|MAKING JUDGMENTS WITHOUT BEING JUDGMENTAL
Terry D. Cooper
I AM REVEALED
Dec 15, 2011
I remember overhearing a conversation at a party that called my attention to the difference between "making judgments"
and "being judgmental." Two people were talking: Bill mentioned to Brad that a young girl he knew had been sexually
abused. Bill was ethically outraged and stunned that this event had happened. "Can you believe this?" he said. "I
know that little girl!" Bill went on to declare, "I really hope they catch the pervert!"
Brad then said, "You don't really know what may have been going on with the perpetrator. Perhaps he was sexually
abused also. Perhaps he couldn't help what he did. You really shouldn't be judgmental about what he did."
"Not be judgmental!" yelled Bill. "How can I possibly be nonjudgmental, Brad? Are you saying that what he did was
"That's not for me to say," responded Brad. "Things just happen. Who are we to judge them? I'm part of a spiritual
discussion group that believes we should judge nothing. Surely none of us is in a position to judge."
This conversation revealed a profound confusion about the differences between making judgments and being
judgmental. Brad confused the notion of judgmentalism with making ethical judgments about hurtful, life-damaging
behavior. The behavior of the perpetrator indeed needs to be judged. Who really believes we should be "neutral" or
"open-minded" about sexual abuse? No one, I hope. It's wrong. It's a terrible violation of another person, a young
vulnerable person. By refusing to judge this act, Brad was essentially ignoring its ethical consequences. The
perpetrator is surely a complicated human being, and the perpetrator's entire being and existence should not be leveled
because of this act. Yet whatever the context, this act was wrong and needed to be judged.
Many of us confuse the difference between making judgments and being judgmental. Yet the two mental processes are
not at all the same. Again, it is perfectly appropriate to negatively evaluate actions and behavior that bring hurt,
damage, or pain to another person. In fact, to not react to such a behavior is to have a numbed sense of conscience.
A world without judgments would be a world without conviction, principles and ethical concerns. Regardless of how
flexible and open-minded we may want to be, we cannot have a concept of "the good life" without a picture of what is
detrimental and destructive to that good life.
Therefore, in retaliation against judgmentalism some individuals have insisted on judging nothing. All things, they say,
are acceptable or somehow a part of the scheme of things. All of us have our private opinions, but someone else's
behavior is none of our business. The worst thing imaginable is intolerance. In fact, intolerance is seen as the only
taboo in a very diverse world. Hence, we don't want to be seen as someone who makes "judgments." However,
regardless of what we may claim in a group discussion, we cannot live our lives completely value-neutral. Our values
reside beneath every decision we make. We may not be aware of it at the time, but our values are constantly guiding
If we do embrace a judge-nothing philosophy, however, the end result is ethical neutrality and moral indifference. A
desire to not come down on anything places us in a world without convictions, a place where all standards are
completely private, and in a situation in which society is nearly impossible. One morality is just as good as the next.
The confusion here results from not separating the judgment of behaviors from the judgment of entire people. And this
separation is notoriously hard to do. Again, some behaviors need very much to be judged. They are damaging to
people and harmful to life. They deteriorate the well-being of this world. They are destructive and in some cases evil.
Yet this focus on behaviors must be kept separate from a denouncement of entire people. Let's look, more specifically,
at the differences between making judgments and being judgmental.
HEALTHY JUDGMENTS VS. JUDGMENTALISM
I want to suggest seven very important distinctions between the necessary process of making judgments and the
unnecessary process of being judgmental. Let's examine each of them in the table and section below.
Concern. Whereas healthy judgment involves concern for others, judgmentalism often has no concern whatsoever for
the people it is condemning. Judgmentalism does not care if it hurts another's feelings; it is far more interested in
winning the argument than in helping another human being. The irony for judgmentalism is that people will not listen, no
matter how convincing the argument, if they do not feel cared for.
These, then, are some of the principal contrasts between healthy judgments and judgmentalism. Healthy judgment
evaluates evidence carefully; is unafraid to decide; recognizes its own limitations; is willing to change its mind; refuses to
distrust another's motives unless there is clear evidence for this suspicion; holds its convictions with charity and
tolerance for others. These features are typically lacking in judgmentalism.
