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On Judgment, Part II

I know historians can always find examples of past U.S. elections full of hostile speech and noxious personal attacks. And yes, the republic survived, even thrived in the wake of such intemperate displays by its leaders and those who wished to lead. But in my lifetime I’ve never seen election season rhetoric devolve to such radioactively hateful extremes. It’s so easy to become depressed by the tides of venomous judgment sweeping through our culture. Sometimes we might find ourselves making things worse by participating in acid exchanges, in person or online, trading indictments and insults.  Even when we stay silent, our minds can become polluted with gripes and beefs and a bloated sense of our own righteousness.

It’s a soul-twisting dilemma. Just to function in the world, we have to make so many judgments. We want to choose the right friends, the right romantic partners, the best mentors and business associates and yes, political leaders. We want to avoid getting bamboozled. We also want to become better, kinder, more honest people. All these goals require routine assessment of other people’s words and behavior—and our own.

But then others behave in so many ways we disapprove of, even ways we deplore. They say and do things that, according to our lights, make the world harsher, more hard-boiled, a less fair, less free place. Our minds react by complaining about how people aren’t behaving as they should—whether we can influence that behavior or not.

It’s good to advocate for those treated unfairly, to campaign for greater justice and harmony and prosperity and health. But when we see people acting at cross purposes to those ends—at least that’s how they appear to us—indignation burns in our gut, inflames our thoughts and embitters our speech.

Righteous anger has its place. It red-flags injustice and fuels efforts to restore balance. Channeled wisely, tempered by humility and kindness, it can motivate admirable work and lead to positive outcomes. But it can also metastasize into rancor that tramples self-awareness and rains enmity down even on friends.

It’s so hard to be happy when your heart fills with umbrage or resentment, asperity or spite. And when our caustic judgments spill out into the world, they feed so much chaos and disharmony and division.

So what can we do about this?

Scrutiny of our own flawed judgment is a good place to start. Lots of social science research has shown that our moral thinking—everyone’s—brims with hypocrisy and self-serving bias. Moral judgments arise first as gut feelings, and then our rational mind rushes in like Perry Mason, assembling arguments to justify those intuitions. Employing what psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” we launch a one-sided search for supporting evidence.

If you watch your own tendency to confirm your biases, and start looking for even modest evidence against some cherished opinions, you’ll be turning your mental burner down while casting a friendlier eye toward people who disagree with you. Your beliefs and arguments will likely become more balanced and persuasive as well.

It also helps to remember our own moral shortfalls. Jesus famously advised people to stop looking for specks of sawdust in their neighbor’s eyes and take the logs out of their own instead. If you grow up Christian, such gospel advice can come to seem like so much grayed, pious cultural wallpaper. The sour moralism saturating some churches can swamp the message, too. So it’s easy to miss the surreal humor of the carpenter’s son counseling us to work on ourselves like ophthalmological lumberjacks. Flannery O’Connor said that when you want to reach people who are going deaf you have to shout, and if they’re losing their sight, you draw large and startling pictures. Given how blind we can be to our own faults, it’s not surprising that Jesus chose such a comically exaggerated image.

But the metaphor also offers appealing nuance. Having wrested some large and craggy timber from my irises, I know it can hurt. It can send tears down your cheeks, hot shame into your heart. But remorse really clears your vision, too. It’s easier then to make out the spirit behind the face in the mirror, the clumsy fallibility under all that moral posturing. The space-time filaments and subtle strands of soul connecting you to the rest of us errant pilgrims pop out like bright webbing in the light of frank self-knowledge.

Notice also that Jesus doesn’t tell us to take that log and start whacking ourselves upside the head. Excessive guilt just curdles into narcissism. No need for a deep dive into memories that drown you in shame. A quick dip in the currents of your imperfections should loosen your grasp on judgment, quench the burning itch you felt to cast stones.

Recognize your flaws, feel the sting, then apply the salve of self-forgiveness—it’s a powerful regimen. It ventilates the judgment-glutted mind, pours light and vigor into your pursuits. It kindles peace in the heart, patience with others. It helps you dial down the harm in the world while ramping up the harmony.

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