Stop Pretending You Don't Judge

Each day as my students come into class we do a little exercise to improve their grammar, spelling, punctuation, reading comprehension, or critical thinking skills. There is one activity that the majority of the students get wrong. It is from an ancient workbook my mentoring teacher gave me the first year I was teaching. I have it here--wanna see if you are smarter than the average teenager? It could be fun (or embarrassing). Here it is.

Directions: Read the passage below, then decide whether or not each statement following it is a valid conclusion to draw, based on the content of the text. (To give you a hint, a “valid conclusion” is something that can be reasonably concluded and supported based on the text in the passage.)

Passage: Everyone should have the right to his or her own opinion. Anyone who thinks that theirs is the only opinion that has genuine value just happens to be wrong. It’s hard to see how anyone could be so narrow-minded. Nobody should be allowed to claim theirs is the only right way or try to force their beliefs on others. Nobody has the right to express such an attitude in a country like ours, which stands for freedom of speech and opinion.

Statements (decide which ones are valid conclusions)

  • The speaker opposes narrow-mindedness
  • The speaker is likely a professor or law student
  • The belief of the speaker allows freedom of opinion for everyone.

My students usually get the first one correct: the first statement is valid. She explicitly says she opposes narrow-mindedness in the text. The second statement, which my students also get correct, is not valid (there is no textual evidence to support that conclusion).

Where they often get it wrong is the third statement; they believe, falsely, that the speaker’s beliefs, as stated here, allow for a differing opinion. After all, she says so, doesn’t she?  However, if you look more closely, ensconced in her warm-fuzzy ideology is the statement that anyone who disagrees with her “just happens to be wrong” and is “narrow-minded.” It’s a tricky one, and students often can’t get beyond the awesome ideals of her beliefs to the reality of what they are masking. What she is saying sounds so nice and powerful that it overwhelms the ironic addition that if you think differently than her, you are in the wrong. The mask she dons is a friendly, smiling one; but behind the mask, there is a scowl.

That same deception is leading many in our culture to similar hypocrisy today. The mantra of "don't judge," "love all," and "live and let live," is the ideal all over rally signs, flags, pictures, movements, and social media. However, this demand for a world where no one judges, ever, does not exist. Anyone who thinks they never judge is deluding themselves. We all judge. We all have opinions. We all have beliefs. We are all intolerant to something, somewhere, sometimes. When we say, “Everyone must be open-minded,” we are being close-minded to our own tendencies for intolerance, and to the possibility of other opinions. 

Many people say, “I believe in tolerance and love,” but their actions speak otherwise. Can we at least be honest here, people? Let’s go ahead and preach our beliefs, and preach them proudly, but let’s at least be honest about what those beliefs exactly mean.

It is almost as if we are afraid to admit that we are fallible and imperfect. What is this, we are actually human? Shocker! We aren’t shining beacons of flawless glory? No way! Sometimes our actual responses are the opposite of our professed beliefs? Unheard of! In reality, the disconnect between words and actions is extremely prevalent, which goes to show how thoroughly  delusional our society has become. The chanting mantras of acceptance and love have become so powerful that everyone has fooled themselves into thinking that because they say it, they must be it. Not so.

As humans here on earth experiencing this vast and complicated thing called life, it is impossible to avoid forming judgments and preconceived notions. It happens every single day. For example, if you are a parent, have you ever had a conversation that went something like this?

“Hey, I really like the name --------- (pick a name, any name) for our baby. What do you think?”

“Ugh, no, I knew a ------------ once, and they were horrible!”

Hm. What an awful person you are! You are close-minded and bigoted! There are thousands of people out there with that name, and you don’t like them? Shame on you! Right? No, of course not. You don’t hate them. But you are aware of the association your mind makes with this name and you’d rather not have to fight it every single time you think of your child.

Another example: I’ll openly admit that for a long time I had a problem with cheerleaders. This stemmed from my youth, when I was belittled and bullied by cheerleaders, and one of my teachers flirted with them all class period instead of helping me with chemistry, which was like a foreign language to me. Does this make me a bad person? I don’t think so; I’m aware of my biases and working on it. Besides, replace “cheerleader” with any other type of person or situation that applies to your life, and you end up in the same boat with me. The key here is being honest in admitting it: if we are not honest about our judgmental conclusions, then we cannot work to overcome them.

I love to watch documentaries and historical programs. Often, on these programs, they interview super smart professor types, who effuse the most erudite persona possible, sitting at an academic-looking desk, with crowded bookshelves in the background, talking with breathy fascination about lost cultures and all of their beliefs, and how important it is to resurrect and preserve those beliefs before they become extinct. They speak of reverence to the ghost dances of the Native Americans, the idol-worshipping of the Aztecs, the mythical afterlife beliefs of the Egyptians, the intricacies of the Greek Gods. They talk with loving adoration of all of the diversity of culture and beliefs that have existed in the history of the world. Then, many of these academics, as they are professing their love for the differing beliefs of others, turn around and jump right into the raging river of the current cultural floods that are seeking to quelch any differing beliefs in their own culture.

There comes a point where we have to stop deceiving ourselves. We need to admit that we judge. We have negative feelings about people, beliefs, things, situations. Everyone does. Always. Let’s not be afraid or ashamed of that. Let’s leave the doublespeak and euphemistic idealistic labels to the politicians and deceivers. Let’s say what we mean and mean what we say.

Beyond just admitting our fallibility, however, can we take it a step further and have the courage to admit that it’s okay that we judge?  You might think I am giving everyone permission to go out and judge everyone, but that is not what I am saying in the least. We should never excuse our narrow-minded negativity towards others, and should always be working on improving it and being more charitable. However, having opinions and innate judgments is not shameful, it’s just human. Besides, having opinions is also an important aspect of being an independent and critical thinker.

It’s okay that we are all--yes, all of us, even those of us who profess not to be--intolerant about some things. It’s okay that I don’t accept everything. It’s okay that you don’t either. It’s okay that what I accept is different than what you accept. When we toss out phrases like, “Well, we can agree to disagree,” and “I wish you would be more tolerant of my beliefs,” how about we actually act accordingly? When you cannot accept my differing beliefs, that is the moment when your judgment becomes more dangerous than mine.

Besides, let’s get at the real issue here: when we realize that someone doesn’t think the same way we do, it’s disconcerting. It makes us feel unsure; it heightens our own insecurities and as such, it can feel like a personal attack. It is much easier to save face by claiming the high moral ground, even if it is propagating a falsehood. These human reactions make it difficult to carry on sincere conversations about serious topics.

Sure, we can go on imagining that we live in a world where unicorns and butterflies sprout from every warm-fuzzy ideal we profess, where we always act in accordance with our words, and where through magic fairy dust, we all think the same and never judge each other. We can do that. Or, rather than promoting the false Utopia of non-judgment, the cultural movement we can promote is non-heated reasoning, a willingness for self-reflection, and an honesty of one’s own failings. Let’s give it a try.