Trust. Another characteristic of healthy judgment is that it refuses to distrust another's motives unless we have solid
evidence for doing so. Judgmentalism, on the other hand, claims to be able to read people's minds. Judgmentalism
knows what everyone's motive is, even when there is no reasonable evidence. It has secret information, which it uses
to clobber another. Judgmentalism, therefore, is highly suspicious, if not paranoid, of others. For instance, when
someone does something nice for us, he or she must be after something. When a man and woman talk, they must be
planning an affair. Notice the arrogance involved in the claim to know all these things about people.
Much of this mentality emerges, I believe, from a fearful preoccupation that others are trying to take advantage of us.
Instead of admitting our fears, we project them onto others whose motives we then demonize. Because of our own
anxiety, we claim to know intuitively what others are secretly thinking, planning or plotting. This is our way of feeling
safe. The sad reality is that we are trying to feel safe by prematurely identifying enemies when they may be potential
Tolerant. Another characteristic of judgmentalism is that it often clings so tenaciously to religious and moral concepts
that it ends up disrespecting anyone who is different. Healthy judgment may indeed think that the ideas of someone are
off-base, limited or even dangerous. However, it extends tolerance to the person beneath the ideas. It knows that
giving an opposing viewpoint air time does not mean that it endorses it. Judgmentalism, on the other hand, is afraid to
even hear another perspective. It cannot distinguish between respectfully listening to people and agreeing with them.
When we are judgmental, we often become paranoid about ideas different from our own. Superstitiously, we assume
that merely hearing these ideas will somehow cause us to be taken over by them. Out of fear, we disregard common
courtesy. While healthy judgment is not afraid to condemn racism, sexism, dehumanizing attitudes, the exploitation of
people and other destructive practices, judgmentalism refuses to separate the person from their ideas and conduct.
Behavior vs. people. A woman once told me that she had decided to see her minister to talk about the possibility of
leaving her husband. Her husband, she said, was regularly abusing her physically, verbally and emotionally. She
tended to be passive, easygoing and "too" forgiving. Finally gathering the inner strength to admit that she wanted more
out of life than this abuse, she made an appointment with her pastor. As she began to explain the history and
complexity of her relationship - especially talking about how her own family-of-origin experiences may have led her
toward an abusive relationship - she noticed that the minister seemed rather uninterested. Observing this, she asked
the pastor, "Am I being clear?"
"Yes," said the pastor, "but I have only one question."
"Okay," she said, "please ask me."
"Has your husband been unfaithful? Has he had an affair?"
"No," she said, "not that I'm aware of."
"Then you have no grounds for a divorce," pronounced the minister. "You need to stay with this man and work it out. In
fact, you must not have a very strong sense of commitment! If there's been no infidelity, then you need to pray and
work harder in the relationship."
When I first heard about this story,this was the immediate, judgmental monologue inside my own head: This story is
offensive on so many fronts! Here's a pastoral "counselor" who sizes up this woman's entire marriage in ten minutes.
He reduces every complexity in her life and demands that it fit his marital categories. He refuses to struggle with her, to
understand her, to explore the unknown with her. In short, he refuses to be bothered by her! This is one of the ugliest
psychological sins one human being can do to another - reducing her entire, complex world into something quite
manageable for him. He is not very pastoral, and he is certainly not a counselor. His fundamentalist, black-and-white
standards are willing to send this woman back into a highly abusive marriage. Maybe he has a lousy marriage and
wants everyone else to be unhappy also. He's just another rigid and uptight fanatic who can't deal with life.
I don't know who was more judgmental - me or the minister. Yes, he was certainly not hearing the complexities of her life
and seemed more preoccupied with his "answer" than with genuinely hearing her struggles. He seemed to approach
this problem with a rather black-and-white framework, which did not do justice to the woman's life experience. Yes, he
was more interested in sizing up the situation from an outsider's view than with empathizing with her dilemma and pain.
Yet what was I doing? The same thing! She told me about this guy, and I had him placed within a belligerent fanatic
category without even meeting him. He was nothing but a fundamentalist to me. From there, I made all sorts of
caricatures about his personality and stereotyped him with an authoritarian, rigid, dogmatic label. I didn't simply think he
mishandled her feelings, I thought he was a lousy minister and human being. How proud I was to point out his self-
While I do not think that this pastor's approach on that particular day with that particular person was very effective or
caring, I had no business jumping to the conclusion that there was not a caring bone in the man's body. Further, while I
don't think his premature advice was beneficial to her, this hardly means that he was operating with a sinister motive to
heighten her misery. Yes, I think the man was wrong, but I should not judge his entire ministry or personhood based on
one situation. I was accusing him of evaluating this woman's life without any sense of empathy, yet where was my
empathy when I attacked his entire life? Again, this is the insidiousness of judgmentalism: We can often become very
judgmental in our fight against judgmentalism.
