by David Deane
Q: I’m concerned about how we react to ethical lapses committed by others. When can it be said that we as individuals, or as a collective, have become overly intolerant of the frailties of others? At what point do we become censorious scolds? And why is this a problem? Why should we avoid such thinking? How can we recognize such thinking within ourselves, or within our group? How do we go about correcting it?
A: Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., is best known for its homophobic protests. It has about 40 members. Twice that number of people liked the picture I posted on Facebook the other day of my eight-year-old daughter.
The congregation of Westboro Baptist Church is very small and comprised of one large and very strange extended family. Despite this, it attracts the attention of the world’s media.
One of the reasons it attracts attention is because we’re disgusted by what its members say. The more we hear from them, the more we see what bad people look like and the more we can remind ourselves that we’re morally good.
After all, we’re not them. They’re what baddies look like. We are not like them — in fact, the best of us, we tell ourselves, don’t just avoid the horrific positions they represent, the best of us abstain from judging altogether.
Think of the word “pope.”
A few years ago, this word was synonymous with intolerance, repression and secrecy. It has more positive connotations now because Pope Francis ingratiated himself with us with his often quoted phrase “Who am I to judge?”
With this statement, he has established himself as one of the good people of the Twitter age, or a non-judgmental person. He seems to be echoing the words of Christ himself: “Judge not lest ye should be judged.”
Unlike the Westboro Baptists who could all fit on one bus, more than a billion Christians treat these words as if they were, well, gospel.
While I share the utter abhorrence of the things Westboro Baptists say, I’m not convinced that judging people’s actions as morally bad is something we should never do.
Despite the prevalence of the “judge not” attitude on social media and in most churches, and despite the support of Pope Francis and, seemingly, Jesus Christ himself, I am still a bit uneasy accepting that judgement is a bad thing.
The notion of judgment has evolved in meaning.
For German philosopher Immanuel Kant, judgment meant an assessment or evaluation of something, or to have an informed opinion. This is the understanding of judgment we tend to use today.
In the time of Jesus, judgment meant the final judgment. That is, condemning to death or damnation, or saving from death or damnation.
Jesus may not have been as anti-judgment as some assume. After all, the moral analysis of rich or greedy men was not entirely alien to Jesus and his movement!
When we superimpose our modern understanding of judgment onto Jesus’ 2,000-year-old words, it leads to a significant misunderstanding of them.
I’m also uneasy about the current rage against judgement because it’s bogus. It’s a sham.
We, the good people, judge others just like the Westboro Baptists do. We judge climate-change deniers. We judge people who don’t have progressive views on women’s rights.
And, just like in the McCarthy era of anti-communism, people can lose jobs, contracts and public profile if we judge them to be out of step on feminist, racial, LGBT or other issues.
We rabidly judge those who eat unclean things like fast food, or use forbidden words like racial slurs. We are a wholly judgmental people, despite our claims to the contrary.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
We can’t help forming opinions, offering moral analysis and making suggestions about what “the good” looks like and how best to live toward it.
I am uneasy about the “don’t judge” position. Saying we don’t judge doesn’t stop us from judging. It merely limits our capacity to do so responsibly.
It forces judgment underground. It militates against coherent analysis, against owning the judgment, educating ourselves, and offering clear arguments open to constructive critique.
The popular ban on judgment simply means that judgment becomes subliminal. It pushes it beneath critique and beneath analysis, where it becomes dangerous.
How far are witch hunts and “reds under the bed” trials from the consequences of the intolerant attitudes of our age?
“Who am I to judge?” people ask.
Perhaps the answer to this question is: You, a thoughtful, informed, intellectually responsible human being. Our only choice is whether to judge in a manner open to conversation, dialogue and critique, or subliminally, where it can become prejudice and bigotry.