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Not Judging is a Judgment

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I've long maintained the position that remaining open-minded and not judging others was the best route to take in life. I've avoided forming opinions out of fear that doing so would cut me off from seeing other perspectives and therefore prevent me from gaining a new understanding of something that was otherwise alien to me. But as I've gotten older I've found that a lack of opinions greatly limits my personal growth.

If someone asked me for my thoughts on a big topic--God, religion, politics, money, sexuality, ethics--my response was always watered down so that I didn't have to take a firm stance in any direction. I might say that I feel one way or another, but I would always end it by saying that I'm still exploring and that I choose to remain open-minded.

That's not to say that I don't have a strong sense of personal ethics and moral values. I've always felt a strong sense of right and wrong, but I've never explored the why of those feelings. So when I'm presented with a situation that requires using my sense of right and wrong to judge someone else's actions, I've always taken the stance of not judging at all. Instead of deciding that someone's actions are right or wrong, I choose to tell myself that I don't fully understand where that person is coming from and therefore I cannot rightly judge their actions.

However, I'm beginning to see that I do this not to protect the other person but to protect myself. I do it because I'm afraid of what others might conclude those judgements mean about me. I'm afraid of being defined, of being put in a box and labeled as 'person who believes X'.

But the older I get the more I realize this is not only wrong but dangerously influential to those who may be watching my example. Our life is a walking billboard and the examples that we set are the messages that are broadcasted to the world. Our ethics define who we are. Choosing not to take a stance on a particular subject is taking a stance in itself, a stance that says it's OK not take a stance, that it's OK to let things slip by simply because you've chosen not to decide.

All of these thoughts on judgement and ethics came about after reading the following bit from a post written by Shawn Coyne on Steven Pressfield's blog.

The other day I overhead this conversation:

Man #1: “I ran into Frank Smith (not his real name) at the beach yesterday…”

Man #2: “Isn’t that the guy who cheated on his wife, got a DWI, and said all of those nasty things about Jill’s daughter in law?”

Man #1: “…Well…yes…but I try not to judge.”

I run into this “I don’t judge” stuff a lot and it infuriates me on many levels. But as this is a blog about what it takes to create art, I’ll just address why this “moral position” is at best hypocritical and at worst a force as undermining and dark as Resistance.

If you want to create art, you need to make judgments about human behavior and take a side. How well you convey and support your point of view is a measure of your skill.

[...]

If you don’t call people on their shit, you’re placing yourself above them, as if their actions are so inconsequential to you that they need not be considered. You’re above it all, some kind of Ayn Randian ubermensch behaving only out of self-interest. The same goes for not giving a standing ovation for great work because others remain seated. If you admire a work, let the artist know. They can use all the attaboys they can get. It’s Hell in that studio.

Despite the initially convincing argument that to “not judge” is an expression of empathy—who knows, if I faced those same circumstances maybe I’d do something like that too? —It’s not. It’s an excuse for not standing up for what’s right.

Not saying something is uncaring. Not saying something means that you do not want to put your ass on the line and take the risk that you’ll be shunned for your opinion. It has everything to do with you. Nothing to do with the other person.

I’m aware that the world is not black and white. There are shades of gray between the two poles of every value. On the spectrum of “Truth and Deceit,” telling a white lie when your cousin asks if she looks good in her bathing suit is not the same as running a billion dollar Ponzi scheme. I get it.

And yes, most of the time, keeping our big mouths shut is the right thing to do. We’re all guilty of misdemeanors and don’t need Earnest Ernies pointing out our shortcomings. And when we do confront someone about their actions, we need to do it with tact and care. That’s empathy.

But this “non-judgment, I tow the middle line” attitude is dangerous. There is no middle line. Not judging is a judgment. And it pushes people away from each other—I best not make a mistake and judge anyone or no one will like me…best to keep quiet and be agreeable—instead of bringing them together—I thought I was the only one who thought Animal House was genius…

The man I overheard who doesn’t “judge” the adulterous, alcoholic driving, rumormonger sends a message to the world that destructive actions are excusable. It is what it is… There is no right and wrong. Nonsense.

But it is his passive aggressive dressing down of the other guy for “judging” someone guilty of antisocial behavior that is even worse. It masks his cowardice as virtue. And to not judge whether something is right or wrong is the furthest thing from a virtue.

You must choose a position in this world on innumerable moral questions and stand by your judgments. Woody Allen made this point in six lines of dialogue. Ken Kesey riffed on it for an entire novel. It’s important.

If you are an aspiring artist and you wish to avoid “judgments,” you’ll find that you have nothing to say.

So even if it means risking shutting yourself off to other possibilities, choosing a position on moral questions is important. It's important because the alternative--not choosing a position--means that you're setting an example even worse than choosing the wrong position.

By not choosing to make moral judgements you're setting an example that says it's OK to not stand for what you believe, that it's OK to not believe in anything. It's not OK. As human beings we grow and evolve through what we believe, not through what we don't believe.

Equally as important to being human is the formation of new opinions and ideas, that process of discovering, learning, and then accepting that previously held beliefs may have have been wrong. But if you don't take a stand in the first place, how can you prove yourself wrong?

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  1. This is interesting, Raam. The line in Coyne’s post that stood out to me is:

    “And when we do confront someone about their actions, we need to do it with tact and care. That’s empathy.”

    In my experience, gossip as often confused with moral judgement. The quote above from Coyne is apt, but he might have qualified it as a first-hand response and not an after-the-fact water cooler type conversation, if that was his meaning.

    I’m not sure anyone relishes the opportunity to call someone out on their moral shortcomings. But when we are confronted by conversations and experiences similar to what Coyne describes overhearing, we are faced with a choice.

    For example, a coworker of mine -I’d known him professionally for over five years- was recently arrested on suspicion of downloading an enormous amount of child pornography. He was terminated almost immediately because this violated employer conduct standards. Very soon after this became known, I was confronted with a conversation focusing on the moral judgement of his behavior.

    Even though his actions involved the exploitation of children in the most heinous way, I could not bring myself to judge him. I should be clear- I absolutely and unequivocally abhor what he did and what he was involved in. Had I been present with him personally while learning this, I wouldn’t have hesitated to call it out as abhorrent, immoral, and unlawful.

    That the cited conversation was after-the-fact and in his absence, it seemed more like gossip that anything else and that I do not support. It’s in these types of conversation that moral judgement crosses the line quite easily to become a holier-than-thou type attitude.

    Adopting a nonjudgemental stance, in my opinion, is not the same as placing oneself above another. It could be the result of now having enough first-hand knowledge of the situation to make a call.

    • Thanks for sharing that story, Barry.

      I absolutely agree with you. I do not engage in gossip myself and in fact I go out of my way to avoid it, even if that means spending less time with the people I care about simply because I know they enjoy gossip.

      Entertaining ourselves by talking about others behind their backs, about facts that have not been confirmed or about things that we do not know the full story behind, is arrogant, egotistical, and disrespectful. That’s not to say that we should avoid simple questions that may clarify things, but engaging in chatter that is purely based on speculation and unfounded accusation is in itself unmoral and unjust.

      More than anything I believe all of this comes down to respect. If we truly respect one another then we will not engage in discussion and pass judgements based on things that we have no sure understanding or knowledge of.

  2. Really well thought out and written. I will be in touch. Still working on “my” project of putting thought to paper.
    Best, Dan