Open. Healthy judgment also recognizes the unresolved problems with our own viewpoints. We realize that we'll never
have everything figured out perfectly, but in the meantime, we can live full lives. Healthy judgment recognizes its limits
without shame or self-ridicule. It does not parade its view as if that view had no problems. It admits having blinders or
areas in which it does not see the whole picture. It has learned that it can have conviction without having certainty.
Nonjudgmentalism is willing to risk the journey into another person's world, which always means the possibility that we
may be changed too. Henri Nouwen, in his typical eloquence, states this beautifully:
situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process...Who can save a
child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness
and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious
peace of mind? In short: "Who can take away suffering without entering it?"
arrogance, it insists on absolute certainty. If it is challenged, it frequently reacts with hostility toward the questioner. It is
proud of its conviction and expects immediate agreement from others.
Healthy judgment also involves a willingness to change one's mind. This means that right in the middle of an argument,
we may turn about face and say, "I believe you're right." While we may not see this happen very often, it is a possibility
when we form healthy judgments. We simply see that another viewpoint explains more or makes more sense than ours,
perhaps because we have taken the time to enter into another person's world. Because we are not arrogantly
attached to "owning" the truth, we are then free to change our thinking as new evidence comes in. This does not mean
that we lack convictions, nor does it mean that we have previously been an idiot. It simply means that we have new
information, a new perspective, a better way of looking at something than before. In short, this kind of change is quite
possible if we can keep our swollen and bruised egos out of the picture.
Consider the following example. Henry frequently drank coffee at a local café with several other retired men who
enjoyed gathering together every morning. While the conversation touched on many topics, it often came back around
to politics. Some of the men enjoyed hearing each other's opinions, and while they sometimes disagreed, it was usually
an invigorating discussion. Henry, however, was another matter! The group was often sabotaged from interesting
conversation because Henry could not stand anyone who disagreed with him. Even if another person had a more
sensible argument, more evidence and differed with Henry in a friendly manner, Henry would dig in and want to argue
the rest of the day. Henry always had more opinions than facts, stronger emotions than reasons. Many of these
gatherings were forfeited by Henry's fierce need to argue. He was like a dog with a bone, unable to let anything go. If
the group tried to change topics, Henry would bring it back to his argument. He would get so red-faced that some
members of the group feared that he was going to have a heart attack right in the café. Henry was a conversation
stopper. When the rest of the group saw him come in, they knew that this was the end of a good conversation. He
came each morning not to hear, share or understand better; instead, he came to push his opinions on everyone else
and get some sort of hostile delight out of arguing with people. Henry wasn't going to change his mind about anything!
Eventually, the group started meeting at another place in hopes that Henry would not discover where they were.
Most of us have met a "Henry" before. A stubborn refusal to change one's mind often promotes a relentless
argumentativeness that is difficult for others to endure. The challenge is to stand for our convictions while not resorting
to argumentative reactivity, which will alienate us from people. We may ask ourselves, "Why do I take the bait?" But the
answer is that it is extremely difficult not to take it.
Time. While being open to new information and other perspectives, making a healthy judgment involves a calm, sober
insistence on looking at all the evidence before reaching a conclusion. Healthy judgments normally take time. They are
weighted out, evaluated and thought about carefully. Healthy judgments attempt to nondiscriminately examine as many
factors as possible. They refuse to make mental jumps or careless castigations.
Stated simply, careful judgments are the opposite of snap decisions. Snap decisions are usually promoted by a sudden
burst of reactionary emotion. We quickly shuffle someone into a stereotype, or we rapidly place a concept in with "all
those other weird ideas" we've heard before. When we meet someone new, we're immediately ready to categorize:
redneck, egghead, highbrow, lowbrow, radical feminist, chauvinist, religious nut, heathen and so on.
If a problem or issue does not trigger a great deal of emotion, most of us are capable of making healthy judgments. A
decision as to which school to attend, which house to buy or which insurance policy is best are all familiar examples.
