This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which my post on money brought into focus, and R’s Mom’s post galvanised me into getting off my ass and writing up my thoughts.

One of the Christian teachings that impressed me early on was the episode in which a woman who commits adultery is brought before Jesus and the elders ask him whether they should stone her as per custom. They were basically trying to trap him, because if he said “no” he could be condemned as a blasphemer, but if he said “yes” he would be contravening Roman law as only the Romans were allowed to issue a death sentence. Instead he said: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” And they all went away quietly.

The passage is generally interpreted to mean don’t judge, unless you’re blameless yourself.

It used to mystify me that Christians around me generally seemed to ignore this passage* and go about with an aura of smug contempt of anyone who deviated from the most trivial aspects of the religious code. It still does, though now I understand better how people prefer to brush away inconvenient truths.

However, I have also begun to wonder how practical the no-judging dictum is. If no one who has ever sinned is allowed to judge anyone, then how do you institute the law? You could never have courts with judges because I’m sure there isn’t a single completely blameless judge. If we are to follow the dictum strictly, then in, say, the Delhi rape case, none of us should be judging the perpetrators of the crime, leave alone the judges in the case.

The law is in essence a collective decision based on the judgement of society that certain actions will not be tolerated. Or that they will be tolerated only under certain circumstances. Thou shall not kill another human being (though animals and plants are okay)… unless in self-defence, or unless your country decides to go to war, or unless the person you are killing is judged collectively to be a danger to society (capital punishment).

At the individual level, we judge every single day of our lives. Every decision we make involves judgement. I choose to send my child to a particular school, judging it better than the other options. In doing so, I am judging some schools and by implication could be seen to be judging the parents who put those kids in those schools (hence the defensiveness the entire subject arouses).

If we are never to judge, we must never weigh up options and make a decision in our lives.

Interestingly, while searching for that biblical passage, I came across the chapter before it in which I found this quote: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

That’s more like it for me. I don’t think “not judging” is realistic even at the personal level. But I think we need to judge the quality of judgements.

So the commandment should be, judge, but ensure that:

  1. You are not making petty, instinctive judgements that are less about the issue at hand and more about your own prejudice and defensiveness.
  2. You introspect. There may be no one among us who is blameless, but how close is your “sin” to the one you are judging. If there’s 100 degrees of separation, then fine. If there’s six, then sorry, you aren’t fit to judge.
  3. You try to be neutral and consider all possible perspectives.
  4. You do not waste a lot of energy and get worked up in the process of judging when you could be productively doing something else.

    This post on Women’s Web illustrates how we are quite often closer than we think to the “sins” we are condemning, though I don’t agree with its conclusion to give up judging altogether or that it’s mainly women who indulge in the preoccuption of judging or that we should stop judging because it somehow defies the code of the sisterhood.

Caveat 1: Avoid airing your judgement unless it’s going to serve some constructive purpose. If you can help it, keep it to yourself and let it guide your own behaviour. For example, I judge people as stupid/narrowminded/misguided/ill-informed every other day. But no purpose would be served by informing them I think so. First of all, because it won’t go down well and ignorant people rarely change on being informed that they come across as so. Second, there’s the possibility that I’m wrong. However, I just resolve to learn more and not be stupid (or as Prof Eunice DeSouza would say, “a cabbage”) myself.

[Edited to add]

Caveat 2: Stop being bothered by the thought that other people are judging you. Of course they are. As long as they keep their judgements to themselves, carry on. I find this relatively easier in Hong Kong because the Chinese way is to  put on what I, following that Genghis Khan book, refer to as the “cold face”, which one can safely ignore. Even better if you are a foreigner, because if comments are passed, you can’t understand them because they’re in Cantonese. I have the same approach with my MiL and Malayalam, I don’t understand what she mutters so if I perceive her judgement it has to be intense. Yay for outsider status! Thus, although apparently Hong Kong guys make fun of women who don’t shave their legs, I have never noticed this and exposed a hairy ankle now and then blissfully unaware. Maybe solidifying their view of Indians as uncivilised brutes; however, as long as I don’t hear it, I don’t care.

I can see how being constantly subjected to voiced judgments can be trying though. Here is my short guide to dealing with judgements in social settings:

1. When someone says a judgy thing to you, first take a breath. Resist the urge to hotly contest their point of view and/or kick them in the shins. (I also need to work on this one.) Instead,  if the statement is something you have never heard before, think about whether it might have merit.

2. If you are too irritated to think on the spot (quite common in these situations), respond with “Hmmm”. This effectively shuts down further discussion till you have had the time to consider things at length. Contrary to popular belief, one normally does get a chance to give vent to one’s considered response at different occasions because people, fortunately or unfortunately, do tend to appear more than once.

3. If what they are mouthing is the same tired drivel of old, think about whether there is any hope of changing their mind by contradicting them. If no, then go with “Hmmm” as above. Or “I don’t agree.” If yes, proceed to state your point of view, possibly opening by acknowledging that you can see what might have led them to their (errorneous) position.

4. If people persistently press the same opinion on you, then say something like: “I’m sorry, but you’ve said this before and I don’t agree. Can we talk about something else?” If that doesn’t shut them up – and I’ve actually come across people who are unrebuffed – remove yourself from their presence. If necessary, forever.


*While searching for this quote, I came across several links contending that this passage shouldn’t be included because it wasn’t there in the original texts. Heh.