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As we become more connected, I believe judgement will become a virtue. And I believe we should not fear to form an opinion, we should see it as an act of courage.
Judgement: The process by which people form opinions, reach conclusions, and make critical evaluations of events and people based on available material; also, the product of that mental activity.
— Psychology and Life (Richard J Gerrig and Philip G Zimbardo)
A few months ago, Assia Fengári, a writer looking for love on OkCupid, had a Skype date with Hans, a Scandinavian man living in New York. During the short virtual tête-à-tête, she mentioned that she liked going to NYC for dates, because she was not enamoured with the men in her hometown.
A few days later, Assia received the following message from Hans:
“Thought a while about our brief talk, and noticed how important it is for me to not be harsh when describing other people. I try to have a lot of compassion for everybody, and also for other single men. What was said confused me too much, and maybe it is best to not talk anymore, for a while at least.”
Hans, a member of the millennial generation, was some kind of an expert in yoga and mindfulness techniques. It was perhaps natural that he should be inclined to shun someone he considered too judgemental for his taste. When I heard the story from Assia’s lips, however, I was able to understand how she might feel frustrated about not being able to discuss her preferences in men, when she was precisely looking for a suitable man to date.
In Latin America, there is no equivalent for the word judgemental. Perhaps for this reason, from a Latin American perspective, the Buddhist-inspired trend of never, ever making a judgement about people seems like a bit of an exaggeration and one that may limit our freedom to express our opinions.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, being judgemental means “tending to judge people too quickly and critically.” The essence of that definition is contained in the words “too quickly and critically.” But what happens when our fear of being too judgemental prevents us from expressing our opinions?
Judging is not inherently bad. It is not synonymous with declaring people sinners. Should we shy away from judging rapists, torturers, public officials responsible for massacres, company CEOs who knowingly poison entire communities?
A judgement in itself, as described in the epigraph above, is a very positive thing. Our ability to make “critical evaluations” is one of the most valuable aspects of human intelligence. When we cannot make judgements, we cannot form opinions. Without opinions, we fall into the abandon of apathy. If I cannot judge Trump or Clinton, how will I make a decision about who to vote for? But if I judge too quickly, without considering all the facts, I may make a choice I might regret in the future.
When Hans told Assia that he would rather not speak with her “for a while at least” he was passing judgement. Because Assia had a strong opinion about the men in her city, he assumed that Assia was being “judgemental.” This is the ultimate irony; people are being judged for being too judgemental.
It is extremely hard to express informed opinions without passing some kind of judgement. If we love everyone, as sites like zenhabits.com preach, we cannot condemn atrocious acts against humanity. If we adhere to moral relativism, we have to accept cultures where women are treated like slaves, where people are considered inferior because of the colour of their skin.
Intelligent, independent thinking needs judgement like oxygen. Opinions put us at risk, because we may not have all the facts, because we may be attacked or even persecuted for sharing our views. Expressing an opinion is an act of courage. Of course, not everyone reflects for a significant amount of time before expressing their opinions. In an ideal world, everybody would have read all the books, all the articles, listened to every side, and their opinions would be based on facts, or at least more than a single version of the facts.
In the era of social media, opinions are not only threatened by the risk of being labelled as judgemental, but also by the very likely possibility of becoming a target for insults from complete strangers on Twitter, Facebook, and the like.
In a recent conversation, a Uruguayan writer who has a Facebook network of reputable intellectuals told me that she sometimes found herself writing and then deleting long paragraphs crafted in response to some opinion posted by one of her connections. “As soon as I have written it down, I realise that I am going to receive ten angry replies from people I don’t know, many of whom will have very little idea about the facts, and an indirectly proportional interest in attacking anyone who disagrees with them,” she explained.
Recently, an artist painted a picture of a former Uruguayan president and his wife, naked, represented as Adam and Eve in paradise. When the painting was taken down from a gallery wall after a visit from the police, half of Uruguay’s intellectuals resorted to Facebook to complain about censorship. Daniela Menoni, a known copyright expert, decided to reply to some of those comments citing facts and clarifying the legal situation, which left little room for denouncing the former president for censorship.
But nobody paid attention to Daniela’s informed, passionless remarks. Only a handful of people “liked” her comment on Facebook. Meanwhile, one of the outraged cries of censorship from famously opinionated songwriter Garo Arakelian received almost 500 thumbs up, roughly three times more than his average tirade.
