On Judging Others
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
A commonly heard doctrine of Christianity is that we should not judge other people, and in turn, to hope that they will not judge us. I could write an entire article (or a book!) on the irony of this lesson considering how utterly ignored it is by so many Christians, and therefore the bald-faced hypocrisy they commit. But that is not my purpose. If you follow the link from the quote to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, you will see a “thumbs up” icon in the margin, indicating “Good Stuff”. I disagree.
There is nothing wrong with judging people. Even if there were, it is not a choice we can make. We judge people all the time. Every second you spend with any person, you are making judgments about them, and they are making judgments about you. When you meet someone for the first time, your brain is constantly recording and analyzing data – in the form of body language, deeds, physical appearance, words, tone of voice – in order to decide what you think of that person. It will then form a general picture of your view of that person in your mind. You might say that a ‘file’ is created, and from then on, every time you are thinking about, or communicating with that person, the file is retrieved and opened, ready for review or updating. This is not a conscious or willing act on our part, it is simply the way our brains have evolved to operate.
I think that in order to be valuable, Jesus’ instruction not to judge requires three qualifications. Firstly, that while we judge people all the time whether we want to or not, we can control the criteria on which we do it. We can investigate, examine evidence, and through reason and introspection decide what we think is a “good” thing for someone, and what we think is “bad”, although clearly this is an oversimplification. I think in modern society, any reasonable person should realise that it is not fair to judge someone based on a factor over which they have absolutely no control, for example, skin colour or sexual orientation. If you meet a person who you find out is a murderer, you will inevitably pass judgment on them (and rightly so) for their choice to actively terminate an other human being’s life. But, if you meet a person who is Asian, whatever your views on Asian people may be, you can not reasonably judge the person for choosing to be Asian, because they didn’t have a choice.
Secondly, far more important than the judgment we pass, is the action we carry out, if any, based on that judgment. A judgment is simply a thought, and a thought on its own can never harm anyone. A homophobe, even recognizing that homosexuals have made no active choice about their sexual orientation, may despise them nonetheless. Even though he has not considered my first qualification, that is his opinion which he is freely entitled to. What matters, is how he acts upon it. If he decides that, whatever his views, it is not his job to punish or interfere with other people’s lives, and that as long as he stays away from them and they stay away from him he is content, then no harm is done (although I still condemn such small minded prejudice). If, on the other hand, he decides to take matters into his own hands, that gay people deserve to die for their sins and appoints himself as judge, jury and (literally) executioner, then we have a big problem. While it is perfectly acceptable to allow our brains free reign to form opinions, we are not free to act on them in any way we see fit.
Thirdly, it is important that we are always willing to allow new judgments to revoke, or at least to be taken into account with, previous ones. We humans are complex creatures, and are quite capable of surprising each other. A person whom you have deemed, on previous data analysis, to be selfish and arrogant may catch you off guard with a kind and selfless good deed. Inversely, a person whom you have grown to trust may betray you. I am not saying that we should not allow ourselves to develop trust in those we love, but it is important that once the betrayal has been carried out, that we do not delude ourselves about who that person really is. We have to allow the new data to adjust our view of that person.
The important thing to realise, is that judgment is a many-to-many interactive process. Every judgment you make effects the person that you are, which in turn will effect the judgments that other people will make about you. Which will effect the judgments that you, and other people, will make about them. And so on. It is for this reason that people are changing all the time, and that our constant judgment of others must continue in order to keep us all up-to-date. Any attempt to stifle or retard that process is deleterious to our wellbeing and our goals. What the process requires, is control and regulation.