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We are a society awash in exculpatory strategies. We’ve devised lots of fascinating ways to let ourselves or others off the hook: all one need do is think of recent, well-publicized trials to appreciate the truth of this. We Americans are at present being bombarded with sensationalistic tales of victimization and equally sensationalistic proclamations of immunity from responsibility. Alternately bemused and troubled by the Oprah Winfreyization of American life, I sometimes think of my grandmother.

Dear Grandma (may she rest in peace) knew how to judge. She was tough as nails on people she found despicable or merely wanting. She chewed them out in her low German dialect (being a Volga German, hochdeutsch was not her tongue), and we grandchildren could figure out a thing or two. We knew when she was describing someone as “swinish” or “dirty,” these being ways to characterize those who stole from others, beat their wives or their livestock, or abused their children. (Women, of course, could be abusers, too.) We missed a good bit of her assessments, though, as it was the policy of my grandmother, my mother, and Aunts Mary and Martha not to teach us plattdeutsch . When Grandma was really on a roll and wanted nothing less than to condemn someone to perdition, her favorite judging word was “Russki.” Hearing it sent a frisson through our tender flesh and bones. The last time I heard her say this I was forty-three or forty-four years old and it still frightened me, not quite out of my wits, but I remained convinced, as I had been since the age of five or six when I had acquired some inkling of what was at stake, that that person was doomed, no two ways about it.

“Russki” was her shorthand judgment on the garden-variety cheat, the ordinary bum, the farmer who shortchanged his hired hands, or the mother who kept her kids in dirty clothes, let their noses run, and never washed their hair. Why “Russki” as a term of judgment? That was historic overdetermination. It was the Russians who had begun to undermine the historic immunities of the Volga German communities. Under Tsar Nicholas, on the throne when my grandparents’ families emigrated to the New Country from what my grandmother always called the Old Country, their sons were being drafted into the Russian Army; and they were so fearful that they hid their Bibles (Luther’s German translation) in secret places.

I suppose my grandmother would be a good candidate for sensitivity training. She is beyond the reach of the enthusiasts of pop psychology with its quivering “non-judgmentalism,” having died at the age of ninety-four two years ago, but it gives me a shiver of another sort (one of delight) to imagine a confrontation between Grandma and a “facilitator,” eyes agleam with programmed goodness, saying things like, “Now, Mrs. Lind, why do you feel that way?” Or: “Don’t you think that’s a little harsh? Have you considered how hurtful such words can be?” Probably the facilitator would want to take a good look at my mother, and, in addition to Aunts Mary and Martha, Uncle Bill and Uncle Ted, too, no doubt damaged beyond repair, having been reared by such a no-nonsense judger. Good luck! I doubt they would have the slightest inkling of what she was going on about. There was no room in the family idiom for evasions of responsibility and you would find yourself the subject of an assessment of a rather decisive sort if you tried one.

No doubt from time to time my grandmother and her children rushed to judgment. I know my sisters and brothers and I sometimes wished Mom wouldn’t embarrass us in public by being so, well, decisive in her assessment of things—more than once delivered up in front of those being assessed, too. I recall wanting to seek the nearest exit on more than once occasion. But then I thought, even at the time, better this than someone agreeable and eternally smiling, like my nemesis, the mother of Judy Belcher (not her real name), who was a “pal” to her daughter. They “talked about everything,” especially “boyfriends” and “fashion,” and they liked to “have fun together.” I found this pretty disgusting. I still do. Judging seems to run in the family.

But to say this is not to say much. For what is at stake is the capacity to make judgments as an ethical issue of the gravest sort, and along with it, the discernment of what it means to judge well. In other words, we need a clear sense of why judging is important and what is involved in the activity of judging, and we need a way to distinguish between rash judging—not judging well—and the kind of judging that lies at the heart of what it means to be a self-respecting human subject in a community of other equally self-respecting subjects.

Judging has been in bad odor for quite some time in American culture. It is equated with being punitive, or with insensitivity, or with various “phobias” and “isms.” It is the mark of antiquated ways of thinking, feeling, and willing. Better, no doubt, to be something called “open-minded,” a trait thought to be characteristic of sensitive and supportive persons. A young woman well known to me reports that she and her fellow teachers at one of the elite New York public high schools were enjoined not to make students “feel bad” by being too decisive in their assessments of student work and effort. I breathed a sigh of recognition when she told me this; it is the sort of thing one hears in the higher reaches of the academy, too. In fact, this attitude is everywhere, even on bumper stickers. At least some of the readers of this essay will have sighted a bumper sticker that reads: “A Mind is Like a Parachute. It Works Best When It Is Open.” Yes, indeed, one wants to counter, the more open—meaning the more porous and thin—the better. A rather more convenient way of being in the world than being called upon to discriminate in the old—best—sense of the word. An open mind of the sort celebrated by the bumper sticker may signify an empty head, a person incapable of those acts of discernment we call “judging,” one who is, in fact, driven to see in such acts mere prejudice.

