Friday, September 30, 2016

The Size of Judgment

I won’t judge you for your lifestyle—just for the way you hang the toilet paper.

So—with a touch more pith and punch—runs one popular social media meme.  The first time I saw it I chuckled in spite of myself; after that my instinctive reaction has been to shudder.  Like much adroit modern rhetoric, the meme captures an undeniable truth and serves it up with that soupçon of humor which rarely fails to make truth more flattering to the intelligent mind.  This is what makes memes effective, not necessarily in convincing anyone else, but in persuading oneself and ones already simpatico friends of the wisdom of ones’ collective ways and ideals.

The truth in the meme here—I do think it is altogether true—is that there is a certain human tendency, perhaps exacerbated by postmodernity, to find fault with others not for their real sins but only for their less egregious flaws.  Even the word “sins” I am using somewhat facetiously—perhaps “faults” would better express my meaning.  Let me take what I consider to be an innocent and uncontroversial example.  If Mrs. Jennings suffers from a habitual disregard for other people’s privacy, invading their bedrooms at any and all hours to regale them with information which she is sure (not inaccurately) to be of interest, and expecting (with somewhat less accuracy) to be the recipient of dear and personal secrets in return—if, I say, Mrs. Jennings has this habit and so imposes upon you, it is unlikely that you will in fact directly confront her with a formal accusation of this, her severest and most deeply-rooted fault.  If you must take out your frustration on Mrs. Jennings—or if, in the course or ordinary conversation, you merely wishes to twit her with something—you will rather point to something else: to her habit of wearing bonnets rather larger than is the fashion, or her tendency to talk a great deal of her grandson.  Faults such as these you cannot (unless Mrs. Jennings is very touchy indeed) be faulted for noticing; indeed, if she and or you are clever enough about the game, they may be turned, with or without your consciously intending it, into a sort of compliment to herself, and so increase your mutual pleasure in the interaction.

So it is, to descend into the present day, with the toilet paper.  I have never met a person with whom the topic has arisen …

I cannot say it has arisen frequently, but looking back
I find it rather more stalkish a subject than I would have expected;
and am embarrassed before the shade of Mrs. Jennings at the consideration.

… who has not been positively proud of the way they hang it.  On a topic of no particular importance, we take tremendous delight in defending our decisions to face back or face front; we concoct—nay, I must think we possess, given the strength with which we adhere to them—elaborate arguments for the position we (or should I say our tissue du bathe?) have taken up, and will not budge from them come hell or high water.  And we are not afraid, as we would not be of Mrs. Jennings’s bonnet, to notice these little discrepancies in other people, and to wag our heads and fingers at them for their differences.  But a difference of opinion which might have real consequences we are much more reluctant to voice.

Now part of this might be mere charity.  We quite rightly do not want to upset Mrs. Jennings (we would not, even if we were not staying in her house); and so if she were the sort of person who is truly and heartbreakingly addicted to being fashionable, we would not breathe a word about her too-big bonnet.  And we would be quite right to keep mum in the matter.  Likewise, if someone …

Perhaps an OCD person? the sort whose sink always looks like this?
or one who is addicted to keeping their bathroom pet-and-child-proof, 
who feels acute terror when a flaw is discerned in their otherwise perfect plan?

—I say, likewise if such a person would truly be distressed by realizing that you disagreed with them about the hanging of their bathroom tissue, it would be kind to avoid the topic altogether.

But I think there is something more dangerous than kindness afoot.  We have become a very discriminating society.  We are full of little judgements about things which are of no particular matter, from toilet paper to the difference between a Graco SnugRidge 30 and a Graco SnugRide 35 …

Does it really matter?  really, truly?
Please don’t tell me if so; I’ve already bought mine.

… to the precise SPF of the sunscreen we slather on ourselves vs. on our three-year-olds.  I do not mean that we are especially careful as a society.  Our spelling and punctuation are in general atrocious, as any teacher of college Freshmen will allow; and the evidence of alarming and consistent decreases in our critical thinking abilities is apparent with every new election season.  But if we are not careful, we are precise: when we decide something tickles our fancy, whether it be a Pinterest page or a recipe for perfectly organic vegan granola bars, we become the most stick-in-the-mud sticklers on earth, curators worthy of the Metropolitan.  We are experts and connoisseurs of small judgements, but we will not venture to large ones.  Indeed, it might be said that the greater a modern person’s judgment, the smaller their judgments will be supposed to be; for any man capable of extending himself to judgements in the truly great and consequential things of life—any man willing to judge for himself, let alone for others, concerning what really matters; and to speak as if human beings were creatures with a true nature, capable of discerning and of navigating the roads to (and indeed able to in some sense merit) heaven and hell—well, a man who has the effrontery to pretend to be able to even approach such judgments—is judged to be a man of no judgment whatsoever.

This is why, although it is both funny and true to suggest that I judge friends not on their lifestyles but on how they drape certain choice bathroom accoutrements, I am finding it less and less funny and wishing more and more that it were not true.  I rather wish that I had the courage to tell Mrs. Jennings that it is a bad habit to come bursting into people’s rooms and injecting herself into their lives (no, I am not unaware of the irony in the example which I have chosen).  And I rather wish I had more courage than I do in making known my real opinions about what used to be called Christian morality.

I do not mean that I think ought to be confronting my ideologically diverse acquaintance with the fact of our substantial disagreements at every corner.  That would be fruitless.  The only point of such confrontation is to make some impression on the other party’s mind, such as might potentially aid in stimulating some alteration of their life; the prudence of charity thus dictates that such confrontations should only occur when one judges that there may be some hope of coming off as moderately rational, even if not wholly persuasive.  Mrs. Jennings is perhaps not best confronted when she is already in your bedroom.  But is it always prudence that counsels me to keep my mouth shut and my fingers on the scroll bar?  Or is it not, half the time at least, a fear of being judged for having exceeded the purportedly limited capacities of my all-too-human human judgment?

As a matter of conscience, I fear the answer to that question is up to me—and likewise to you, dear reader, mon frère.  For however large these verboten contraband lifestyle judgments are considered to be, they are nothing at all compared to the really big judgments, in which one attempts to discern malice or acedia, zeal or goodwill, the intentions of one’s own heart.  So I leave you—by which I really mean myself—not with a judgment but an exhortation:

Be not afraid.

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