English professor teaches about valuing others

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Kristin Matthews talks about valuing other people in God's way at Tuesday's Devotional. (Photo by Elliott Miller)
Kristin Matthews talks about valuing other people in God’s way at Tuesday’s Devotional. (Photo by Elliott Miller)

A BYU English professor talked about faulty systems of evaluating others and invited people to see others in God’s way at Tuesday’s campus Devotional.

Kristin Matthews, associate professor of English at BYU, began her address by describing how seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan, Italy, made her think about how people assign value to people and things. Matthews said she couldn’t help but wonder what gives da Vinci’s work its value and who determines the standard of value. She didn’t come up with any answers, but she did realize something about the way people view the world.

“As human beings, one of the things we do to understand our world is to create systems of meaning that help us to organize the sensations, experiences and objects we encounter,” Matthews said.

But these systems for valuing objects and people aren’t always helpful. She explained that “too often we use these seemingly descriptive systems to determine the worth of others. These human-made hierarchies of value can cause division, contention and skewed understandings of self-worth.”

Matthews suggested that these value systems are not in line with what God wants and the way God values people. She then offered insights into how people often inappropriately rate and evaluate others.

One such insight came from teaching Edith Wharton’s, “Age of Innocence.” Matthews explained that in the novel, Wharton satirizes the set of codes that the wealthy used to dictate behavior and to measure worth. Matthews had her class create a similar list that people use now to determine status and worth. The students came up with things such as the phone or laptop that people use, what people wear, what car people drive, what bands they listen to, what apartment complex they live in, and even what facial hair they grow.

“My students found that these things, which seemingly describe, actually prescribed certain behaviors and beliefs deemed important to acceptance and worth,” Matthews said.

She added that markers such as wealth, political party, religious affiliation and sexuality are some other common markers that people use to lift themselves above others and put others down.

“These systems are neither eternal nor transcendent, but are human creations that are based in place and time, more often than not, benefiting those in positions of power who have created those systems,” she said.

Another major false system of valuation is the system of beauty, Matthews said. She suggested that notions and value systems of beauty have impacts on people’s emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. Chasing beauty, she explained, doesn’t just drive people to devalue others, but it leads to extreme actions such as compulsive shopping, elaborate make-up rituals, extensive hair treatments and even surgery, binge exercising and eating disorders.

“Scroll through a Facebook feed or watch one commercial break during primetime TV hours, and you’ll see several examples in which bodies are objectified, shamed and tied to one’s individual worth,” she said.

But beauty isn’t the only harmful value system that Matthews questioned. She explained that any value system that assigns one person more or less value than another is not of God.

These systems “cause division, contention and skewed understandings of self-worth,” she said. “Conversely, God’s system of valuing us promotes connection, compassion and love.”

Matthews concluded by inviting people to try to ignore impulses to value others based on artificial standards but to follow Christ’s example and see everybody as a child of God.

“If we devalue, demean, denigrate, or dismiss others, we diminish our discipleship and destroy that which makes us human: compassion,” Matthews said. “But when we value others, we not only demonstrate the best that humanity is, but we also magnify our discipleship.”

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