|I'M JUDGMENTAL, YOU'RE JUDGMENTAL
I AM REVEALED
Dec 15, 2011
JUST WHEN WE THINK WE'RE NOT JUDGMENTAL...
For quite some time, I have been interested in exploring the topic of judgmentalism...as long as it dealt with other
people's judgmental tendencies. I've been quick to spot in other people the rigid, authoritarian attitude and statements
that I often don't like very much. I've engaged in a reactionary protest against their judgmental thinking. I have
attacked all the stereotyping, labeling, pigeonholing and smug sense of certainty that went along with their rigid
mentality. The black or white, simplistic reduction of complex issues seemed inhumane and unsatisfactory. How proud I
was to point this out! What I did not realize, of course, is that I was stuck in my own judgmentalism. By constantly
reacting to others' judgmentalism, judgmentalism was actually controlling me. Yet I continued to throw stones at the
What I also did not realize was that my harsh condemnation of judgmental people was every bit as judgmental as
anything they were saying. I was becoming a narrow-minded defender of open-minded-ness. I was intolerant of
intolerance. I was a zealous missionary who grandiosely thought it was my job to expand people's thinking. I was going
to "control" those awful controlling tendencies in other people. While the content of what I was saying may have differed
from the judgmental attitudes I had encountered, the process of my thinking was the same.
I can remember spending hours talking to friends about how people were trying to "control" me: How dare they do that!
Who gave them the right to get into my business! They were disrespecting my ability to regulate my own life as they
invaded my world with their narrow-minded thinking. Yet what gradually began to dawn on me was that I was spending
way too much time reacting to these reactionary people. I resented the fact that they did not accept me as I was. I
didn't like their attempts to force their own opinions on me. Yet what became painfully clear is that I was equally trying to
control them. I was not accepting them. I was demanding that they see life from my "open-minded" position. I was
judging them for their judgmentalism. They wanted me to be different from who I was; yet I, too, wanted them to be
different from who they really were.
I began to realize that judgmentalism and authoritarian thinking can come in many clothes. Again, I had recognized it
only in perspectives I didn't like. Now I had to put my own style or manner of thinking under a microscope. I began to
realize that a judgmental mentality can pop up in practically every area of life. In fact, many of us who pride ourselves
on having transcended the narrow confines of rigid thinking are actually stuck in thought patterns that are very
inflexible. Again, it is easy to become self-righteous precisely when we are pointing out the self-righteousness of
others. I'm so thankful, I have unconsciously said to myself, that I don't engage in those "primitive" thought patterns.
My point is simply this: When we think we have completely eliminated judgmentalism from our thinking, we probably
need to take another look. In fact, when we think we have "arrived" at a non-biased, completely neutral and totally
fair-minded perspective, we're probably very deluded. Judgmental, authoritarian thinking is insidious, often sliding into
our thoughts during times of anxiety and insecurity. It is not just "the other person's problem." In fact, I suspect it is
everyone's predicament, at least to some degree. We can certainly make steps toward recognizing and changing it
within ourselves, yet we will most likely never be completely free of it.
This brings us to a very important realization: The world is not simply divided between judgmental and nonjudgmental in
others. This is not an either/or issue. James Davison Hunter has effectively demonstrated that judgmental extremism
occurs in both the right and left camps. Therefore, we need to approach this topic with humility, compassion and
awareness that unwarranted pride may have entered our own way of thinking.
One of my students recently gave me an interesting example of "open-minded" hypocrisy and reminded me that
judgmentalism can show up in many different contexts. She attends a very liberal church where there is enormous
focus on appreciating diversity and hearing everyone's perspective. The church clearly sees itself, she said, as
different from more conservative churches because they welcome open dialogue. She told me that she would like to
invite one of her friends to church, but her friend is pro-life. She went on to say that her Sunday morning class had
been talking about social issues, and it became very clear to her that if anyone was not pro-choice, they would be
"raked over the coals." The issue was so clear-cut that there could not possibly be an argument coming from the other
side. She went on to say, "I'm pro-choice myself, but my class cannot see any legitimacy in any pro-life perspective. I
would literally be afraid of what might be said to my friend." She added, "My friend is a wonderful person with a deep
commitment to pro-life, and she has really thought through these issues." Yet given the mindset of the group, she was
afraid for her friend to attend.
Another example of judgmental thinking can be seen in the extremist reactions to Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of
the Christ. Some judgmental people on the right wanted to denounce anyone who thought the film had antisemitic
tones or was too violent. Yet, in this case, I saw far more judgmentalism on the left. Time and again, Gibson's motives
for doing this film were reduced to his desire to get rich, his pathologically violent tendencies and his desire to depict a
macho Jesus. Gibson's own testimony of being deeply moved to make the film was cynically downplayed. There was
such a strong protest against the film in some circles that it bordered on prohibition. Many of these same
"open-minded" filmgoers had been very critical of the conservative protest of Martin Scorsese's film The Last
Temptation of Christ several years earlier. Conservatives, they said, were condemning a film they had never seen. Yet
were not "liberals" doing the same thing: making loud pronouncements on a film they didn't bother to watch? One of my
friends, after scowling at me when she found out that I had attended the film, asked me, in a rather hostile manner, to
My point here is not to stir up further controversy about this film but to point out some of the judgmentalism in those of
us who think we have far surpassed any narrow-minded leanings. As I have pointed out, rigidity of thought can show up
in both conservative and liberal climates. While the word liberal has sometimes meant generous or open to alternative
opinions, a tense ideology can easily set in, a framework that becomes just as defensive as any form of conservative
fundamentalism. Diversity is welcomed as long as the diversity is in agreement with the prevailing ideology. The
moment that ideology is challenged, however, many "liberals" react with hostile defensiveness. They become
dogmatically opposed to dogmatism, fanatical about fanaticism, intolerant of intolerance and rigid about rigidity.
