Judgment Call

Right now, a fair number of my friends are dealing with judgmental people in their lives. I posted a Twitter rant on the topic last night, but because of Twitter’s limitations and because I had a migraine and that constrains my thinking and ability to be coherent, I didn’t say everything I wanted to say. Hence this post. It’s dedicated to anyone who needs it, but my friends most of all. You know who you are.

*Clears throat.*

Anyway, judgment. At one time or another, all of us encounter it. It’s a word that gets bandied around a lot. “Trust your judgment.” “You’re the only judge of what’s right for you.” If you aren’t paying attention, it can seem pretty innocuous. Making a judgment is no different from having a choice or stating an opinion, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is, making a judgment IS different from making a choice or stating an opinion. You can disagree with someone’s choices or opinions, and, generally speaking, it’s no big deal. You like Rap music and I don’t. I like the color orange and you don’t. Individual choices and personal preferences are fine. They differentiate us from each other, and that’s a good thing. Exploring them can be interesting, even exciting.

If you’ve ever faced judgment, however, you know it’s neither interesting nor exciting. It’s painful. It makes you feel small. It makes you question your heart, your decisions, your worth. It can evoke guilt, defensiveness, and rage, to name a few of the unpleasant possibilities. If you’re one kind of person, it might provoke you into a fight. If you’re another kind of person–and I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that this second type is more likely to take judgments to heart–it can make you feel like crawling into a hole and never coming out. And it might tempt you to do anything in your power to make those miserable feelings go away.

scary judge
You feel about two inches high just looking at this picture, don’t you?

This is what judgment is designed to do. Because a judgment isn’t just an opinion or choice. It’s a tool people and institutions use to enforce conformity.

Think about the word for a minute: Judge. What do judges do? In a legal sense, judges hear cases and sentence criminals. The guilty. A judge of a contest weighs the participants, be they human beauty queens or sheepdogs, against a set of standards and decides who wins, who places, and who loses. In other words, in both cases judges decide who fits into a particular segment of society–law-abiding citizens, exceptional athletes, well-trained animals–according to their interpretation of the standards. They’ve been given the authority to do so, usually by a group of their peers or others who participate in that segment of society. And when a judge hands down their decision, ideally those on the short end of the stick will be motivated to conform. To meet the standard. Sometimes the motivation comes in the form of a prison sentence, and sometimes it comes in the form of not having a trophy to display. But whatever it is, there’s an assumption that it’s not something you want to repeat. So next time you make the decision NOT to steal that car or to work even harder on that triple axel. Because next time, you want to win. You want to gain the judge’s approval.

The authority accorded a judge infers not just rightness, but righteousness, which means correct not only in a factual sense, but in a moral one. A judgment is a decision that cannot be questioned, at least not if the person on the receiving end wants to continue participating in the culture that hands it out. By its very nature, it implies guilt, not living up to expectations. It elevates the judge (and by association, the conforming culture), while making the object of judgment lesser.

Of course, there are problems with this system, because no one, not even a judge, is entirely objective. We’ve all seen the Olympic contests where that one guy from that one country gives a “3” to the spectacular performance everyone else rated “9,” and a “10” to the competitor from his homeland no matter what. And there’s a whole sub-genre of movies and fiction about people who have been judged guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. It happens in real life all too often. Because a judgment depends on a personal interpretation of the standards, and that means a personal agenda can get in the way.

Outside the courtroom or competitive arena, the personal agenda is almost always behind the judgmental people you encounter. You know the ones. That relative who gets off on being the arbiter of what is and isn’t fashionable, who sneers at your shoes every holiday. Or that co-worker who counts the number of paperclips everyone uses, so he can bring up the misappropriation of office supplies at the next staff meeting. Or the parent who initiates a power struggle over a haircut. The list goes on and on.

Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.
Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.

Here’s a personal story, since I like to include personal stories in my blog.  A dozen years ago, in my Celtic band, we once scheduled back-to-back gigs a hundred and fifty miles apart from each other, which required driving over several nasty mountain passes, playing for four hours, sleeping two hours, driving back over the same mountain passes, and playing another two hours as soon as we unloaded the car. This was NOT something I enjoyed. But when I mentioned this fact to the person who had scheduled the gigs, she said:

“You know, Kel, if you want to be a REAL band, you have to do these things. Professional musicians play back to back gigs ALL THE TIME.”

Oh, slap! The judgment, it burns! See, I had been under the impression that we WERE a “real” band because we played music at a variety of venues on a regular basis, and that we were at least semi-professional because most of the time people paid us money to do so. I had also been under the impression that since we weren’t under any kind of management contract, we could make our own terms for what we were or weren’t willing to do. But this other person had different ideas and made herself the sole authority on what constituted real and professional. Or she just disagreed with me, but instead of saying so, she had to concoct some pseudo-objective standard which I failed to meet.

