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Wed Feb 29, 2012, 06:44 PM

Dancing around judgment of differing beliefs and opinions

Last edited Tue Jan 29, 2013, 05:56 PM - Edit history (1)

I have serious doubts when many people champion the idea of "not judging" that they're really as free from making judgments about the beliefs and opinions of others as they'd like to appear, or as they might like to believe themselves to be.

Keeping judgments quietly to yourself doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Adding disclaimers like "I could be wrong" doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Avoiding an overlap between judging an opinion or belief in particular and judging the person who holds that opinion or belief in general doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Blithely saying "whatever gets you through the night" is not an avoidance of judgment. You might think you're avoiding judging the character of a person that way, but you're taking what could well be strongly held beliefs and judging them to be nothing more than a coping strategy. I think it's actually much more respectful to treat others as having opinions worthy of debate than to treat them as children in need of a security blanket that you're oh-so-generously trying to not to upset.

Matters of personal taste aside, what is an opinion if not a judgment that some idea or conclusion is superior in some manner, more likely correct, more moral, or more justifiable than differing opinions. Opinions do not exist in isolation from other opinions, they exist in contrast to other opinions.

Consider a non-religious example:

It is my opinion that global warming is a real phenomena, and that human activity is a major cause of it.

I therefore believe that the opposite IS WRONG (gasp! shudder!). Believing that the opposite is wrong isn't a matter of me going out of my way to be judgmental, it isn't some special effort that I could avoid even if I wanted to avoid it, it's simply a totally obvious and integrally connected conclusion, like knowing that if the sun is up, then the sun isn't down.

Am I absolutely, 100% certain that I'm right? No. I consider there to be a very small chance I'm wrong, which means there's a small chance that those who disagree with me are right. Judging myself highly likely to be right, and others highly likely to be wrong is, however, still a judgmental stand on the worthiness of the opinions of those who disagree with me.

If I believe that climate denialism is wrong, then in the one respect, on that one issue, I believe that the people holding that view are wrong, that the denialists are wrong. Yes, I dare to say out loud that I think other people are wrong, and that I am right. One conclusion follows the other. No special effort, no particular penchant for being judgmental is required. A kind-hearted desire for being diplomatic wouldn't change this, even if it might change the carefully chosen words of diplomacy.

Having any opinions at all beyond matters of personal taste inherently implies some kind of negative attitude toward the opinions of others which are in disagreement with your own opinions.

By the way, none of the above has the slightest thing to do with anyone's right to hold differing opinions. That should be totally obvious, but sadly people constantly blur the distinction between respecting other people's right to hold different opinions and respecting those opinions themselves. Criticize X on the internet, and the odds quickly approach 100% the more you criticize X that someone will indignantly cry out how people have the right to believe X if they want to! (And leave Britney alone!)

What was that I said about the sun before? If it's up, then it isn't down? Did I forget that the sun can be up in the sky in one place while being down in another? No, I did not forget that. The question is this: Do you think that this caveat really makes a deep difference about what's right and what's wrong, or do you realize that in many contexts that such caveats are merely semantics games?

While it might often be a good and useful thing to point out that the validity of some opinions depends on unstated assumptions (like that we're talking about the same location on the planet) the fact that one view is right and another is flat out wrong remains, once you make sufficiently explicit any unstated assumptions and conditions. Right and wrong cannot remain infinitely plastic and personalized on all issues in anything but a through-the-looking-glass world, a world in which normal human functioning and interactions would be impossible.

You can try to duck the apparently horrible, unforgivable act of judging the opinions of others by trying to turn all issues into personal issues, as if believing in God or not is no different a matter than preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. I contend that such an approach, however, is itself a kind of judgment, a diminution of the importance of the opinions of others for the people who hold those opinions, a diminution many of those people are not likely to appreciate.

Besides, if you don't treat opinions on global warming as mere matters of personal taste, or as if some weird metaphysics applies where global warming deniers live in an alternate universe where climate change isn't actually happening, why treat issues of religion that way?

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Wed Feb 29, 2012, 08:04 PM

1. An opinion is an approximation of what is, with insufficient data. It shoudn't be an attitude.


This flowchart, from an atheist group, is overly specific to their subject but, for me, a good guideline.

If your "opinion" isn't open to this kind of debate, it isn't an opinion, but a religious belief or an article of faith. Which get treated quite differently than opinions. You change an opinion with data. You change faith with emotional experience.

My own position is that "not judging" is an utter crock, in the sense that we always judge in reality, it's just a fundamental mechanism that human minds use, and not judging is as unlikely a phenomenon as not thinking - and I mean the whole mind not thinking, not the meditation technique of quieting your self-reflective mind to hear the other stuff. The other stuff is thinking too, and it ALL has to shut up before you can say you're not thinking (i.e. in a coma, not even hallucinating or dreaming). Likewise, not to judge would be not to discriminate - by ANY criteria. Not race, or gender, but live/dead, friend/stranger, employee/customer - ALL of these are forms of discrimination - people are treated differently based on what category they belong to.

The trick with judging is to not imagine your judgments to have any more significance or scope than they do. If someone's religion is fucked, that's one person, not one religion. If one nation's worth of religious people is fucked, that's one nation, not the whole world. If yo like or dislike something, you are you, and not a representative of a demographic. The royal "we" has no place in your judgments, nor does the "is of identity".