Again, if we are to sincerely seek greater dialogue, we must look behind our easy self-congratulations that we are
champions of open-mindedness, guardians of free inquiry and open to all perspectives. We, too, can villainize an
opposing viewpoint, castigate the person behind the argument and demonstrate a severe insensitivity toward those with
whom we disagree.
Indeed, judgmental people (which at one time or another includes each of us) are often very difficult. Yet if we extend to
them the very judgments we so often receive from them, we perpetuate a cycle of intolerance that can lead to hatred.
When we hear sarcastic, unfair comments, our knee-jerk tendency is to respond in like manner. Reactivity begets
reactivity. It's hard to keep our balance when we've been clobbered by judgmentalism.
It is doubtful that any of us really believe we are closed-minded. We want to see ourselves as being fair. It is important,
therefore, to drop our guard long enough to examine carefully our own dispositions. Again, our anger and protests
against other viewpoints can cloud our rationality as we pontificate from our emotional reactions. While we may strain to
be cordial, our private conversations include all-or-nothing expletives to describe a "stupid" idea or "crazy" person.
Even in colleges and universities, where flexible thinking and open-mindedness are presented as ideals, there is often a
stubborn resistance and dogmatic campaign against other perspectives. Lip service may be given to a respect for
diversity, but there is often tremendous infighting and put-downs of people with alternative beliefs. At times, it is very
difficult to find a balance in discussions where a variety of opinions are presented. Many years of schooling hardly
guarantees that our opinion will be less judgmental, our reaction less extreme or our intolerance minimized. Many of us
could name specific professors in universities who will not even speak to each other because of entrenched
disagreements about theoretical points. They will not grant even the slightest legitimacy to other's viewpoints, yet they
head toward their classes and talk about the importance of diversity in education.
I've also known counselors or psychotherapists who talk about tolerance for ambiguity with their clients, stress the
significance of perspective-taking skills in counseling, then turn right around and argue passionately in a staff meeting
that their style of therapy is the only legitimate one in mental health! What happened to the perspective-taking skills
they valued a few minutes ago? What happened to their tolerance for ambiguity?
DEALING WITH JUDGMENTALISM
The first step in dealing effectively with judgmentalism is fully recognizing how slippery, conniving and insidious it can
be. We may become less judgmental, but it is doubtful that we'll ever be completely nonjudgmental. Therefore, humility
My suggestion, as we explore the topic of judgmentalism, is to begin with the assumption that we are judgmental. Let's
move away from an "us" and "them" mentality that focuses on the judgmentalism out there. Nonjudgmentalism is much
like humility - once you assume you have it, this is a pretty sure indicator that you don't.
Judgmentalism involves two forms of superiority. First is moral superiority. This is one of the primary reasons that
Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1 to "judge not." As we judge another person, we are acting as a condescending spectator,
not as a player. We are pushing aside our own shortcomings, faults, limits and finitude while we assess another. But
once we get off the bleachers and into the game, we may find that life is much more complex than our spectator position
had realized. Second, judgmentalism also involves a deep sense of intellectual superiority insofar as we believe we
are capable of evaluating the entire context of another's life, with all its variables. It is an arrogant illusion that we can
size up someone's life; we simply don't know the whole story. We don't know how others have been hurt, the struggles
of their lives or the overall context out of which they have lived. Some may think this sounds dangerously close to
excusing another's behavior, but this is not at all what I am suggesting. I am simply saying that we, coming out of our
own set of assumptions, viewpoints, limitations and cognitive finitude, cannot possibly deliver a "final verdict" about
another's entire life. We may have very definite judgments about specific acts this person has committed, but we
don't have the intellectual resources to determine the nature of his or her entire existence.
Perhaps one of the reasons Jesus warned so vigorously against judgmentalism is that it makes a god or idol of our own
viewpoint. Judgmentalism always means forgetting our limitations and finitude; we think we've found a "place" from
which to give a final estimate of another.
Perhaps you've had an experience similar to my own. On occasion, I've had an opportunity to really get to know
someone whose life has involved some destructive behavior. A person I'll call Jill very deeply confided in me about the
course her life had taken. She told me many things about her childhood, most of which were very difficult for her to say.
Jill had been sexually abused by her uncle and virtually ignored by her parents. She spent most of the time with her
rather detached grandparents. She developed negative views of herself, which she tried to hide behind a tough
exterior. She developed a sense of belonging with a group of teenagers who were doing some destructive things. She
eventually got in trouble with the law.
