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Thou Shall Not Judge, Yet We Continue to Judge

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

Most of us will agree judging people leads to so much suffering in this world. Dr. John Gottman discovered from his early experiment of couples that contempt is the strongest predictor of divorce and dissatisfaction in relationships. We also judge people on scales of attractiveness, intelligence, ranking in the community, sense of humor, maturity, confidence, strength, kindness, and patience. Everyone wants to be judged in a way that generates pleasant feelings, and gets upset when they perceive the judgment is negative.

Moral teachers and philosophers have been contemplating this problem for a long time. They teach us not to judge. From the Bible, Matthew 7: 1-5 "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." However, we will use the above non-judging principal to judge others for judging. We can easily see other people judging, but it is almost impossible to see that in ourselves. It is an innate blind spot we all have.

I am writing this piece out of my brokenness, not my wisdom. While I was putting together this article, I found myself in a situation where I made a judgment about this site's collaborator. At the time, I was completely unaware of my bias and assumptions. That unfortunately led to a heated argument with hurt feelings and suffering.

A long time ago, I would not have caught myself having a bias and making a false judgment, and would be certain of my rightness. When confronted, I would have dug deeper by collecting data to support my point of view. Fortunately, I began to awaken from my misconceptions, after many failed relationships due to my false sense of righteousness. Now, this process actually helps me to be compassionate to others who still see themselves as primarily righteous in their beliefs, because realizing that what you think is 'true' may not be is actually quite painful and confusing. You have a momentary sense of losing who you are and that can be very disconcerting and maybe even depressing.

Sadly, understanding one's biases does not lead to freedom from creating pain. Now, I have gone from judging other people to judging myself. In our society, we see so many moral teachings shaming people who are biased and judgmental. We make mistakes, thinking shame can change people's automatic pilot and biases. So, I had to go through a period of being very angry with myself and tried to use my will power not to judge others, but ended up judging myself. I did not understand why after knowing how wrong it is, I could not stop myself from judging.

Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology eventually helped me to understand the nature of our biases. The biases we all have are called implicit biases. They are like automatic pilots and assist us to make very quick decisions without our awareness. They are like algorithms helping Homo Sapiens to survive and reproduce. Anthropologists, Evolutionary Psychologists and even Primatologists show that those quick gut level instincts helped our hunting/gathering ancestors to thrive in their world. They had to make super quick judgments to escape from danger and acquire food. Self reflection and actualization would have gotten them killed.

I wrote the above paragraph to help us understand that having implicit biases does not make us bad people. They are a functional product from a time of our species development. For example, when our hunting/gathering ancestors found sugar, salt and fat, they were programmed to over consume in order to store that energy for later use due to the scarcity of those food items. Without that programming, they would not have survived long enough to produce us. The problem is now that same programming is the leading cause of our health problems. It is now creating much pain and suffering.

In order to stop judging myself for judging, I am looking into the mechanics of judging instead of the morality of judging. Instead of repeating the old tools of using will-power and shame to stop myself from judging, I am learning to first acknowledge that most of my judgment and decision making process is UNCONSCIOUS, beyond my awareness.

Second, is to gradually adapt to the pain and confusion of that discovery. Most people stay unaware due to the fear of losing their sense of identity.

Third, is to remember having those implicit biases does not make someone immoral. It reminds me of Step 4 in Alcoholics Anonymous, "make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." A very difficult step, but a necessary step for growth.

The last step is to open yourself to overriding your instincts, emotions, gut-feeling, and certainty in order to begin to develop clarity.

Joshua Greene, in his book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, stated "The human brain is like a dual-mode camera with both automatic settings and a manual mode." Your phone camera is mostly operated by the automatic settings, and most of the time, your pictures turn out very good. However, when we get ourselves into complex situations like blurring the background, doing macro photography, capturing the light how your eyes see it instead of automatic corrections, and so on, we need to learn to use the manual mode. It is time consuming to learn the manual mode because each situation requires a unique combination of aperture, speed, and ISO.

The analogy of comparing our programmed instincts to the automatic setting on a camera is not perfect because our technologies keep improving the automatic setting of our cameras, but our biological instincts have not had an update for more than 70,000 years. So, we have to be a little patient with ourselves.

For us to deal with the most complex modern social environments, we have to be honest with ourselves about the unconscious ways we judge. It is not as simple as just telling people and ourselves not to judge. Scientists have discovered our bias in judgment starts as early as age three without parental nor cultural influences. Little children randomly choose to belong to the orange group or the green group. Later on they're asked questions about characters wearing either orange or green. The young children judge positively of people who wear the colors of their group.

The first step for me is to let go of my certainty that I am not judgmental. We can easily see other people as judgmental, but not ourselves because it is programmed in an unconscious way. It is not about fixing other people's mistakes of judging, but mine. Yet, I have to be compassionate with myself, knowing that my biases were at one time functional, but no longer serve me in modern society. Knowing that biases do not make me a bad person prevents me from being defensive. Most of us feel terrible when others point out our biases. We feel disrespected and dishonored by that person and therefore become angry, defensive, and argumentative as to the reasons why we are not biased.

As I said before, the process of confronting our implicit biases is very difficult, but not impossible. While writing this paper, I have to be consistent with the basic premise that I am by nature judgmental and biased. Even the point of view of this article is probably biased in some way that I am not aware of. I have to be open minded with it. For those who disagree, my instinct is to fight you, but eventually I will learn to listen to you.


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