JUDGE, JUDGE, JUDGING
By: Troy Murphy| August 2016
Undetected emotions interject, powerfully influencing action. A flow of energy creates impressions that guide future responses and we judge.
You Judge! You’re Terrible!
Absurdity and inconsistency mark the no-judgment era. Values and virtues previously accepted fade when it’s not vogue to assess acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The no-judgment ideology appears progressive, given the ugly history of bigotry. But a nation, society or group with no accepted values teeters on the edge of chaotic destruction. The non-judgment dogma easily spreads—it sounds good, so we pass it along. But when someone violates the no-judgment creed, we jump to action, pointing out the flaw for committing an unforgivable sin, “You Judge, you’re terrible” we scream.
Is the only acceptable judgment the one where we judge the judger?
We must consistently judge—between healthy and unhealthy, supportive and unsupportive, safe and unsafe. We must choose; and the act of choosing requires judgment, assessing the facts, evaluating costs, and predicting rewards. Before mindful choice, we must intricately weave many factors, and some of those factors often include assessing others—their intentions, strengths and weaknesses. When a person, new dating partner, family member, or co-worker asks to borrow money, we must choose whether or not to loan the money—this requires an evaluation of their character, money management, and integrity. Evaluating their past, we make inferences about their future. This cognitive skill protects carelessly squandering money to swindlers, marrying psychopaths, and divulging sensitive personal information to gossipers.
We rely on these cognitive powers to direct behavior by assessing memories, leaning on learned biases, and then predicting the future. But thought alone is not the only player. Undetected emotions interject into the process, powerfully influencing the resulting action. A constant flow of energy creates impressions in the mind that are stored for future guidance. These impressions push us to avoid the suspicious stranger, forego withdrawing money from the ATM at certain times of the day, or denying permission for our child to spend the night at little Sammy’s house. We don’t know for certain these events pose danger; we suspect a possibility of danger and act defensively. Some risks are not worth the gamble; so, we judge.
The judgment process discerns differences, attaches meaning to the differences, and predicts which behavior will positively or negatively influence the future. Sometimes judgment is cognitive based; but usually unconscious and automatic. Judgment taps multiple brain functions, integrates information and then motivates behavior. Unfortunately, judgment is imperfect, subject to error, and often leading us astray. Any predictions about people’s character, patterns of events, and personal experience will occasionally be wrong, drawing upon limited information and making a comprehensive label. Life is too complex, and we know too little.
"Undetected emotions interject, powerfully influencing action. A flow of energy creates impressions that guide future responses."
Judging isn’t bad; but individual judgments can be. Inhumane, unjust, and criminal behavior stem from bad judgment. Judgments relegated to unconscious and automatic processes conserve mental energy—act now, justify later. These hidden judgments are swayed by invisible biases. Human atrocities live here, justified by self-righteous biases, projecting ill-conceived labels derived from isolated and unreliable facts. Fear of differences, painful histories, and ego protection frustrates a clean judging process, interjecting misguided beliefs into the delicate and influential equation.
While any judgments may be derailed by misinterpretations (faulty assessments and hidden biases), status-judgments are misguided from the start. Status-judgments have a bitter narcissistic flavor. The judgment is not situationally examined; but person directed. A situation intelligent judgment such as the man hiding next to the ATM, examines situations for danger and opportunity; we decide to forego the extra twenty dollars in our wallet rather than risk being harmed. There is utility to the judgment—in this case, our safety.
Status-judgments rarely have a definable utility; they are more concerned with social positioning, addressing social anxieties and insecurities. A status judgment leaps from undefined anxiety. Instead of examining the complex causes of unease, the simpleton projects a cause upon someone or a group of someones, escaping a more beneficial understanding. From the uniformed lazy mind, hate infiltrates reason and demands revenge. The twenty-year old boy plows his car into the protesters, the sniper kills police officers—more fear, more hate, more destruction.
Life is complex. Choices are difficult. We never gather enough facts to eliminate the possibility of error. We must make choices with limited information. Some judgments have the luxury of time for greater gathering of facts, while other judgments, like withdrawing money from the ATM, demand quick assessments and immediate action. We must identify unfair inferences, harmful status-judgments, and self-excusing justifications. We must judge for our safety and future opportunity while simultaneously guarding against judgments that devalue and trample on the dignity of others. Wrong judgments, perhaps, make us terrible people.
The unjust status judgments down ranks others with a misguided hope of raising social position and strengthening self-confidence. Often the single voice is strengthened by a chorus, the masses of fools seeking confirmation for their hatred. The hurtful tunes unify a common unjust cause. These judgments are vicious, projected on entire groups of people. Racism, persecution, and scape-goating breed here. These zero-sum judgments—I win, you lose—lack forward-thinking utility; no progressive personal or social welfare adjustments take place and deep chasms are widened.
Gossip accompanies status-judgments, rallying others to join public down-ranking, solidifying the social ascension. This approach to human relationships engenders fear and divisiveness. Evolutionary tendencies and cultural reinforcements encourage these status-judgments. They provide immediate gratifications to the ego at the cost of significant long-term damage. Relationships suffer, societies destabilize, and fear expands. The obsessive fear driven actions impedes pursuit of healthy personal and societal goals—dignity, justice and compassion. Dignity shouldn’t be subject to competition.
Down-ranking others nurtures more destructive emotions. The status ranking affixes labels. We identify bad qualities, inferring lower worth, legitimizing actions that deny personal dignity. Labels are mental heuristics simplifying cognitive assessments. We use the label to explain behavior, such as “my partner is selfish.” The heuristic explains a partner’s overall behavior. As the behaviors we associate to selfishness accumulate, we feel disgust; disgust leads to resentment, resentment to contempt, and contempt to hate. The original label creates a downward spiraling effect; but the label is subjective. Everything built on the cognitive shortcut is poisoned. Disgruntled partners, conniving politicians, and ambitious business people all utilize mental shortcuts, stooping to unimaginable lows to justify weakness, draw support, and attack human decency.
A history of deplorable judgments stained the ‘judgment’ concept, creating a stigmatism. The word ‘judgment’ has a negative connotation; to separate bad judgment from good judgment, some have chosen a different word—discernment. The problem with linguistics is a new word doesn’t solve the complexity of the issue. No matter which term we use, we are subject to biological and social constraints that interfere with fair assessments. The mental process is subject to error. Culturally, the disproven Cartesian theories of dualism still strike a chord; we long for a connection to the untainted knowledge of a spirit. But we don’t magically receive knowledge from the immaterial world—not through the pineal gland or any other material receptor. We acquire wisdom through accurate assessment of experience; but must accept that experience is subject to biases, improper focus, and self-preserving evaluations.
I worry that by discarding a word such as judgment, and renaming the decision-making process with an unstigmatized replacement, we christen the new appointed word as divine, easing ourselves of the burden of monitoring the natural flow of judgments, and still fail to detect misguided, incomplete and dignity-denying labels.
To protect judgments from error, we don’t need a new word; we need guarded attention, watching for the dangerous pitfalls, continually reflecting on unscrupulous actions. As we gather wisdom from compassionate mindfulness, we un-tether the ties of social competitiveness. Our growth in wisdom enlightens the true causes of anxiety, allowing for more targeted cures. We must continually examine harsh judgments; do they motivate positive action or simply boost social status by down-ranking others? If a judgment and following action doesn’t accomplish personal and social goals, challenge those judgments.