I'm not excusing Jill's behavior, but a person deeply hungry for love, acceptance and affirmation lived beneath Jill's skin.
I knew this about her. She was capable of enormous kindness and fondness for others, especially unfortunate children,
which is why it was difficult to be in conversation with "upright" people when Jill's name was brought up. "That girl is a
tramp," said one person. "She'll never amount to anything." The group then bemoaned a world full of Jills and
condescendingly insinuated that they were very happy that their lives had never sunk to that level.
So there I was, boiling inside because I knew a different Jill. I did not say anything because Jill had confided in me
personally. So I listened to a group of completely uninformed people who knew nothing about Jill's personal life tell me
all about her. The whole time I thought, I'd like to see how you would handle what she has been through. All I said was,
"Well, folks, we don't know the whole story."
Judgementalism makes us more and more alienated from our own dark side. When we are shocked and preoccupied
with the "horrible" actions of others, our attention is removed from our own destructive behavior. Focused on the
deplorable behavior of outsiders, we are freed from looking at ourselves. In fact, we can tell ourselves that their
behavior is unthinkable or unimaginable. We could never do something like that!
Harsh condemnations of others indicate a lack of grace and tender acceptance in our own lives. With so many things
being unacceptable, we are afraid to shine the flashlight into our own closets. Consequently, we remain ignorant of our
own hidden aspirations, unconscious motivations and capability for destructive behavior. We are simply afraid to
explore ourselves. Why? Because we don't want those judgmental guns pointed at us. We don't have enough grace
and acceptance to freely make that inward journey. The fear of condemnation is much greater than the assurance of
In many ways, John 8:1-11 conveys all the ingredients we need for a comprehensive understanding of judgmentalism.
A woman caught in the act of adultery was thrown down before Jesus as onlookers prepared to stone her to death.
One may immediately wonder where the male in this story was and why he wasn't held to the same level of
accountability as the woman. Nevertheless, the accusers maintained that according to the law of Moses, the woman
should be stoned to death. Jesus, writing in the sand, suggested that whoever among them was without sin could cast
the first stone. After each of them dropped their rocks and walked away, Jesus told the woman that he did not condemn
her either. He told her to go and sin no more.
This scene tells us a great deal about the nature and dynamics of judgmentalism. First, the accusers were able to use
the woman's sin as a method of self-avoidance. In other words, as long as they could focus on the external behavior of
someone else, they did not have to look at their own sin. She served as an important distraction. Further, there was a
complete identification of this woman's particular behavior with her entire personhood. She was "nothing but" an
adulterer. Her humanity was not seen. Fixation on a single act blinded the accusers to the greater context of her life.
No one asked about her life circumstances or her own particular struggles. No one dared empathize with this woman's
While this may not have excused her behavior, it would have helped the onlookers see the greater context of her life
and become more understanding. As a public accusation, this event was devastatingly shameful to the woman. Jesus,
perhaps by drawing in the sand and not making eye contact with the woman, refused to bring her further shame. Jesus
also encouraged the accusers to turn their attention back towards their own lives. He would not allow them to
scapegoat this woman. And when the accusers had left, Jesus approached the woman with kindness, which did not
overlook an important ethical principle. The woman was not told that her behavior was exonerated, overlooked or no
big deal; instead, she was encouraged to change her life. This was not cheap grace, an acceptance that did not invite
repentance. Jesus honored the woman and essentially said that she had too much value and dignity to live as she had
Judgmentalism, on the other hand, enhances self-righteousness through putting others down. One of the biggest
psychological payoffs of judgmentalism is feeling proud that we are not like "those other people." We are one-up on
them. Temporarily forgetting our own humanity, we are entitled to evaluate another human being. In fact, it's very easy
to fall in love with the job of measuring and ranking others.
We may not consciously be aware that tearing down others can inflate ourselves. Yet the underlying message is
something like, I wouldn't think of doing such a thing, or I could never do that or I am shocked and aghast at such
behavior. We are usually noting how utterly different we are from these people or how we would simply never sink to
their level. Criticizing others is not just an offensive move against them; it is also a defensive move to protect our own
When we are judgmental, therefore, we need other people's faults in order to dodge our own. Stated simply,
judgmental thinking is addicted to other people's faults or destructive behavior. Judgmentalism finds its identity in what
is not. It defines itself by what it is reacting against. If there were no one around to condemn, judgmentalism wouldn't
know what to do with itself.
The judgments we hold about specific issues need to come from a larger context of care and love. While we cannot
possibly feel the same toward all people, we are asked to act lovingly regardless of the level of affection we may or may
not have toward them. Acting with love and being judgmental are mutually opposed to each other. Seeing the dignity
beneath obnoxious behavior, recognizing the irreducible value to all people and caring for the person beneath the
unfair ideas is an enormous challenge. Our only hope, in my estimation, is to regularly remind ourselves of the grace
that has been given to us and to allow that grace to extend outward.
MAKING JUDGMENTS WITHOUT BEING JUDGEMENTAL, by Terry D. Cooper, Copyright 2006, InterVarsity Press.
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