Down with Judgmentalism!
By Brian Emmet
There are hardly any “sins” left anymore; of the few that remain, “judgmentalism” may head the list.
The idea of “the seven deadly sins” used to be commonplace: pride, anger, greed, lust, and so on were on the list, not because they were the “worst” of sins, but because they were understood as the source of all the other sins. Murder is clearly worse than anger or gluttony, but anger is a deadly sin because it is so often the tap root for murder. Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I say to you, if you are angry with a sister or brother, you are in danger of the fires of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22, paraphrased and compressed).
We have come to see judgmentalism as a deadly sin, even though we may not use the language of “sin,” because we see judgmentalism as the source of intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other such “sins” of “intolerance.”
To be judgmental means to say that something is “wrong” and to seek to impose that perspective on everyone else. But is already more complicated than that. No one, even those who condemn judgmentalism, is arguing that murders, rapists and thieves are simply preferring alternative lifestyles, or that corrupt politicians or dishonest bankers ought not be brought to justice. In this sense, we are all judgmental, and do so with pretty clear consciences.
So “being judgmental” does not come into play with criminal or illegal behaviors. We may differ on how those behaviors should be addressed by society, but no one argues for a free pass. In fact, we are deeply frustrated and disappointed when the truly guilty are not appropriately called to account. We cannot seek or have justice without needing to exercise judgment, and that judgment will often involve both condemnation of actions and behaviors, along with some form of “punishment.”
We’re also facing some problems when it comes to speech issues: “free speech” and “political correctness”. For many, it seems especially on college campuses of late, “free speech” is simply a cover for giving the same status to points of view that are perceived by some to be clearly wrong and evil. Why should an honored institution such as a university allow any time or space to those whose positions have been labelled as racist, corporatist, homophobic, etc.? Others see the various speech and behavior codes that get grouped together as “political correctness” as a means for ignoring, dismissing and actively suppressing legitimate alternative points of view. Again, we’re not having trouble exercising judgments about these matters, and actually view not-judging as complicity with evil.
We’re seeing something similar in political discourse and conversations. We are losing the ability to say that we disagree with your position or argument; instead, by virtue of the fact that you hold to a position, you have thereby put yourself outside the pale of legitimate discourse. You’re not just wrong; you are also very likely bad. Pro-life and pro-choice people, for example, don’t have any trouble making, and pronouncing, a judgment about the other side’s position.
So there are large swathes of our common life in which making strong judgments, drawing strong, clear lines, is seen as a positive and necessary good.
When we make a judgment that someone is being judgmental, and that that is a very bad thing, what are we looking at? Increasingly, it has to do with so-called “lifestyle issues,” especially issues in that fraught area of human life known as sexuality.
Why is it good to condemn the banker who extorts or steals, and terrible to condemn a person who identifies as LGBTQIA+? Why is it good to condemn the person who condemns the ways in which the LGBTQIA+ construes sexuality? It has to do with how we understand “identity.”
We see a person’s “identity” as something that can only be known by that individual person. Nothing “outside” the individual—not biology, family, tradition, religion, culture, history or anything else—has anything to say about my identity. To in any way question how I understand my identity is an offense against my dignity, my freedom and my rights. In fact, to not fully endorse and actively support how I understand my identity is, well, a sin against me.
The problem is that we have no way to ground freedom, dignity and rights. Clearly, I cannot be “free” to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it – but what does it mean to be “free” in a way that supports my individual good and the common good? Why do humans have dignity? Is it merely an agreement we make with one another: “I’ll respect you, you respect me and everything will be fine”? Where do “rights” come from—do we simply assert them, each individual against all other individuals? Are they gifts from the State? The “natural possession” of every individual? Or is the language of “human rights” just another cover for human terror and domination over the rest of the natural world?
Jesus did say, “Judge not, lest you be judged. The measure you use will be the measure you receive (Matthew 7:1). This is kind of the Golden Rule in reverse: God will treat you the way you treat others. Jesus also said, “Judge with right judgment.”
And he did say, when it comes to judging, to pay attention to the log in your own eye. But that’s not all he said. The log-in-the-eye parable is about two people who are in trouble: one has a speck in the eye, the other a log (beam or plank). If you ever have had a speck in your eye, particularly one that you can’t get out, that’s about all you can think about or do for the rest of the day. That speck gets just about all of your attention until it’s cleared. And it’s obviously impossible to have a log in your eye: Jesus’ point is that we tend to see the other guy’s problem as a big deal, without ever recognizing that our own vision and ability to help may be compromised. As these two people look at each other, what do they see? Log-eye sees a friend, a brother or sister, who is incapacitated by a speck in the eye; Speck-Eye sees the last person in the world she wants to help clear her eye! I see my log as a trivial speck, but your speck as a huge log—and you return the favor.
Neither person is seeing clearly or able to really help the other; both have a problem.
And right judgment is needed if true vision is to be restored.