Defending our right to pass judgement also means allowing people like Garo to speak their minds. What might a non-judgemental, Zen person have said? “I love the painter for expressing himself, I respect the right of the former president to protect his image, they are both right.”
Perhaps, if given all the facts, many people would reach similar conclusions. But if we purposefully elude criticism, how can knowledge advance? How can thought move forward? Apathy is an enemy of truth. And non-judgementalism sometimes looks a lot like apathy.
Between critical judgement and moralism
Conservatives and Christians have often cried hell about non-judgementalism, albeit for very different reasons. Recently, one prominent theology blogger used his personal interpretation of scripture to justify before a friend that one must absolutely judge other people on their sexual conduct.
Religion and extremist politics want us to judge everyone and everything based on one particular value system made up from absolute truths. In America, conservative politics has deep religious roots. When conservatives say they are against abortion, many among them claim that God intended it that way.
An Internet search about non-judgementalism leads largely to conservative and religious sites. But criticism of non-judgementalism does not have to be synonymous with dogma. It is arguably a valid stance to advocate for a type of judgement that is based on observation, evidence and facts, as well as personal beliefs and value systems.
For the conservative baby boomer, the non-judgemental millennial may be the root of all evil; of gay marriage and legal marijuana. In an interview with Fox News, former House Speaker – and Trump surrogate – Newt Gingrich said, “We’re in a period where you can do almost anything and get away with it… The school system has taught don’t render judgement. You don’t discriminate. Don’t have a sense of right and wrong. Well, you’ve got two or three generations now that have been told, you shouldn’t really be judgemental.”
In line with Gingrich’s thought, Christian leaders often complain about the millennials’ “lack of accountability towards a higher power.” But it is also possible to have a humanist perspective, deeply rooted in freedom of expression and sexual freedom, one that defends the right of everyone to pass judgements not based on a rigid set of values contained in a sacred book, but on the idea that every human being deserves a chance to have comfort, peace, and happiness.
A judgement in itself is a very positive thing. Our ability to make “critical evaluations” is one of the most valuable aspects of human intelligence. It is extremely hard to express informed opinions without passing some kind of judgement. Intelligent, independent thinking needs judgement like oxygen.
Judging is not inherently bad. It is not synonymous with declaring some people sinners, as some religions would have it, or other people wrong, as certain political parties would. To cite an extreme, is it wrong to judge Hitler? Should we shy away from judging rapists, torturers, public officials responsible for massacres, company CEOs who knowingly poison entire communities?
The fear of virtual retaliation on social networks combined with the fear of being deemed judgemental may be having a negative effect on our ability to speak our minds. One look at the Facebook feeds of anyone with a network of relatively educated connections often reveals endless strings of arguments based on sensationalist headlines. Most of the people involved are commonly ignorant about the matters being discussed and very few amongst them have even read the full articles they are commenting on. The high level of aggression that is often observed tends to deter individuals with more balanced views from commenting. This creates a propitious arena where baseless opinions thrive and the voice of informed independent thinkers is seldom heard.
Perhaps, by trying so hard to be non-judgemental, serious and independent thinkers are creating a void where bigotry can flourish. As informed people and those who are not quick to judge others based on their ethnicity or social standing lower their voices – because they have learnt that louder does not necessarily mean right – the voice of the angry extremist emerges and takes centre stage.
For all of their ideas about equality and global warming, many millennials choose to stay home on Election Day. The largest generation in America has been known to express many opinions, but, more often than not, it chooses to stay silent. “I don’t like this election,” a discontented millennial girl told The Guardian, “I don’t like anything about it. I don’t like either candidate.”
In the ’60s, many young people became more political because they didn’t like the system. They went out into the streets and joined political groups. They passed judgement about everything they disagreed with. They were extremely vocal about their opinions. Today’s youth appears to be largely discontented with ideology as a whole, whatever its colour. Strong opinions are frowned upon and this state of things may very well have landed America its most instantly judgemental president in a very long time.
“I am judgemental about people who think having an opinion is being judgemental,” Assia Fengári told me. “I’ve had it with political correctness. Whatever happened to getting together with people because you hated the same things? My X-generation heart truly misses that.”
She actually did communicate with Hans again. In their last exchange, he offered a solution for her problem: “Vipassana¹ is all over the world and for free. Sounds like it could be helpful for you.”
¹According to Dhamma.org, one of the official sites of the practice, Vipassana is a “non-sectarian technique” that “aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.” It is known for its practice of silent retreats that last several days.