We want to be cautious and conscientious.
Judgmentalism as a mentality, however, is based on reactionary protest to something. It is emotional reasoning, which
allows clear thinking no room to navigate amidst our colliding feelings. It does not seem to care that it lacks solid
evidence. It is a knee-jerk opinion.
Much of the time, this emotional reasoning is based on some sort of unfairness or hurt we have experienced in the
past. Someone then says or does something that triggers this unpleasant memory, and we automatically strike out or
want to write them off. This is often done instantly and unconsciously. Our ability to listen to people and evaluate their
perspectives is hijacked by our emotional reaction. All of a sudden we are fighting old battles that sometimes have little
to do with the present issue. We are recycling unhealed resentments and injuries from our personal past.
An example of this can be taken from my psychology classes. When Sigmund Freud is introduced, some students
almost immediately recoil. Freud, for them, is both a chauvinist and a man utterly preoccupied with sex. Because of his
evaluation of women, the man has no truth to speak whatsoever! Even his name conjures up emotional reactions. The
conclusion is drawn that because he had some sexist attitudes, all of his theories are invalid and not worth
investigating. Freud is dismissed even before his ideas are understood.
This also happens frequently when we get into a new romantic relationship, particularly if we have not had adequate
time to grieve and let go of a previous relationship. Jenny decided that she could not deal with Allan's perpetually
irresponsible lifestyle any longer. He was quite undependable and she wanted a partner she could count on. Her
friends encouraged her to eventually go out with Brent, whom they said she would really like. Brent arranged a blind
date. Because of unexpected traffic problems, Brent was eight minutes late picking Jenny up. She got in the car and
immediately told him that she didn't appreciate his lack of consideration and his insensitivity. "I'm only interested," she
said, "in people I can count on." This date did not go well. Brent received a lot of heat that belonged to a previous
relationship. With unresolved previous hurts, Jenny was poised and ready to place Brent in the "undependable"
category. She sized him up within the first five minutes of the date (or I should say in the eight minutes she waited for
him). Jenny was not free to evaluate the relationship for its potential and promise. Instead, a snap judgment based on
yesterday's experience pushed Brent away.
Unafraid. And finally, another characteristic of healthy judgments is that they are not driven by fear. Instead, they’re a
careful expression of a mind that, while open to other information, is unafraid to decide based on the information it has.
It does not remain forever suspended because it is willing to admit that choosing one thing means denying another.
Going to San Francisco on vacation means not going to Florida. Going to a movie means not going to the ballgame.
Decision means letting go of some possibilities while affirming others. Healthy judgment is aware that we can't have it all.
Judgmentalism, on the other hand, is driven by fear of carefully examining evidence and thinking analytically.
Judgmentalism is too impulsive to carefully look at all the choices. It tends to be unreflective and careless. Again, it
does not have time to withhold its opinion; that's too much work and requires too much energy. Instead, it seeks quick
black-or-white extremes. Every situation must involve a right decision and a wrong one. There is no room for
ambivalence. It cannot possibly be that there may be three right decisions or no right decision. A judgmental mentality
expects that life present itself in all-or-nothing categories. It's much too frightening to admit that there may be several
angles on a decision. There must be only one!
If we are struggling with a difficult decision, a decision that is complex, murky and requires a great deal of consideration,
we will find little help from judgmental people. They can't seem to hold their stallions of judgment back long enough to
hear a problem laid out. Before we have even attempted to describe a problem, they have cut us off and given us only
two options. These people, however well-intended they may be, make terrible counselors. They simply don’t have
tolerance for confusion. It's tunnel vision with no capacity to hear ambiguities.
This is why many people seek out professional counselors; they don't go to the counselor to get more advice - they
already have plenty of that! - they need help sorting through complex problems. They need someone with the mental
space in their head to hear them out, to let them struggle, to look at all angles. They need to have their complexity
respected. They do not need to have a complicated world painted in black and white.
CRITICAL THINKING VS. THINKING CRITICALLY
Another way of understanding the differences between making judgments and being judgmental is to highlight the
differences between critical thinking and thinking critically. Critical thinking is an important skill for the purposes of
making judgments. Most colleges have courses that help students develop these critical thinking skills. But by critical
thinking, I mean careful thinking, rather than negative thinking. Thinking critically, on the other hand, invokes the
mentality of judgmentalism. It is cynical, nonaffirming, and preoccupied with the errors in what another says rather than
in the truth in what they are saying. It is not simply careful; instead, it is highly suspicious and even paranoid. Its major
concern is faultfinding. To better understand judgmental vs nonjudgmental thinking, in table 2 are some key differences
between critical thinking and thinking critically.
