who are we to judge? david c. stolinsky "i decline utterly to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire." – winston churchill
wednesday, may 1, 2002
david c. stolinsky
"i decline utterly to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire." – winston churchill
the word "judgmental," in the sense of overly critical, self-righteous or moralistic, dates only from the 1960s. for centuries, some of the greatest writers and speakers the world has ever known managed to express themselves without using this word. yet now we use it frequently. why?
are we more puritanical and moralistic than people were in former years? no, we are clearly less so. moral standards are obviously less strict than they were. this is agreed to by both those who favor and those who oppose the loosening of standards.
what, then, do we mean when we call someone "judgmental"? occasionally we mean someone who is truly overly critical and self-righteous.
but usually we mean something quite different. usually we are condemning someone who dares to express moral or ethical values of any sort. usually we are berating someone for being "old-fashioned" enough to distinguish between people for any reason whatever.
a recent cover of newsweek magazine showed the pictures of two teenage girls who looked enough alike to be sisters. the caption read "suicide mission." it should have read "murder mission," because the story described yet another bombing of a civilian target in israel. one girl was a mass murderer; the other was one of her victims.
but the confusion of murderer with victim is nothing new. a few years ago, the cover of time showed two large photos of the high school murderers from littleton, colo., and 13 small photos of their victims. here the murderers were not merely equated with their victims – the murderers were actually given more celebrity.
incessant tv watching teaches kids that fame is the most important thing, and we give more fame to murderers than to victims. then we are shocked – shocked! – when other kids seek fame by becoming murderers themselves. this may be as true in the middle east as it is in our own land.
perhaps we should declare a moratorium on showing pictures of murderers on tv and on magazine covers. perhaps we should insist that tv and magazines in hostile nations stop celebrating those who murder americans. and if they don't stop, we should consider economic or other sanctions. why should our taxes be used to support the celebration of americans being blown apart in restaurants and markets?
elsewhere in america, residents displayed a "we forgive you" sign to a multiple murderer, while a minister declared that it is our "duty" to forgive timothy mcveigh for bombing the oklahoma city federal building. how is it our right, much less our duty, to forgive those who have not injured us and who do not ask to be forgiven? the minister didn't say.
and on a hill near littleton, 15 crosses commemorated without distinction the murderers and their victims. when the father of a victim objected, all 15 crosses were removed. no differentiation was allowed.
that is, though we warn others not to be judgmental, we feel free to judge that father. though our tolerance is great, it has limits. let someone express a moral judgment and we immediately condemn him.
in fact, it is the "non-judgmental" who often judge others most harshly. it is the "tolerant" who often show the greatest intolerance for those who disagree with them. and it is the self-proclaimed "humanitarians" who "love all people," but who stand by idly in smug neutrality while the most inhuman acts are committed.
one need not be an einstein to predict what will result if we give equal sympathy to criminals and victims, and we give more fame to criminals. but if the harmful effects are so predictable, why do we persist in doing what we do?
we have, in effect, thrown out the rulebook. so we believe we have no cause to complain, no matter how gross or cruel someone's behavior may be. after all, "who are we to judge?" who, indeed, when we have thrown away any basis on which to judge.
and if by chance we do complain, to whom can we direct our complaint? in addition to throwing out the rulebook, we have turned our backs on the referee. we have abandoned all basis for judgment and ignored the judge. no wonder we condemn those who are "judgmental" – they show us up for what we are.
if we view all people and all actions through a moral fog, everything and everyone appears as an indistinguishable gray. of course, those who are immersed in a fog are likely to bump into dangerous objects and get hurt.
we claim not to be able to distinguish the mass murderer from the victim in the middle east. why would we expect others to distinguish them in our own country?
if we cannot feel sympathy for those who were blown to pieces at sbarro's pizzeria in jerusalem, why would we expect foreigners to feel sympathy for the victims of sept. 11? if we cannot express support for the victims and condemnation of the bombers, why would we expect others to express support for us?
if we are all too eager to "see both sides" there, why would we be dismayed when others "see both sides" here? if we find excuses not to get involved there, why would we be disappointed when others find excuses not to get involved here?
if we perceive only shades of gray over there, why would we be angry at those who see the same over here? if we don't want to cause ourselves trouble by taking sides, why would we expect others to risk trouble by taking our side?
if our fear of higher oil prices overcomes our sense of justice, why would we be surprised when others prove to be just as cowardly? if the sight of a smashed pizzeria and a wrecked passover service leave us unmoved, why would we expect others to be moved by the sight of collapsing office towers?
if some of our leading journalists and clergy express equal sympathy for criminal and victim, why are we upset when foreign journalists and clergy operate in a moral fog that is even denser? why do we complain when they scream "death to america"?
a fog is a fog, after all – who are we to judge?
violence is violence, after all – who are we to judge?
killing is killing, after all – who are we to judge?
nobody is without fault, after all – who are we to judge?
criminals are also victims, after all – who are we to judge?
there is something to be said for both sides, after all – who are we to judge?
maybe the israelis deserve to be blown to pieces while going out for a slice, after all – who are we to judge?
maybe the people in the world trade center were furthering global capitalism, after all – who are we to judge?
maybe the kids in littleton were bullies, after all – who are we to judge?
but if we don't judge, who will? if we don't take the side that is more just and less guilty, who will? if we don't condemn murderers, who will? if we can't distinguish murderers from their victims, who can?
if we use "tolerance" as an excuse to tolerate anything, no matter how horrible, we will become intolerable.
if we use "humanity" as an excuse for our inaction in the presence of cruelty, we will become inhuman.
if we use "forgiveness" as an excuse to treat criminals and victims alike, we will act unforgivably.
and if we use not being "judgmental" as an excuse for moral and physical cowardice, we will be judged.