Who are you to judge…? These words, as so many others, don’t mean exactly what they mean, do they? Firstly, they are only so often meant as an actual question. Rather, they often suggest, “You should not be judging. You are not entitled to judge,” or some such thing. Secondly, the extent to which they are indeed signifying a question, it is one with only two possible answers: (i) “No one, you’re right”; or (ii) a bit of biographical detail intended as a warrant (“Well, it just so happens that my mother was a such-and-such…”). An answer like, “A human being!” is typically seen as arrogant or dismissive or ignorant. But this answer, too, hides further meaning. Often if “Who are you to judge?” is replied with “A human being,” this reply implies a dismissal of the supposed exclusivity of the matter in question. Bigoted terminology is one example of such a sensitive subject. Should I be excluded from the conversation sparked by Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent tweet? Or ought I not even want to be part of the discussion? Etc. “I’m a human being!” would, in this context, mean that this topic is open to everyone, and would imply a criticism of the view that there should be any question of its openness. (As it happens, I’m unconcerned with Paltrow’s tweet, and I don’t think being human is unto itself a good reason to join the discussion, to say the least.)
But, as is my wont, I’d like to read this bit of dialogue more literally and see what comes of it.
Thankfully, context is unimportant in this imaginative reading, so we can go ahead and just focus on the ideal two-part dialogue: Who are you to judge? I am a human being. (N.B. Here I’ll use “human being,” a common term in this sort of back and forth, interchangeably with ‘person.’ If I seem imprecise with these terms, let me know and let’s discuss in the comments.)
Here the question is meant literally, and the response is spoken in earnest, as a real answer to a plain question. What would it mean for being “a human being” to be a sufficient qualification for being “one to judge”? In my view, this says two interrelated things, about the question, and about being a person.
The question seeks a qualification or justification. The answer circles back onto the question and suggests that anyone to whom the question can be asked is already qualified, because being a person entails having the qualifications to judge, at least abstractly. Actually, with regard to the question it suggests a qualification, but with regard to itself the answer suggests an obligation. Here I am perhaps moving beyond the mere literal meaning (if I haven’t already done so), as I hear a certain fatalism implied by the answer: “How could I not but judge, given that I am a human being?” In other words, it’s just what we do. We are all qualified to judge in the sense that we can help but judge.
This brings us back to the question in context. In practice the question does not allow for such an answer. “I’m a human being” is unacceptable not because it is arrogant or ignorant, but because the question is basically meaningless without the context (as are all words). In context, the question is focused on the step after judgment, when said judgment is expressed by words or gestures or in one’s eyes. If you look at your friend a certain way, she may rightfully ask, “Oh, who are you to judge?” pointing out certain hypocrisy of which you are guilty merely by interpreting your judgment of her via a certain look in your eyes.
To say we judge naturally is maybe already straying too far from an even more ominous truth: we are our judging. (I wonder if this is maybe too Kantian of me… Ah, what the hell. He was onto something, after all ;)
Limited freedom, in this view, is once again possible by means of interpretation. For now, suffice it to say, in any given situation, you can bet that I am indeed judging. That doesn’t mean I think it’s okay to be accepting and expressive of each and every judgment. Part of my goal in life is not a silencing of them, but a kind of letting go of them. It takes time and space and care (and thinking!) to judge our judgments (well). But how can we begin to be free if we are incapable of such a thing?