Here’s what happens when we get it backward.
Years ago, I was listening to a radio report of an impending local election on a special referendum. As I understood it, the city was going to vote on the Wet Bra Issue. Well, I was immediately offended, loudly proclaiming to my partner that this nonsense was a perfect example of a misogynistic overreach, where people thought they could dictate what a woman could wear! I was disgusted, do you hear me? Disgusted!
And then my partner dryly informed me that the vote was actually on a “Wet-Dry” issue, to decide whether liquor could be sold within the city limits.
Wet-dry. Not wet bra.
In that moment, I learned the important distinction between judging and condemning. Condemning without judging just made me look ridiculous. Judging would have meant that I collected the evidence, weighed the arguments, and made a decision about the merits of the question. Which I would have figured out if I had just taken a minute.
Most of us will say we don’t believe in being judgmental. We want to be seen as models of tolerance and open-mindedness, not setting our own beliefs over those of others. son. And yet, these days, the right provocation can spur any of us to condemn, swiftly and without regard for facts. The Court of Public Opinion is always in session, and each of us believes we are the one to wield the gavel.
Many smart people remain confused by this distinction. Just look at the difference in the way the members of the House Oversight Committee questioned Michael Cohen on Tuesday regarding allegations against the president. Some members asked factual questions, so that Mr. Cohen’s testimony became public record that could be fairly assessed. Other members asked no pertinent questions at all. Instead,they made endless speeches about how disgusted they were with the witness, the attacks on the president, and, by the way, the hearing itself.
Amusingly, those antagonistic members continued to berate Mr. Cohen for crimes he had already admitted. Perhaps they were imitating the cops they’ve seen on television trying to force a confession out of a perp. Not so amusingly, they shirked their duty to judge so they could enjoy the momentary thrill of delivering a round, righteous condemnation.
How could those elected officials get away with such grandstanding when they could be probing the actual evidence? It’s because Americans like public scoldings lots more than reasoned discourse. Judgment is dry and tedious, but condemnation brings a flush to your cheeks and a satisfied sparkle to your eyes. Just click the bait, grab a torch and a pitchfork, and join the parade.
We can all think of times when the mob ruled via social media, ruining the cause of justice. It’s telling that we say such instances have “gone viral.” Sick fanatics sneeze nonsense into the air, with a wild headline and an inflammatory image, and anyone within range can be infected. Then, it’s easy to click “like,” sign a petition, add an outraged comment, or “share” something appalling without ever discerning whether it’s true.
Each day exposes us to a new epidemic of stupid. We need the hand sanitizer of critical thinking.
And that’s why I’m not ashamed to judge.
I judge like crazy.
Most of the time, we run on autopilot, letting our previously learned responses and biased reflexes handle incoming information and experiences. Those cognitive and emotional shortcuts are essential, or we’d never get out of bed in the morning. And not in a good way.
But when I run across something new or dangerous or awful, I need my judgment to take over. I need to observe, question, learn, analyze, assess. I need to apply that critical thinking they were supposed to teach me in college. Then, I can judge situations, and I judge people’s words, and I judge people’s actions. It’s more than my right; it’s my duty as a thinking person.
Oh, I get it wrong plenty of times. All of us bring our biases to the process, whether we admit it or not. Moreover, we can never be sure we have all the facts; we may be wrong about someone’s motives; or we may simply not bother to inquire.
Still, when the world insists that I condemn the outrage du jour, I go through my personal, exhausting process. First, I might spontaneously combust: “How dare they? Well, I never! This will not stand!” Then I calm down and realize I’m about to make a fool of myself. Again.
After quelling my first reaction, I deliberately drag my feet a little, mumbling to myself, until I can sort out what I am seeing and hearing. I look for straw men and ad hominem attacks. I follow the money, asking who profits if I join a particular crusade. I ask myself, if this statement is true, what else would have to be true? Everyone has a process for seeking the truth in the middle of a firestorm. The trick is to use it before we get burnt to ashes.
My goal is to understand an issue well enough that I could convincingly argue the other side. That’s right — my version of taking the high ground is to play devil’s advocate. The devil will be annoyed if he finds out.
It’s not always altruism or virtue that causes me to go carefully. Usually it’s the self-serving desire to avoid humiliation. When I do get ready to denounce something, I want it to stick. And I don’t want to have to walk it back or issue amendments or apologize for jumping to conclusions.
“Those who live in glass houses… “
We all know the cliche. Glass house means no stone-throwing, since lobbing condemnation at passers-by is likely to do damage locally, too. And this hoary proverb is newly relevant, now that every minute of everybody’s life is on video somewhere. Every day someone else is caught doing the very thing they deplored just last week. Sometimes they brazen it out, not even seeming to mind. But I would be mortified and would remain in seclusion for weeks.
In a way, we are all stuck in our glass houses, which we built to specs defined by our culture and the nature of our nurture. Someday, perhaps, we’ll get smart and soap the windows or something, to help us see our hidden limits. Maybe then we’ll stop throwing stones. And regain a little privacy, as a bonus.
Judging words or deeds is not the same as condemning people.
But what about the most monstrous among us? Can’t I at least condemn them? I suppose I could, but I’m not sure what purpose it would serve. Just issuing the shame doesn’t usually do anything constructive. Sometimes people justify their inaction by saying they “can’t compromise with evil.” Neither course seems to do anyone any good.
But the process of judging destructive actions, cruel statements, lies, treachery, or treason, can illuminate appropriate actions we need to take. Even without condemning people or ideologies, we can still respond to injustice: repair the damage, right the wrongs, reveal the truths.
And even though I really want to condemn certain people, I always get stuck on one of my core principles. I want to believe there is a spark of the divine in everything and in everyone. Doesn’t that include the fools I want to condemn? Aren’t they also part of the divine, or G*d, however G*d is understood? Though I believe I participate in G*d, I don’t for a minute think I am G*d, with the power to bless or curse. If I can’t even get people to pronounce my name right, how could I imagine I had the power to damn them for all eternity?
So when I judge something to be wrong, I can persuade; I can preach; I can exhort others. But I cannot be God. It’s just as well. I’m already short of free time.
History will judge. And condemn.
I propose we ease up on the hair-trigger condemnation and reclaim our capacity and willingness to judge. But let’s judge like professionals — gather evidence, listen to both sides, see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears the facts of the matter.
It will be difficult, and we might have to give up some certainties. Ideologies don’t really stand up to facts or critical thinking. And holding on to our ideologies does not serve justice — it impedes it. It’s one thing to be right. It’s another thing to be dead right.
I don’t require that many absolute certainties any more. Where I used to take sides instantly, I now look down the middle. Where I used to be certain, I now accept doubt. Even when I think I am right, I know enough to say, “That’s what I believe today. I could be wrong.”
But I will say this: the few judgments that I keep and defend are rock solid. And they are enough to keep me going. Here are two examples, and I hope they resonate with you, too.