These differences point toward two mentalities. While most of us fluctuate back and forth between the two, it is
important to identify times when we are thinking critically rather than looking at something with clear-minded, careful
attention. Thinking critically is usually generated not by caution, but instead by sarcasm, cynicism and, ultimately,
nihilism. It assumes that affirming anything only indicates how naive we are. Yet what is interesting is that many people
who engage in thinking critically never put their own negativity on trial. Perhaps they feel safer when they believe in
Yet the belief in nothing is a very important belief and one they should also critically examine. Thinking critically needs
to be critically examined.
REFLECTIVE AND OPEN-MINDED VS. SOUND BITES AND CLICHÉS
Quite frankly, it is much easier to be down on everything than to affirm something. It requires far less mental and
emotional energy. Again, judgmentalism is easy, while nonjudgmentalism is difficult and requires a lot of effort. While I
wish to strongly encourage openmindedness throughout this book, I must honestly say that closed-mindedness is far
simpler. It may be less fulfilling, but it is more convenient. While clear-minded people may have an understanding of
several viewpoints, this awareness of multiple views may make them hesitant, careful and at times even timid.
We are, after all, normally less prone toward zealous claims when we notice that there are a lot of perspectives
available. In other words, the more we fairly examine alternative positions, the more inclined we may be to doubt
ourselves. Author Daniel Taylor is quite frank about the pros and cons of being a reflective, open-minded thinker.
contemplative, less likely to be active; more likely to be marked by the pursuit of answers, less by the finding of
them. The result is a high potential for creativity, curiosity and discovery, but also for paralyzing ambivalence,
alienation, and melancholy.
The point seems to be that we pay a price for greater understanding.
Another disadvantage of open-minded thinking is the loss of colorful expletives and inflammatory language. Judgmental
language is powerful language. It makes us feel strong when we use it. It is, after all, the vehicle of shame. It is also
deceptive in that it makes us believe we are as certain as we sound.
Fair, nonjudgmental language, on the other hand, is less interesting. It tends to be calm, sober and careful about the
words it chooses. It forces us to use our minds and not simply rely on strong emotion. It doesn't pulverize anyone. It
does not draw a lot of oohs and ahs from an audience. Nonjudgmental language will not rely on inflammatory sound
bites, regardless of how much attention that might attract. In short, it refuses to go for the jugular.
It is a sad fact that our public discourse so often revolves around irrational exaggeration and hype. In order to make a
point, we often must grossly overstate the point. Especially in any campaign year, just listen to the bombastic words
and grandiose zeal of many politicians. The careful, respecting attitude that sees some legitimacy in another's
opposing view is completely lost. It's a rigid, mud-slinging world of easy right-and-wrong answers. Being accurate is far
less important than being colorful.
"Sound bites," those quick, fiery expressions that squeeze complex issues into trite clichés, are unfortunately appealing
to many. This is the world of easy pronouncements and generalizations. These bumper-sticker phrases help many
come across very well on televised talk shows and media events. A person who makes a sincere attempt to address all
sides of the issue is either cut off or brushed aside as wishy-washy and lacking in convictions. We don't have time to
hear that person out.
Often, in the public's view, a person who can memorize a series of provocative words and images, who can aggressively
push the discussion back to his or her own limited view, "wins" many debates. Comprehension and depth of
understanding get in the way! That's not exciting enough. Instead, we want 100 percent conviction about complicated
But to be loud doesn't mean that someone is profound. To be colorful doesn't mean that someone has understanding.
To "call it like it is" may mean that someone has a very narrow view of the world. To be boisterous, overconfident and
dogmatic doesn't mean that someone has the truth.
There is a close proximity between judgmentalism and arrogance. In order to better understand judgmentalism and to
begin to move away from it in our own thinking, it is important to understand this connection between judgmentalism and
mental grandiosity. It is to this issue that we now turn.
MAKING JUDGMENTS WITHOUT BEING JUDGMENTAL, by Terry D. Cooper, Copyright 2006, InterVarsity Press.
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