A Storytelling Serial
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First, I'm not here to judge your spelling choice between judgment or its variant, judgement. For an explanation of why they’re both acceptable, see my previous dictionary tutorial. And if you’re really curious, scroll down below the synonym sections and read the Merriam-Webster online “Did You Know?” discussion of spelling preference for this term.
With that out of the way, I’ll get to the point of this post: what judgment means in our lives.
Have you seen the T-shirt, mugs, and memes that read "Silently Judging Your Grammar"? Sometimes it’s "Silently Correcting Your Grammar"; but either way, the message is the same. Although it’s silent, it comes across loud and clear: The only thing that exceeds my superiority is my arrogance.
Note to friends and family: such items are not on my gift wish list.
Learning to Judge
I’ve never been able to determine whether my childhood was typically judgmental.
When I was little, my mother warned me to weigh my actions against what “the neighbors would think.” And experience taught me that our neighbors noticed my behavior and shared their thoughts often.
When I became a teenager, Mom talked about “norms,” emphasizing the importance of knowing what they are and never straying. She made sure I knew, and I tried to hide my straying.
I lived in a rule-driven household. My dad was in the military, my mother was a stellar officer’s wife, and our religious denomination ensured I knew the Ten Commandments by heart as soon as I could read.
And don’t get me started on the strict and high expectations of my teachers, who in that age were given free rein to run a tight educational and behavioral ship.
Was judgment a societal given during my generation? Religion driven? A product of the people my parents were? A combination of all the above? I still have no idea how my indoctrination stacks up against average child-rearing practices.
But I still see judgment everywhere in the world, and it clearly persists—in myself, in others, in institutions.
Fact or Opinion
Merriam-Webster online lists six definitions (in chronological order, as always) of judgment, with five broken into a and b subdefinitions. Over time, we’ve understood the meaning eleven ways.
Those eleven basically fall into three categories: (1) judgment based on opinion, discernment, evaluation, or belief; (2) judgment based on law, which we treat as fact until appealed to a higher authority; and (3) judgment based on divine nature, which some consider the highest authority, some consider fact, and some consider opinion.
Setting aside legal or theological debate, that leaves everyday usage behind door number one, with the “opinion, discernment, evaluation, or belief” application.
But even that slimmed-down definition doesn’t help in determining whether a judgment is fact or opinion.
In my early life, discernment and evaluation were peddled as fact based, arising from objective truth. These days I question how much truth is objective.
Although the laws of nature, the principles of mathematics, and the realities of science provide a solid framework for navigating life on Earth, even in these realms human understanding and perception limit knowledge, always subject to revision through new discovery.
Many fiction writers understand this and use their work to question, bend, and reimagine elements of the physical world. So do some religious writers, whether or not their words are classified as fiction.
Instead of immutable absolutes, I prefer the idea of agreed-upon truths, which currently allow for survival of the fittest, two plus two equals four and—at least so far in this century—gravity.
To a certain extent, they also meet my mother’s idea of norms.
And when accepted truths feed discernment and evaluation, we prefer our critics to have thoroughly studied an area of expertise.
Still, even when critique incorporates knowledge of history, theory, and context, the critic remains unavoidably biased. Reviewers are, above all, humans with childhoods of their own. So are our teachers and loved ones.
Recently, I had a chance to observe the subjectivity of experts. I was invited to submit the draft of my fledgling novel’s first page to two highly accomplished, respected, and successful writers for their editing suggestions. I provided identical text to both.
Although both returned versions were polished revisions, they were nothing alike. And neither kept the nuances crucial to the further development of my story, leaving me with the challenges of choosing which guru to listen to in which spot—and how to keep what I believe necessary, regardless of their perspectives.
It seems that discernment and evaluation rely so thoroughly on opinion and belief, we can narrow our working definition of judgment to exactly that: opinion and belief.
Standards for Opinion
Who, then, sets the standards that justify judgment? Or put another way, who agrees on the norms?
We do, and experts have the power we grant them. When they provide evidence of algebraic formulas and climate change, we accept those truths.
When editors, teachers, reviewers, and the reading public express their expectations for a piece of writing, their opinions create the standards we agree to conform to.
We can believe a different truth but not without the sometimes hard, occasionally inevitable, and possibly necessary consequences of resistance.
The Judgment Paradox
While my church had me reciting the Ten Commandments from the biblical Old Testament, I also heard the New Testament injunction “Judge not lest ye be judged.” I grew up confused and guilty, because I judge others—and myself—often. And I usually have an uneasy feeling that my perspective is too narrow and I might be wrong, which is why I try to use lots of “I” language and qualifiers that soften my judgments to personal opinions and reactions.
An arrogant display of superiority is anathema (please see previous reference to T-shirts and mugs).
And advice to separate the person from the action doesn’t make sense; whether someone behaves as a president or as a friend, who they are shapes what they do—for good or ill. This is the meaning of authenticity.
In my developed sensitivity to the pervasiveness of judging, I now recoil from any sense of competition, whether in writing or business, and often conflate evaluation with criticism. I consider public writing an excruciating activity.
I also dislike judging the work of others. When I taught college students, I detested assigning grades. In my current life, I offer writing colleagues suggestions for improvement only when requested.
To survive as a copyeditor, I become an actor, consciously taking on the role of a skittish reader who flees the page if jarred from the flow. Unlike some actors, I don’t run to the restroom to throw up before my dramatic performance; but donning such an unnatural persona causes me great anxiety, and I can only get through by holding to the external standard of a style guide and carefully justifying every suggested change and author query.
I keep fighting an urge to escape to a nonexistent fantasy world where everyone agrees that since truth is subjective, we don’t need to judge one another. The Marvelous Land of Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged.
Most certainly a place without social media.
But societies and individuals can’t exist without commandments, rules, and physical laws; and standards reduce chaos. Humans will continue to judge, with or without mercy.
Living with Judgment
So how to handle the judgments that opinion and belief generate?
My personal aspiration is to begin practicing the art of discernment: If an opinion stems from a universally agreed-upon truth, I’ll try to accept the judgment as fair. If it’s a belief not held by all, then I can decide how much weight to grant the judgment—whether I’m giving or receiving.
I’m amazed by how many judgments fall into the latter category.
And I’m inspired by how many people throughout history have refused to accept the judgments of one person (no matter how important or dear) or even a group of people (no matter how powerful or expert). Such brave choice-makers have included Germans who resisted the Nazi party, Black Americans who continue to fight racism, and writers who ignore the rejection of one editor or the criticism of one reader.
When I find a T-shirt that reads “Silently Celebrating Your Integrity,” that’s the one I’ll wear. I just hope it won’t sound judgmental.
How do you deal with judgment? In the comments below, please share your perspectives and tips.