But prejudice and judgment are two very different human possibilities; indeed, the more we proliferate prejudices, free from the scrutiny of that discernment we aim to evade, the less capable we are, over time, of making judgments. An example or two, in line with Kant’s insistence that “Examples are the go-cart of judgments,” may suffice. When I first began university teaching, in 1973, I taught a course called “Feminist Politics and Theory.” I taught it for several years until I decided the tumult was too much to put up with semester after semester. One problem I encountered went like this. I had designed the course as a sustained exercise in assessing, and critically contrasting, competing feminist accounts of culture and politics. I asked my students to engage certain questions that presupposed their capacity for judgment: What sort of picture of the human condition is presented by this theorist? Could her prescription for change be implemented? How? What would the world look like if it were? And so on. But I ran into trouble straight-off for, in the eyes of many of my students, what I was supposed to be doing was condemning that big booming abstraction, Patriarchy, for fifty minutes three times a week. I was supposed to embrace, not criticize, feminist doctrines—all of them—even though the ideas of the radical separatist feminists scarcely comported with those of liberal feminists on many issues. Needless to say, the Marxist feminists and the eco-feminists didn’t see eye-to-eye on lots of things either.

Students sometimes showed up in my office bereft and troubled. One told me she had been a feminist since she was fourteen and didn’t need to hear feminism criticized. Another told me she was so “upset” by my criticism of the text of a feminist who proposed test-tube reproduction and a world run by beneficent cyber-engineers, and so “shocked” at my insistence that she respond to a series of questions asking her to sift, discriminate, and assess this text and others, that she had complained to, and sought refuge in, a support group at the women’s center. Yet another refused to write a paper contrasting Freud’s essays on female development with what the psychoanalytic feminists were doing with Freud because “Freud was a cancer-ridden, cigar-smoking misogynist.” This expression of prejudice was not an authentic moment of judging, of course, not least because the student had refused to read the assigned texts. She was repeating a prejudice, not forming a judgment.

A teacher quickly wearies of this sort of thing because it undermines the presuppositions that guide and help to constitute the pedagogical enterprise, one of the most important of these suppositions being that students are capable of weighing alternatives with a generosity of spirit and quality of discernment that makes their subsequent judgments at least plausible if not unassailable. I have always been fond of a pithy sentence in a letter Freud wrote to his fiancee, Martha: “A human being must be able to pull himself together to form a judgment, otherwise he turns into what we Viennese call a guten Potschen [doormat].” Apart from being stepped on, what is the problem with persons as doormats? Precisely this: they have sloughed off that which is theirs to do—to enter a community of judging, meaning that one can see error and try to put it right, one can distinguish the more from the less important, one can appropriately name phenomena and act accordingly. As an example of the latter, think of the distinction to be marked between “misfortune” and an “injustice” and what we are enjoined to do whether we confront one or the other. Now Freud was not urging Martha to be cruel or incapable of compassion or forgiveness; rather, he was urging her to stiffen her spine a bit, to stand up for herself, and not to shrink from acts of assessment and discernment.

Judging involves calling things by their real names, embracing the difficult recognition that what Hannah Arendt called “an enormously enlarged empathy” does not in itself suffice to sustain the capacity for that critical thinking we call judging. Arendt had little use for those who treated adults as if they were children by spoon-feeding them palatable “truths” rather than the harder truths of life and politics. If we over-assimilate our situation to that of others, and pretend that we are “at one” with them, we may lose the point at which we leave off and they begin. We are then in danger of losing the faculty of judgment that, for Arendt, consists in “thinking the particular” and through this concrete act reaching for more general conclusions and truths.

