The Case for Judging

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The Case for Judging

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In this time of burgeoning enlightenment, when such beloved spiritual leaders as Ellen Degeneres urge us to shift toward joy and happiness, what I’m going to write may not be popular. Deepak Chopra may not approve, Miss Manners would certainly not agree, and Oprah would probably only concur if steroids or lies about rehab are involved. In a world where we are warned to Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged, I actually want to make a case for us to judge.

Imagine you are a single dating woman who has met an interesting new prospect, who used to date one of your friends. You know they didn’t work out for some reason, but your friend won’t discuss why because It’s Not Her Place to Judge. So she doesn’t tell you that they broke up because he was a raging alcoholic who stole money from work and gave her chlamydia. Congrats, your friend is not Judgmental, and you were shielded from what might have been Judgment. Go forth in joy and happiness, but schedule regular STD screenings.

Let’s take another scenario. You’re at the grocery store, maneuvering your tiny shopping cart through the narrow aisles, just trying to keep your sanity amidst the stacks and stacks of organic choices. You almost knock into a bouncing preschooler, who appears to have wandered away from the tiny shopping cart attached to his mother, who berates him for his inattention, yanks on his upper arm so hard you are sure it’s going to crack in half, gets herself down close to his ear so she can yell Stupid Idiot loud enough to echo for years. But you don’t want to Judge, who’s to say what she’s been through that day, how hard her life is, how this was the final straw. Excellent, you can walk away knowing you aren’t Judging Her, you haven’t learned anything about how you choose to behave as a parent, and safe in the knowledge that you definitely didn’t impact that young boy with your Judgment.

I’m not suggesting that we should involve ourselves in every interaction we encounter, nor that interceding is the only answer. But there is actually a use for judgment of others, a vital and necessary use both for our own good and for the betterment of all. People are so quick to reject the aftermath of judging—treating someone badly, shunning or shaming, revenge, retaliation—that we have mixed up the simple act of having judgment with the puntitive measures that might come after. Pure judgment, as a intellectual skill, is both unavoidable and necessary, wondrous bathwater we should not throw out with the baby of Condemnation. We simply have to know how to wield it wisely, to use good judgment in judging others.

Passive observance of other people and situations can be a source of knowledge. We may find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind romance wondering if a quickie wedding after 24 days is a wise move. Then we think of Britney Spears and remember what Kim Kardashian taught us—don’t marry someone you don’t love or know well, give an honest effort to make a relationship work before you call it quits, i.e. not on day 37. Like reading good literature or seeing a well-crafted film, we have the luxury at times of watching what is happening around us and making judgment calls for our own good. Sometimes it’s through tabloids and gossip, but most times it is from interacting with the world around us. Every time you learn of a friend’s choice you don’t agree with (seriously, you had sex with him in the cab on the way to your first date?!) you are judging, but it’s for your own benefit. Filing away research of Things You Don’t Want to Do, ways you don’t want to behave. You get to judge her behavior, decide for yourself that you would not choose it, that is good judging. Calling your friend a “skanky slut” is condemnation.

I think one of the reasons we get mixed up here is the term Judge also refers to the wise experienced person in the black robe who decides, for the most part, what a wrong-doers punishment should be. That judge brings down sentences and sends criminals to jail, to rehab, to house arrest, to community service. That is the judge people have in mind when they ask “Who Am I to Judge, I’m no appointed public servant who has been chosen to label Right and Wrong.” But aren’t you part of the jury?

We have a social contract here in the US, where at any time you may be called to participate in the justice system and sit on a jury. You are not chosen because you have experience that explicitly applies to the case at hand, nor because you have extensive knowledge of the situation around it. You are given facts that appropriate to the case, and asked to Judge who bears the guilt for what happened. You are considered a peer who can weigh the facts and Judge the behavior. For the most part you are not asked to be the judge who then decides the punishment, you are not condemning, but you are judging. Because part of our culture asks us to be peers watching out for each other and carrying a sense of right and wrong in all we do.

You carry that sense with you at the grocery store with its narrow aisles and tiny shopping carts. You know when you see a parent shame an innocent child or handle him hard enough in public that you wonder what those hands must do in private. You are judging the behavior in front of you, because it’s part of our social contract. We do judge abuse and mistreatment, and we are supposed to. We are a part of the collective jury that holds each of us to a higher standard, that suggests that bad behavior will be judged outside of a courtroom in ye olde Court of Public Opinion. Would Jerry Sandusky be rotting in jail if we weren’t all watching and judging?