Who are you…

13 June 2012

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?

2 Responses to “Who are you…”

  1. Micah Says:

    Whether or not we should or should not be judgmental, engage in judgmental speech, or freely express those judgments in a long studied attempt at spiritual freedom are all interesting questions that I am glad to read and think about.  But one component of the accusatory question in question is that, in my experience, it is distinctly not an attempt to engage in a discussion of any or all of those questions at all. What I find when I hear such a thing leveled at me (I cannot remember a single discussion, debate, or argument where I leveled it at someone else) it is a fallacious non sequitur expression of righteous indignation, and a thoroughly transparent conversation killing-phrase by someone who’s having their opinion shaken by the accused in a manner that is disquieting to the accuser. 
    In short, I find that those who speak those words are losing the argument, and are trying to retreat behind the social nicety (I would say burden) of intellectual tolerance.  A sister phrase to the one in question is more honest: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion!”   Two other such phrases, more distant relatives, that I have found:  “Well, everything is relative,” and “You can’t really know anything.”
    I think all of these phrases are philosophical premises worth exploring, but they are not intended as philosophical premises at all, let alone reasoned arguments, when expressed in conversation.  This conclusion escaped me for many years, and I lost more than one friend when I persevered into the breech created by these conversation killing pieces of social artillery.  They are all social signals that are arguing not the issue at hand, but demanding that the speaker be allowed to exit the discussion without further self-reflection concerning, or consideration for the view they oppose.   
    Perhaps they have no inclination to continue the discussion.  And perhaps they are out of time.  Perhaps they are merely employing an all too human (by which I mean socially constructed, language based) way to save face in a discussion that has gotten out of control.  Or maybe it is merely the coward’s way out of a discussion under the superiority of the accused judge’s ability to debate.   But who am I to judge? 
    The near-solidified synaptic pathways of an adult mind are often ruptured only with great psychic pain often in the form of trauma, and I suppose it would behoove me to be more tolerant of other’s precious held beliefs regardless of how ridiculous, destructive, or grotesque I find them.   But, then,  I am a human being!   If I can’t fight for my own precious held beliefs against those I find anathema to goodness and virtue, than what the fuck am I doing in this life?  

    • jqmarks Says:

      Micah, as ever, I appreciate your take on things. Here I am in complete agreement. I especially appreciate the sister/cousin phrases to “Who are you to judge?” that you identify. I was thinking of putting an exclamation point in with the question mark when quoting that phrase, but I decided to try and take a tiny bit of the venom out of it.

      I think, outside the context of a conversation, it’s fun sometimes to think about the things people say and find ways of reinterpreting what strike me as common destructive, distancing phrases in ways that potentially offer something of value. As you say, these defensive statements are also interesting philosophical premises. So in a space like this we can set aside the real intention with which they are usually spoken and maybe come upon something interesting by looking into them.

      But fond as I am of doing this, your comment reminds me of the far more important question: is there anything productive we can do with them in conversation? I think of similar occasions on which people say one set of words but mean something else. I don’t mean irony, I mean something more along the lines of expressing a judgment via a question. (“I don’t like your haircut” via “Are you going to cut your hair?”) There’s what I think of as the level of what’s being emotionally conveyed and the level of what’s being verbally expressed. I think answering the question is already a failure on our part (which compounds the failure on the part of our interlocutor). Sometimes it actually works to call attention to what’s being conveyed, to turn the focus back onto the questioner and the questioner’s feelings (“Are you asking, or are you just telling me you want me to?”), depending on the way we go about this and who the questioner is and what our relationship is like. But other times it’s harder to see a way in. Often enough what’s being conveyed is unclear to us, masked as it is by what’s being verbally expressed and by the tensions and distractions of the relationship and situation. Sometimes I find that I know there’s something more important, more intimate, being conveyed, but that I just can’t figure out what it is or how to turn the focus of the conversation on it. Sometimes I’m too defensive or angry to do so. Sometimes I feel like I’m able to ask the right counter-question, but it doesn’t go over well at all, and I’m forced to wonder whether I could’ve done something better, or if my friend was just not interested in what I was offering.

      I think I’m starting to meander a bit. But my point is, okay, yes, it’s true that when these sorts of things are uttered the motivation behind them is often, generally speaking, to end the conversation. To end the challenge, whatever it is. But I have two questions here. First, isn’t it possible that in some instances the impulse to say such things, even to end the conversation, is appropriate? Sometimes I think there is more than just “I can’t deal with this challenge!” being expressed by “Who are you to judge?” And in those instances it may be more along the lines of my example above (“Are you going to cut your hair?”) than yours (“Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”) in the sense that the underlying motivation is in some way a reaching out rather than a closing off, but that there was a failure in recognition and expression…? What I mean is, when someone asks with a nasty tone, “Are you going to cut your hair?” I believe there really is (often enough) a desire to connect pathetically trying to reach out through that condescending expression. Context would help me better explain that, but I’ve gone on long enough so I’ll just leave it as a suggestion. I wonder if “Who are you to judge?” isn’t sometimes like that.

      Which leads to the second question: if it is sometimes like that, how in the world does one respond to it so as to reach back out towards that desire to connect? This question is insufficient on its own, though, for “Who are you to judge?” sometimes is a kind of contrapuntal complement of “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” (and anyway, sometimes people say things like “Everyone’s entitled…”), and how do we respond in that situation? Mercifully, there is no law anywhere that says that we must always respond to everything anyone says and always aim at bringing the conversation back to an intimate, productive place. It’s okay, really, we can just apologize for any offense and relieve ourselves of the discussion. Thus a final question comes to mind: How do we better judge when it would be worthwhile to respond to statements like “Who are you to judge?”?

      In the end, I think unpacking the venom from these kinds of things may help later on, “in the moment.” But I think there’s more work to do, to. I, as I suspect you may be, am not terribly swayed by calls to tolerance. I’d rather understand than tolerate, personally. I’d also rather not too easily allow the kind of arrogant certitude that I think a stance of tolerance can sometimes imply. But there’s got to be a middle ground between tolerating beliefs we “find anathema to goodness and virtue” and fighting against them. Personally, fighting them seems more productive than tolerating them. But sometimes something resembling tolerance is probably more appropriate, more compassionate, and even more productive for ourselves and our own beliefs. What is that something resembling tolerance? Is it silence? Patience? Earnest interest? I’m not sure.


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