Why is judging—what Arendt called the preeminent political faculty—at a nadir among us? Surely much of the explanation lies in the triumph of the ideology of victimization coupled with self-esteem mania. The two are, of course, closely linked. Examples are so numerous it is hard to pick and choose. Take one from the public schools. By now most discerning citizens are familiar with the study showing that American schoolchildren scored much lower on math accomplishment tests than did their counterparts from several other societies—even while these same Americans were the ones who “felt best” about their math ability. Here the emphasis on “feeling good” by contrast to concrete accomplishment results in students being incapable of an accurate discernment of where they really stand on their math ability. Here is a second story, this from the literary front. My son is an aspiring poet and he finds increasingly depressing the many moments, whether in class or out, when a poem that is weak in execution and flat in evocative power is embraced as something “real” and important because it speaks about the poet’s own undigested experiences, which by definition can never be assessed and criticized. In other words, the self-referential prejudices of our time swamp a cooler set of criticisms and judgments, and wind up making a triumph of something rather petty. In the process, the work of those young men and women who really struggle with form and language and getting it right is trivialized, their accomplishments discounted. In some circles, if you carefully and precisely criticize a weak poem, you may face censure because the poem and its author’s psyche or identity are at one; thus, you find yourself in the position of criticizing her (or his) life, given the utter collapse of one into the other, when what you really want to do is to explain why you think this isn’t a very good poem.

The culture of victimization, then, and the triumph of pop-psych notions of “self-esteem,” in contrast to a self capable of discernment and judging well, seems a pretty clear source of our discontents in this matter. Of course, any decent person is concerned about victims, and there are real victims in our less than perfect world. But that is not the issue. An ideology of victimization (of the feminist sort) casts women as victims of male oppression from the very beginning of time; indeed, female victimization has taken on foundational status. But this victim ideology diverts attention from concrete and specific instances of female victimization in favor of pushing a relentless worldview structured around such dichotomies as victim/victimizer, guilty/innocent, tainted/pure. The female victim, construed as innocent, remains somehow free from sin. Remember Arendt’s insistence, following Kant, that judging “is the faculty of thinking the particular.” An ideology of victimization—with its harsh and exaggerated polemicism— actually hurts the cause of women’s rights, for it provides grounds for callous or sexist individuals to deprecate the claims of actual victims.

Victimization ideology is little more than a politics of resentment, given the growing body of evidence demonstrating that women, though they often have been victims of injustice, have played a variety of active roles throughout history and in every culture. Of course, who didn’t know that? It is quite incredible that one must make this point against those who, in the name of feminism, promote the generic prejudice that women are victims simpliciter . Our world is filled with noisy forces urging us to refrain from judging precisely in the name of justice. This dangerous nonsense is in evidence in every issue of any daily newspaper anywhere. The jurors in the Reginald Denny beating case decided not to convict because the thugs who smashed a man’s face to an unrecognizable pulp and exulted for the cameras as if they had just made the winning touchdown at a Superbowl Game were in the grip of a “mob psychology” and could not, therefore, be judged for their specific acts of wanton, and repeated, violence. The Menendez brothers were “victims” who, although they blasted their parents numerous times with a shotgun, were not to be held accountable. We cannot judge them given what they “went through,” as one juror put it.

Take another case, one worth looking at in some detail. A woman in Nashville, Tennessee, starved her infant son to death. Turned into a robot, so it was claimed, she was unable to feed the infant even though the husband was away at work all day. Her defense was based on her having been abused by this husband even though when he got home from work, the two of them would dress up and go out on the town, frequenting sleazy bars, looking for men and women for three-way sex. Meanwhile, a baby is starving to death. Of this terrible story, victimization doctrine holds that as a victim of abuse herself, the woman, by definition, could not in turn be victimizing another. We cannot judge her actions because she is oppressed. According to her lawyers, who are now mounting an appeal, the jury that found her guilty has victimized her twice. But one who looks at victimization as a concrete and specific act would argue that, although it is terrible to be abused, for a twenty-three-year old woman with a range of options open to her (she might have given the infant to her mother to care for, as she had done with an older child) to starve an infant to death is more terrible yet. Surely, to make that assessment is not an act prompted by a harsh desire for revenge. It flows, rather, from a recognition that we are able to distinguish real victims from rhetorical ones, evil acts and crimes from less serious misdeeds.

As the lawyers for this woman said, the woman cannot be “held accountable,” and to do so is a “male deal . . . or a society deal, but some people just don’t get it.” Now, we are told, the perpetrator is a victim twice or even thrice—of that amorphous entity, society, of her husband, and of the jury that found her guilty. The woman’s mother has stepped in, proclaiming that she, too, is a “victim” for she “lost a grandson.” Notice the language: she “lost” the grandson, as if he had been misplaced, not knowingly, over a six-week period, starved to death as he lay, immobile, listless, no longer able to cry, in his own waste in a filthy crib in a locked room as his parents played out their fantasies with male and female prostitutes. This is nigh unbelievable, but there it is. Even if this awful case gets turned back on appeal, we—all of us—are in danger of being worn down by arguments of this sort; hence, the more likely it is that, at some future point, we will have forgotten what it means to hold this person accountable in this situation for this particular horrible deed.

