the kind by which we hate to be judged. And it has progressively grown in its proliferation over the airwaves in the last decade. From shows like American Idol and Survivor, it has grown exponentially into whatever niche market might get some ratings. Now the public is dying to watch the Real Housewives of Wherever, Honey Boo Boo, Cooking and Tattooing and Fashion competition shows, Restaurant and Hotel disaster shows where somebody’s bound to be totally ripped by the host, and plenty of others I don’t even know about (what is “Amish Mafia”?). All this is somehow entertainment to us as we join in, participating in our private little fantasy worlds, invited to render our own judgments just by nature of what’s on display.

Our training started concretely in a sense with those shows like American Idol, Big Brother, Survivor and others where the public was invited to weigh in with their own vote. Did you “like” the character? He or she got to stay. Did you hate them? Vote them off. Facebook and Twitter of course allow us to publicly vent our opinions (judgments), all the while hiding behind our avatars and sharing our judgments with everyone and no one at the same time. Whoever we’re talking to, we don’t have to look anyone in the eye, most specifically not the person we’re judging, so there’s no consequences (read: we can get away with it). And there was no fear of joining in the judgmental parade, since everyone was doing and it was built into the structure of things from the moment the phone numbers were displayed on the TV screen to enable you to vote for your favorite contestant.

The judgmentalism in which we were invited to engage (and did—whether or not you texted in your vote, or tweeted, to Facebooked, or ever talked to your friend about it, or just kept your thoughts private) first took the form of, “Wow, she can’t carry a tune!” and “Geez, he thinks he can dance, but nope, he really can’t.” Of course, we went further than that, judging their attitudes, persona, the way they dressed, carried themselves, etc. This is perhaps the implicit kind of judgmentalism we have been taught to participate in. The kind which our dispositions have been formed to naturally perform without our thinking about it. We just do it without reflection. We might try to justify the other kinds of judgment. When someone is out of tune, that is bad and it should be noted—the show is about musical talent and performance after all. Granted. That’s why I’m saying that the invitation to that portion of the judgment is shaping for the more implicit and non-reflective judgments we make. The kind of judgment we’re invited to participate in when we watch the Real Housewives is just a more sordid form. Shows like that (and there are many) put people’s lives on display for nothing else but our own entertainment—and that entertainment takes the form of nothing other than our judgment.

Other forms of television train our judgment also. The popular television show Everyone Loves Raymond trains us, like so many other shows do, to see men as bumbling idiots and women as the ones who really have things altogether. It creates an utterly disrespectful image of men, and a terrible image of marriage. Shows like that, and a recent Discover Card commercial (which captures an example of this perfectly – see embedded clip below), train us to have a certain imagination of how the world works. Women learn they can treat men a particular way (sadly, I’ve heard groups in public spaces talking about their husbands like they’re a bunch of ignorant cave men). Men learn they might as well play the fool. I cannot begin to say much about how young men, women, or little boys and girls are formed by exposure to this kind of thing. But as you might imagine, it’s bad.

Back to Bourdieu. It’s our passive taking-in of all this which creates our dispositions and forms our habitus to be judgmental right along with and in the same manner as the material which we are watching. Why? Because we are not just watching it. Television is formative. It’s not just in-formative. Think about commercials. They’re not just giving us information. They’re creating desires. In the same way, these shows I’m talking about are ritually carrying us through certain ways of being in the world—and through them the good life is on display. Just as in a commercial that tells you how you ought to look or what you ought to own (in order to attain the good life) reality TV’s invitation to judgmentalism invites you to the pedestal of judge, to the position of honor. Your opinion matters. Your vote counts. You’re important. So gone on, tell us what you think. And don’t mince words…we take this very seriously. And tune in next week, and the week after that. And catch this new show where we need you to weigh in. And so on and so forth and suddenly a new way of being develops in us.

The big danger here is that, for Christians, we carry this way of being into the world. We start rendering judgment on everyone and everything. Because plenty of us are fans of reality TV too.

More concrete examples in the next post.