OF COURSE people don't all have the right to believe what they want. Airplane pilots do not have the right to believe in the flat earth theory, while taxi drivers do. Geologists do not have the right to reject plate tectonics, while plastics engineers do. Police officers do not have the right to believe in child abuse as a control technique, but ministers do.

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Response to saras (Reply #1)

Wed Feb 29, 2012, 08:24 PM

2. I'd express the right to believe (even stupid, crazy things) in a different way

I think of fundamental rights as attributes of people, not attributes of the roles that people assume. A person has a right to believe in a flat earth. The people who run airlines and enforce air safety simultaneously have the right to consider that belief a disqualification for allowing that person to become or remain a pilot.

Not all rights can be exercised free of all negative consequences. While rights are more protected than mere privileges, in practice few rights can be considered absolute, particularly where one person's rights conflict with another's. The right of hundreds of people to travel safely exceeds the right of a person believing in a flat earth to work as a pilot.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 12:49 AM

3. The word "judgment" has two broad categories of meaning


The first meaning relates to evaluation, discernment or assessment. This meaning is oriented toward reaching a factual conclusion based on observations. We all do this. So long as we remember that all such conclusions are provisional and depend on the validity of our observations, it presents no real problem.

The more problematic meaning is that of approval or condemnation - especially the latter. I tend not to judge peoples' beliefs, but rather their actions. If someone behaves well - charitably, helpfully, lovingly - then I don't care if their motivation springs from a belief in inclusive fitness or a belief in heaven and hell. If someone behaves harmfully or hatefully, I don't care if they believe in eternal salvation or social Darwinism. Their actions are the important thing.

Yet even when someone behaves poorly I tend to cut them a lot of slack. This is because I believe in the value of compassion - I follow the advice, "Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." Learning how to cut people slack is an ongoing process, because I have spent over 50 years operating from judgment and so far only a handful operating from compassion.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #3)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 01:14 AM

4. A major point of the OP is that people blur those two meanings...

...of judgment quite a bit, not just in how they talk about contentious issues like religion, but in how they think about such issues and how they think disagreement should be handled.

The result is a lot of people getting judgmental in the condemnation sense about other people exercising judgment in the evaluation sense, offering sanctimonious advice and mind-numbing platitudes, recommending mental gymnastics which make no sense and which they themselves are incapable of performing.

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #4)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 01:22 AM

5. That offers a wonderful opportunity:


The chance to use such situations as a mirror to let us look inward and discover how we share those same shortcomings. The practice of compassion always begins by extending it to oneself.

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #4)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 08:59 AM

6. One other point that might be helpful


Itís very difficult to change someone elseís behaviour. When people are judgmental, closed-minded or stupid, we have a natural tendency to get annoyed. We blame them, rail against them, exhort them to change their attitudes, call them names, accuse them of nefarious conversational behaviour etc. The problem is that this gets us upset and in most cases does absolutely nothing to change their attitudes, beliefs or behaviour. So whatís the point of doing that? Do we like getting upset?

In fact I did used to be addicted to outrage, because it affirmed my sense of being right and cemented my membership in a community of those who thought like me. The problem was that it also fostered a sense of my own victimhood Ė I was reacting to the behaviour of others and was no longer master of my own ship. Eventually I got tired of being a victim. I realized that if I stopped becoming outraged I would no longer e letting others drive my emotional bus. So I quit reacting to others with judgment and outrage.

The short form is that you canít change others, you can only change yourself.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #6)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 01:11 PM

7. Sure you can change others

Not reliably, maybe not as intended, but if no change at all was possible, why bother communicating at all?

In the past decade support for gay marriage has gone from a minority position to a majority position. That's people changing other people.

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #7)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 01:25 PM

8. Nope. People change themselves if they want to.


Last edited Thu Mar 1, 2012, 01:57 PM - Edit history (1)

The most we can do is put out reasons why a different approach might be preferable. What people do with the info is up to them. Communication is valuable, but pounding on people over your perceptions of their psychological deficiencies is about the most pointless form of non-communication there is.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #8)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 01:55 PM

9. That's like saying the electricity doesn't light the lamp...

...the lamp has to light itself -- which, now that I say it, is something I can easily imagine being spouted as "wisdom" by some self-proclaimed new-agey guru.

Changes in people are a process, a chain of events. Your decision to focus on what happens inside a person doesn't make other parts of that chain of events, the external parts that lead up to an internal change, less important.

Exposure to new ideas doesn't happen if other people keep their ideas to themselves. And it's hardly a proven fact that only the most gentle, non-challenging introductions to new ideas work, or even that such delicacy is always the best way.

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #9)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 02:01 PM

10. As you said, change isn't guaranteed.


Communication is valuable, nobody changes without being exposed to different information. But unless they're willing to accept it, nothing happens. Look at all the climate change deniers.

My point is that it's pointless to get pissed off or talk down to people who insist on hanging onto positions you disagree with. The only person you can guarantee to affect by doing that is yourself.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #10)

Thu Mar 1, 2012, 07:54 PM

11. Good thing I don't feel a need for guarantees. n/t

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