Passing judgement on others

Victoria Coren in today’s Observer wrote in a very interesting article about feminism and the recent Slut Walkers. However, while the article is interesting in-itself, I wanted to pick and highlight a part where she wrote about being a juror:

I’ve been a juror. They never want to convict anyone of anything. They’re so terrified of “reasonable doubt” that they switch off common sense. I sat on one case where… I’ll change the details, but it was the equivalent of a man buying a gun and my fellow jurors saying: “But how can we be 100% certain he wasn’t acquiring it as a makeshift spoon to stir a soup? Anything’s possible. We’d better acquit.”

I highlight this because I too have been a juror and like she did, I ran into similar difficulties with some of the other jurors. The truth is that you can never be certain about these things and the defendant’s lawyer was keen to stress that point – he levied against us a huge wash of arguments to promote doubt. In the end, dissenting voices were convinced otherwise and the defendant was convicted of the crimes he was said to have committed. In the end you have to be reasonable – and no reasonable doubt existed.


What’s interesting is that passing judgement on people is something we do everyday. You see someone walking down the street and you analyse their demeanour, clothes, hair style, shoes, etc. You read an article online and decide whether that person is making a good or bad argument for their case. You’re reading this now and you’re judging me.

What’s also interesting is that these judgements are often so very easy to make. The advice my parents gave me when it came to talking about other people is that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

Furthermore, with this ease comes a lot less social stigma around doing so. It’s funny really – you often hear people saying about how they “speak their mind” and “don’t hold back” and yet this only leaves me to wonder “when did tact became such a bad thing?” and “why is it now considered socially acceptable to hurt each other’s feelings?”

Not guilty

Of course, not everyone is innocent of this crime, myself included. I pass judgement on people just as easily as other people do. I’ve often done it and, upon realising that no one was going to chime in to share my view, immediately regretted it. It’s easy to do it and, sometimes, to get away with it. Only rarely do people call you on it. On the flip side, you could say that there is nothing wrong with “telling it like it is” – it’s the truth and often people need to hear the truth.

Perhaps, then, you could conflate acquiescence and acceptability – perhaps people are silent because they secretly agree with you. The first step to correcting a problem is identifying it – demarcating it from the familiar and shining it in the spotlight. It’s often a brave person who has the confidence to stand up and say something is wrong – most people just carry on, hoping for someone else to “be that guy”.

But you’d have to question – beforehand – whether what you’re saying is really a problem that needs to be highlighted. For example, I’m overweight but being reminded of it constantly could be devastating to my self-esteem; sure it might be spur to me to do something about it but who’s place is it to make such a comment? Why is it anybody else’s business?

Your honour

I suppose the only real thing we can garner from this is that it is up to individuals to consider what they’re saying and the impact it may have. “Think before you speak” is an excellent moral to follow and if people followed that then a lot less impulsive and crude things would be said. Tact, I think, is good.

It often reflects poorly on the speaker when they something negative about someone. But someone is often required to stand up and say things that challenges the status quo and it’s often a relief when someone says what everyone’s thinking. The real trick is not just saying whatever comes into your head but rather refining your personal filter to ensure only the right things get through.

Those with a concerned conscience about these things pick up on a ‘wrong’ thing to say and remember it – a judgement about someone else often becomes a judgement about you. A good example of this is the film Mean Girls, which is actually not just a ‘teen movie’ but a cleverly written commentary on the effect of the things we say about each other. In the end, all the girls are brought together to admit to and apologise for the things they have said about each other. It’s an extremely cathartic moment but one that could have been avoided if they had just thought about what they were saying in the first place.

Judging people should be tough – like being on a jury. It should be about you weighing up your opinion and its necessity. I think if we all took a little extra time to do it, we’d make better choices and we’d end up saying nicer things to each other.