How Best to Judge Others

JONATHAN CAROLL | OPINION COLUMNIST

Often times, our society discourages us from judging others based on their appearance. “Don’t judge him based on his size, or her based on what she’s wearing, or them on their skin color.” There’s plenty to observe in others, but we’re told to keep our minds free of such details and instead get to know the people first, before making any judgments. I’ve seen a post circulate social media several times now that tries to illustrate the value of restraining our judgments, pointing out the personal battles that people are fighting that may account for or result in their appearances for which others might judge them. Especially in the light of such exemplary scenarios, it is easy for us to look to commit ourselves to a level of self-control that would allow us to not pass any judgments until getting to know someone. And that is a ridiculous approach.

The philosophy behind withholding preliminary judgments, and exemplified by the aforementioned social media set of scenarios, is that when we make immediate judgments, we may very well be wrong. This fundamental philosophy I do not disagree with, for it is very much correct: were I to think on it, I would judge that the older man dressed in a loose-fitting tweed sport coat (complete with well-worn elbow pads) probably favors old vinyl-era crooners in his musical selection, perhaps with some Baroque- and Classical-era composers mixed in. And yet, as soon as he gets home every day, the first thing he does may be to turn on some songs to try to figure out what you mean or if it’s too late now to say sorry. The problem that I take with the non-judgmental approach is its reflection of a larger issue of our society, and that is an unequivocal fear— condemnation, even—of being wrong.

In the case of the non-judgmental approach, the fear of being wrong is misguided by way of being subject to a slippery slope fallacy, where there is a disconnect, especially an exaggeration, in a predicted chain of events. Essentially, the position holds that we should fear being wrong because if we are wrong then we will mistreat the person whom we are wrong about. However, a judgment need not lead to mistreatment, or any treatment at all. Perhaps we are prone to mistreating someone if we pass judgments on him or her based on his or her appearance, but even if our judgments make some feelings susceptible to being hurt, the fact of the matter remains that we, as humans, judge, and there is no good way for us to repress that. An attempt to do so on the basis of, for example, the non-judgmental approach only slights ourselves instead of the others, whom we have merely the potential to slight.

Perhaps the repression of our knee-jerk judgments of others based on their appearances would be the ideal if it meant we never had to misjudge and mistreat someone, even at some cost to ourselves. However, our world and our lives are far too messy to make this “ideal” system work, and so our resources of self-control are better spent simply not mistreating others rather than trying to not judge others. So sure, he may look like a thug, or she may look like a prude, and if you think that then that’s fine— but all the same, you should still strive to treat them as a human being, as you can easily enough judge any person to be.

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