The Riddle of Judgement

This article is an opinion of solely the author, and not that of the organizaion.

“Don’t judge” is sort of universally accepted as a hallmark of common decency. But it is the very same of us who vocalize this axiom that sometimes parade against those who do judge: advocates of marriage equality against its opponents, for example. This is sort of in the spirit of the late William F. Buckley Jr.’s precocious statement: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Without getting into the politics of his statement, we can see how we are like Buckley’s liberals.

So, to get at the heart of Buckley’s question: can someone who is against judgment justifiably be against anything?

Hinduism has more or less the idea that everyone’s dharma is their own, and so righteousness is something whose definition does not pertain in any real sense to the world outside the confines of one’s mind. This doesn’t mean we can’t address anyone we find disagreeable to us- Hinduism is quick to correct; it will just be our dharma to, if we decide to do it, and so the world becomes a beautiful metaphysical symphony of people’s choices. But that philosophy is a little dangerous in its reductionism, if you ask me, and perhaps owing to its beauty, it distracts from what is the next obvious question: what does it take to be right? Here, I’ll try and lay out a few possible parameters for this discussion.

One of the problems as it occurs to me is that common usage of the term ‘judgment’ conflates some very disparate forces. First of these forces is prejudice. The word itself, which literally means “judgment before”, does not really seem so acerbic when it is broken up that way. In fact, it is prejudice that keeps us from drinking spoilt milk. It is prejudice that is implicated in our avoidance of many thousands of dangers of life, some of them programmed with marked consistency into our species – fear of heights, of spiders, snakes, things like this. At their root, these prejudicial behaviors, and any prejudicial behaviors, are mobilized toward the desire to stay alive. So, when I’m going through security at an airport and presumably because of my South Asian appearance am pulled to the side for a check, I am best placed to accept my circumstances rationally. Forces of national security are responding to statistics as they understand them. We cannot reasonably shun this sort of fear, much less control it, because it pertains to saving lives. Outcries against their procedures do nothing to help our case to those who hold fears, for they are not worried about the good of us, and we in our objections are certainly not speaking for the bad of us.

What we can do, has to do with the second force conflated into judgment (the bad half): the disbelief in someone’s ability to change. We should take a moment to realize how essential this disbelief is in any proclaimed judgment that we might deem insensitive. It is against this disbelief that Gandhi said “love the sinner; hate the sin.” It is against this disbelief that Silverstein wrote poems in pity of the wrong-doer rather than in malice for him. The way we would avoid this disbelief with regard to our airport situation is that we as a community can choose not to speak out against the checks, but against the terrorism and the fundamentalism that is at the issue’s root. We can educate our children against forming these ideas and work actively towards promoting offensives against terrorist regimes the world over through our governments. This way we turn the world’s misplaced fears about us into camaraderie and cooperation against something that we’ve demonstrated is distinct from us. We would be leading a movement of embodying the good half of judgment (recognizing danger) and stepping far away from the bad half (not condemning people for their reaction to us), and they — forces bigger than airport security — in turn will have the opportunity to do the same. Accordingly and importantly, the danger with people not admitting to being more apprehensive about South Asians or Muslims specifically (acting race-blind, faith-blind etc.) is that the source of that danger is never addressed in this ameliorative way. There’s an encouraging trend coming up in discourse, though, to be apprehensive about people not racially, but ideologically, as those who preach against gay practices and the like, with their literal interpretations of thousands-of-years-old texts, are distancing themselves more distinctly from proper human conduct than they could with a simple beard or turban.The-Riddle-of-Judgement-copy

Photo Credit: Ramesh

Most judgments we hold are not at that level, though, are they? We are more likely to judge other people in our immediate lives for things they’ve said or done, clothes they wear or attitudes they seem to hold. This is implicated in everything from the tell-tale harbingers that someone is, say, a hipster, to how Taylor knew he was trouble when he walked in. It’s also the source of gossip, because if we believed in our agency to change other people or introduce alternative ways of life to them, we’d not shy away from talking to them directly about it. Quite elegantly, the strength to approach others with these suggestions has to, of course, be paired with our own willingness to allow others to affect change in us, and tends to naturally. This is the Socratic method in action – a Darwinism of thoughts and ideas.

So we find that the question I started with is an oversimplification, and Buckley’s liberals are a fictional entity. It seems to me the best approach is to use our personally cultivated sense for danger to keep an eye out, even in the small ways that ideas are dangerous in our everyday lives, and to confront them courageously and lovingly with the intent that the human condition is promoted in the long run. The most dangerous things we can do are to cull all danger upon sight (whether in idea form or human form), or to act on the presumption that no ideas are more dangerous than any others. How we might apply these ideas is clear, if only abstractly for now.

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