In Praise of Being Judgemental

Mary Berry thinks you've gone a bit crackers

My mother has often told the story of an ill-fated trip to the YMCA with me and my three siblings. After a hearty attempt to exhaust us in the swimming pool, my mother allowed us to sit with her in the community spa tub. While we were soaking, a woman with rather generous proportions joined us. One of my brothers, six at the time, with his only his raisin toes dipped in the water, gazed in consternation. Finally, he leaned in and said in a lispy stage whisper,

“Mom. That lady is fat.”

That day, my brother learned the many nuances of the word “rude.”

This habit of children telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is one that is rightly curbed by parents if for no other good reason that it will not go well with you in the land if you are constantly apprising people of their faults. But, there is something wholesome and necessary in practice of saying what is obvious, even if it is only to ourselves. Of coming to conclusions. Making judgements.

Judgement is a big ugly word in our culture. And for good reason! So much of our public (and personal!) discourse is shaped by name calling, intention blaming, and convenient other-ization. But, there are other reasons. In our individualistic culture we reserve the right not only to do everything we want, but to do it without the judgement of others. There is almost no individual more universally despised than the judgemental jerk. It doesn’t matter if you’re judgement is correct; mind your own business. In short: #DontJudge.

But what do we mean by “judging”?

My little dictionary app defines the word this way:

judgment |ˈjəjmənt|(also judgement )


1 the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.

This doesn’t sound so bad. One might even go so far as to say it is something we ought to do. Under this definition, judgement isn’t always just about people; it’s about decision making.

Children make judgements all the time.

Carrots are gross.

Strawberries are yummy.

Dad’s hair looks weird.

This book is boring.

Suzy is mean.

Or, as I was recently told by a disgruntled 4 year old, You never stop singing.

In Boundaries (Cloud and Townsend, 1992), the authors, both clinical psychologists, discuss the courageous (and sometimes obnoxious) stage of truth telling in young children. They stated that it was an important part of a child’s developmental process for two reasons: 1. It helped children develop a sense of separateness and self. 2. It develops the ability to say “no” and to protect themselves from danger, and to say “yes” and choose to engage in things that can give them delight and wholeness.

In short, this developmental stage teaches them to make judgements: considered decisions based on sensible conclusions.

Having the honesty to say “Joe is mean and scary” or “Martha is weird” may be the discretion that protects them from a deep and abiding harm.

I wonder sometimes if, as adults we have neglected this important safeguard.  Are we making considered decisions based on sensible conclusions? Or are we trying to avoid being rude?

Too many times I have allowed myself to get caught in sticky and harmful situations and relationships by not listening to my inner judgmental-jerk.

But there is the rub: we too often speak of judgement in entirely negative terms. I think this is because we conflate two kinds of judgement. In my mind I call them righteous judgement and self-righteous judgement.

Righteous judgement is the judgement of the book of Proverbs: it tells us what is wise, safe, and reasonable, and what is not. It is founded in the impartial workings of the universe; it speaks a language of choices and consequences. It tells us the ways things are. It protects us. Righteous judgement is based on discretion which is the trained— not inherent!— ability to parse out truth from falsehood and act accordingly. This sort of judgement looks at an ingrown relationship and says “this is not good or lifegiving. Something must be done.”

Self-righteous judgement is the judgement of the gossip. Like all vices, it is a virtue turned inward. Where righteous judgement seeks to tell the truth for the sake of health and holiness, self-righteous judgement tells a small truth to tear down others and build up the one who tells it. It is built on a presumption of innocence of the judger. It looks at an ingrown relationship and blames till its blue in the face, never wanting for a moment to look inward or admit culpability.

I think the essential difference is this: righteous judgement judges actions, self-righteous judgement judges characters. And ultimately, judging characters is up to God, not us (thank goodness).

I will readily admit, I all too often fall prey to self-righteous judgement. Humans are possessed of an infinite ability to justify their actions, and I am not immune. In fact, by personality I’m fabulous at blustering around with an agenda and a profound sense of my own correctness. However, as I’ve grown older and been through a few of my own tussles, I’ve come to learn deeply the need for a childlike veracity. I want to see as much of the truth as my cloudy eyes can muster so that I can make the best decisions I can. I want to let Wisdom teach me. I want to be open to the discernment and honest of others. I want to be kind and gentle and ever aware of my limitations, but I also want to make considered decisions based on sensible conclusions.

My brother had no malice in his heart on that fateful YMCA day. He didn't condemn her character or her person. He was only exhibiting his God-given ability to notice things and come to conclusions. But the really remarkable thing is that he said it in perfect humility; he did not feel in any way better by making his observation. And perhaps this is something we can learn from children: to be honest, to be judgmental, and all along to be humble about it. Because we can be rather silly too.

These are my meandering and unfinished thoughts on the matter. What do you think?

Readings to consider:

Proverbs 8-9

Boundaries (Cloud and Townsend, 1992)

Matthew 10:16