Who are we to judge?

I received a surprising number of emails and letters regarding my column about when—and when not—to end a friendship. While most of you agreed that there’s almost endless potential for friendships out there, some accused me of being too ‘judgmental.’ Well, I’m all in favor of making judgments, including about other people. We’re all responsible for deciding with whom we associate. How can we do that without making judgments about what we observe? People who get themselves into trouble in relationships or business do so for one simple reason: Bad judgment. Indeed, judgment is something in terribly short supply nowadays.

Like the overabundance of selections we have on TV, radio and the Internet, we’re also saturated with choices, options and dilemmas in life. And that’s a good thing—I prefer a society with advancement and variety to one with restrictions and limits. You might say it’s the American way, but, as I see it, it’s really the human way.

The ‘channel surfing’ mentality, as applied to everyday life, can work against us when we make snap judgments; cutting people off because of how we feel in the moment, rather than because of consistent behavior that makes it worthwhile (or necessary) to cut them off.

Our emotions make automatic judgments for us all the time. Sometimes those judgments are fair and supported by facts, and sometimes they aren’t. Our reasoning minds may agree—or disagree—with these emotional judgments, not to mention some of the things we honestly feel. This tells us that emotions can’t always to be trusted. The only way to create an effective ‘check and balance’ between emotions and reality is—you guessed it—the use of careful judgment.

When we’re coasting from channel to channel and site-to-site, we often do so for reasons even less precise than a split-second emotion could tell us. And because the mind tends to form habits, we can sometimes get into trouble when we bypass judgment by transferring the TV/web surfing mindset to other matters.

Therapist and professor of psychology Dr. Arnold Lazarus makes a very interesting point: ” None of us can help forming opinions of other people. So how does judgmental thinking differ from making judgments? Judgmental people state their views and observations in authoritative terms; they decree what is right and wrong, what should and should not be, what is good or bad. Making a simple judgment, however, does not carry these ominous overtones. ‘Billy has poor table manners’ is a judgment. The judgmental person would add something such as ‘Therefore, he’s a slob who was raised by cavemen!”

Note the word ‘decree.’ A lot of this comes down to tone and style. A judgmental person fails to take into account that facts and logic must support his conclusions, and that the people he expects to agree with his pronouncements must first be persuaded. In other words, he has to prove it.

Imagine a comedian who tells jokes without paying any attention to his listeners’ reactions. Similarly, writers are taught to ‘Consider your audience.’ This concept applies to everyone. If you’re sure that you’re right about something, make sure you can prove it. If you haven’t already proven it to yourself, you can’t run around telling others that you have.

Dr. Lazarus goes on, ‘We make judgments constantly. ‘He’s good-looking.’ ‘She dresses well.’ ‘ ‘She’s overweight.’ In forming opinions or making judgments, there is no moral overtone, no further conclusions are drawn, and no inferences are made about the person’s character. We just have the observation or the perception. As soon as we add ‘therefore’ to the observation, we are likely to be judgmental. ‘He talks very slowly,’ is an observation; ‘therefore, he must be stupid’ is a judgmental conclusion.’

Well, sorry, Dr. Lazarus, but I have no problem with ‘therefore’—as long as it can be backed up with facts. For example, ‘Joe dropped out of college because he never studied. He smokes pot every day. He refuses to look for a job. He lives off his parents and acts entitled to their support. THEREFORE, he’s squandering his talents and mooching off of others.’ I don’t consider this judgmental. Sometimes the truth hurts because people’s actions can hurt other people.

Yet it’s still possible to be unnecessarily judgmental. This happens when you apply pointless labels such as ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy.’ If you don’t reason and look carefully at the facts, you’re doing nothing more than the mental equivalent of channel surfing. Snap judgments can easily become judgmental.

As you take pleasure in the warm summer days, spend some time thinking and reflecting. You’ll find that it adds a lot of dimension to your life. At least once in awhile, put down the Blackberry and talk—as well as think—in complete sentences and completely spelled out words. Read a good book. Critically analyze what you hear on the news, rather than merely reacting. Form thoughtful opinions about others’ ideas and what they’re saying. Work to make yourself a more thinking person, and your ability to exercise good judgment will soar.