Now, at  this point, the band was already in the middle stages of disintegration, so I didn’t feel bad for long. Mostly, I felt frustrated, invalidated, and angry that she would pull that shit. Still, I did suffer a fair amount of guilt and self-doubt. I thought things like, “Maybe she’s right,” and “Maybe I don’t take this seriously enough,” and “Maybe I’m lazy,” and “No one else had a problem with this, so maybe I’m just being selfish for putting my limits above what the rest of the band wants.” I got into the spiral of self-judgment. And even though it was twelve years ago, those thoughts cross my mind when I write about the incident now.

Because I’ve gained some perspective, I can see where the judgment came from. My band-mate had a lot of insecurities, both about her personal identity and about herself as a musician. Not to put too fine a point on it, those insecurities–at least the ones about her musicianship–were justified. She was a terrible musician, with an awful ear and no sense of rhythm or phrasing. She wanted badly to be awesome, but instead of working on her skill set, she built a wall of denial and attacked anyone who challenged her. Since I am (or was; I’m out of practice) a good musician who learned new material easily and didn’t struggle with basic control of my instrument, I threatened her. And so, I became the prime target for her judgment. If she could put me down, she could feel like she had worth. She could even feel superior. And all this came out of the fact that she already judged herself. When she made a mistake, it wasn’t just a mistake; she was a talentless hack. When she had trouble keeping up in rehearsal or learning new material, she was absolutely worthless, would never achieve what she wanted, and probably failed as a human being. Self-judgment takes trivial problems that you could remedy with a little effort and turns them into insurmountable moral failings. And it’s self-fulfilling, because I would have been happy to help her become a better musician if she’d been able to face the difficulty and accept the help. But since she’d internalized her self-judgment and made it part of her identity, the only way she could have value to herself was by sitting judgment on others. And I was not up to meeting that challenge, particularly since she had no intention of owning up to it.

I’ve learned over the course of my life that most people who practice being judgmental of others have similar difficulties with self-worth. You can tell these people because everything they say is an accusation: “You’re selfish!” or “You’re too fat!” or “You’re lazy!” or whatever. They’re always eager to point out what’s wrong with you and never ready to talk about their own emotions. If they did, you might hear something more along the lines of, “I’m hurt because you seem to be pulling away,” or “I don’t find your body attractive,” or “I’m frustrated because I asked you five times to take out the trash and you haven’t.” Which at least makes room for discussion in a way that judgment doesn’t. Sometimes judgmental people honestly don’t know how to contact and express their true feelings. And sometimes, like my band-mate, they don’t care to. Because it’s easier to blame and make it all about someone else.

Other people’s judgment can be a bitch to throw off, especially if they’re people you care about. Here’s a few ideas for getting out from under the hammer:

First, listen for the “charges,” those statements that sound accusatory and/or start with “you” (like the ones I mentioned above. Obviously there are an infinite number.). Be aware that some really practiced judges can make “you-statements” sound like “I-statements.” E.G., “I’m concerned that you’re getting too worldly” can be condensed into “You’re too worldly.” It implies that only an unspecified change on your part can alleviate their concern. A true “I-statement” is an expression of feeling (“I’m angry”) sometimes followed by a concrete reason for that feeling (“because you didn’t take out the trash”). Beware of nebulous terms like “selfish,” “real,” “ungrateful,” etcetera. If you have to ask what actual behavior that you have any control over changing is meant, or make assumptions about what is meant, the person you’re talking to is likely making a value judgment. As well, once you start making assumptions about what Cousin Fred means by “immoral,” you’re in danger of sliding down the self-judgment spiral.

Second, remember what judgment is designed to do. It’s designed to make “backsliders” conform to cultural expectations, whether that culture is religion, or gender identity, or the Rainbow Family. Or any combination thereof. It’s also designed to elevate the culture in question to a position of superior morality. Cultural identity is fluid. People grow and change, and that’s okay. But acknowledging this fluidity challenges oppressive power structures, especially ones not given to introspection. I mean, if you can just decide to, oh, worship another god, then why in the world should you conform to a religion that requires complicated expressions of devotion? Well, there are a lot of reasons you might, which I won’t get into here (maybe a different blog post). But rather than look at those, most people would rather make others feel bad about their choices.

Third, decide whether or not you care. This is easier said than done, especially if your vegan friends are still important to you after you realize you’d rather eat meat or something like that. If you can, talk to the person sitting in judgment about your concerns. Caveat: this is seldom possible because the threat factor often causes them to get more judgmental than ever. You might have to entirely detach yourself from the culture in question and find another that suits your needs. This does not mean anything about you personally. It does not make you bad or wrong. It does not indicate an irredeemable flaw in your soul. It just means you’ve moved on.

And fourth, be compassionate. Bear in mind that judgmental people are usually unhappy and afraid. And you’re about to do one of the worst things you can do to a judgmental person: Ignore them.

It’s difficult to get out from under judgment, and old judgments can stick for a long time. Be compassionate with yourself as well, and make sure you get what you need, whether that be more sleep, an alcoholic beverage, a walk in the woods, or whatever it is that supports your soul. People’s judgments might always sting. But you don’t have to carry that weight. Let it go.



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