Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Who Am I To Judge?

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

So I have a question. It’s the type of question that I should no doubt be keeping to myself. The type of question that I just know is going to come back and bite me in the arse. It’ll probably be the noose they use to hang me when I run for Prime Minister at the second general election of the year – my bet’s on January. No? Isn’t that what they meant by political reform?

Anyway, back to my question. Here it is: what’s so wrong with being judgemental?

We’re taught from such a young age that to be a good judge of character is a good thing. It gives you the gift of hindsight without having to wait for the “hind”. And yet, we’re simultaneously taught not to judge, that to be judgemental puts you up there with Simon Cowell and Heather Mills. Contradiction much?

But don’t we learn to understand and broaden our own value systems by learning from those around us? And not only from those who taught us the values that we hold dear, but also from those who demonstrated to us what we don’t want to be. To judge others is how we measure ourselves, isn’t it?

Let me put my keyboard where my mouth is and put my judgemental-ness on display. I can read all I like about the ill effects of passive smoking and I know that I find the idea uncomfortable. I then see a mother smoking near a three month old baby whose lungs are about the size of a golf ball and I make a judgement – my judgement is that it’s wrong to smoke next to a young child.

In my judgement I’m fully aware that there may be a million and one reasons for why a woman (who I’ve judged to be the child’s mother) is smoking near a pram. Whatsmore, a million of them might have made any one of us reach for the Malborough Lights. But I’m not judging the woman’s character, I’m not judging her ability to be a mother, I am not judging anything except for the fact that the act itself is “wrong” – which makes the circumstances around it entirely irrelevant. Perhaps she’d even agree.

As far as I can tell, there seem to be two principle arguments for why being judgemental is deemed to be so terribly naughty. The first is the whole slippery slope logic. I judge the act and so I risk judging the woman, now that I’m judging the woman I’m clearly going to end up judging her ability to be a mother, and so on and so on. Except I don’t. I have no idea who she is, neither am I interested.

The other reason appears to be that we conflate the idea with lots of other genuinely ugly traits. Judgemental is defined as:

“Inclined to make judgments, especially moral or personal ones.”

Nowhere in that definition is there any implication of bigotry, prejudiced or discriminatory behaviour. The two don’t go hand in hand – or at least they don’t have to. My judgement actually doesn’t have anything to do with the woman or anyone else, it simply helps me to reinforce, or adapt, my own value systems.

I’ve made plenty of decisions in my life for which I’ve felt judged. At times it’s been a bit irritating to say the least, but it’s also fair enough isn’t it? All it means is that whoever it was judging me didn’t share the same values as I did on that particular issue. That they (or so they believed at the time) wouldn’t have made the same decisions as I did. And to be honest, I judge them a little for that so we go back to being even.

Maybe, and I do mean maybe, if being judgemental became a characteristic that we were able to respect, then perhaps we would be able to better articulate our own moral compasses. So rather than being mad at the bankers because “they shouldn’t have done it”, we could instead be able to express our judgement of people whose work ethic is centred around the creation of personal wealth – or not - perhaps we would instead have found that the only difference between ourselves and Sir Fred was scale… I doubt it, but perhaps. Then again, who am I to judge?

Before starting this ponder I felt fairly comfortable that I knew the answer to my question. Namely, “nothing”. There is nothing wrong with being judgemental. By paragraph two I’d realised I’d made a terrible mistake and there was plenty wrong. By half way through I’d found my way again and realised that it is ok. I end undecided. There are some characteristics that as a society we find inherently repugnant, and perhaps we need to accept that without challenge?

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