Let’s pursue this just a bit further, depressing as it is, because the elimination of the possibility of judgment, the evacuation of the very capacity of judging, would spell the end of the human subject as a self-respecting, accountable being. Judging is a sign, a mark, of our respect for the dignity of others and ourselves. We are surrounded by various strategies of exculpation—ways to evade responsibility for a situation or an outcome should one happen to be a member of an “oppressed” or “victimized” group. In a recent book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights , the author, Patricia Williams, plays the victim card to achieve both ends simultaneously. Acknowledging that the Tawana Brawley accusations in the now-notorious 1988 scandal were part of a hoax, Williams suggests that that doesn’t really matter. For Brawley was a victim of “some unspeakable crime.” “No matter how she got there. No matter who did it to her—and even if she did it to herself.” That is, even if Brawley injured herself, “her condition was clearly the expression of some crime against her, some tremendous violence, some great violation that challenges comprehension.” Brawley was the victim of a “meta-rape,” and this secures both her victim status and legitimates the power plays of those who cynically manipulated the situation. These latter escape judgment; and Brawley cannot be judged either. But the “society” that somehow “did” this to her on a “meta” level becomes responsible given the prejudice that in a “racist” society all African Americans are victims of the dominant “metanarrative.” Consider the alternative view of black possibility and responsibility noted by Stephen Carter:

We must never lose the capacity for judgment, especially the capacity to judge ourselves and our people . . . . Standards of morality matter no less than standards of excellence. There are black people who commit heinous crimes, and not all of them are driven by hunger and neglect . . . . We are not automatons. To understand all may indeed be to forgive all, but no civilization can survive when the capacity for understanding is allowed to supersede the capacity for judgment. Otherwise, at the end of the line lies a pile of garbage: Hitler wasn’t evil, just insane.
“When the capacity for understanding is allowed to supersede the capacity for judgment”-let the words linger for a moment. Then conjure with the teaching of Jesus: “Judge not that ye be not judged,” this, of course, from the Sermon on the Mount. These, too, are words I grew up with. And I pondered them, wondering if my mother’s “judgmental” attitude was compatible with Jesus’ injunction. We were also told: “There but for the grace of God go I.” We were told to “walk around in the other guy’s shoes” before we judged severely or before we judged at all. Squaring this with Grandma’s dismissive “Russki” was no easy matter. I sometimes repaired to Lincoln, one of my childhood heroes. I especially loved the magnificent Second Inaugural, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . ” Those words I could square with judgment. Malice and judgment; the punitive and the fair are not the same. Lincoln had, after all, insisted that the nations were under God’s judgment, and our terrible Civil War, the war he was prosecuting in terms of “unconditional surrender,” was our punishment for chattel slavery. Lincoln was no value-free, laid-back kind of guy: compassion with judgment, this framed his life and work. “Judge not” is, then, not an injunction to spineless acceptance but a caution against peremptory legalisms that leave no space for acts of compassion and witness.

I have also found helpful the discussion of the lively British philosopher, Mary Midgley. In her book Can’t We Make Moral Judgments ? Midgley notes our contemporary search for a nonjudgmental politics and quotes all those people who cry, in effect, “But surely it’s always wrong to make moral judgments.” We are not permitted to make anyone uncomfortable, to be “insensitive.” Yet moral judgment of “some kind,” says Midgley, “is a necessary element to our thinking.” Judging involves our whole nature—it isn’t just icing on the cake of self-identity. Judging makes it possible for us to “find our way through a whole forest of possibilities.”

Midgley argues that Jesus was taking aim at sweeping condemnations and vindictiveness: he was not trashing the “whole faculty of judgment.” Indeed, Jesus is making the “subtle point that while we cannot possibly avoid judging, we can see to it that we judge fairly, as we would expect others to do to us.” This is part and parcel, then, of justice as fairness, as a discernment about a particular case and person and deed. Subjectivism in such matters—of the “I’m okay, you’re okay,” variety—is a cop-out, a way to stop forming and expressing moral judgments altogether. This strange suspension of specific moments of judgment goes hand-in-glove, of course, with an often violent rhetoric of condemnation of whole categories of persons, past and present—that all-purpose villain, the Dead White European Male, comes to mind.

Perhaps this is the point at which we might recall Tocqueville’s warnings about “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear,” for Tocqueville’s worst-case scenario has quite a bit to do with judging or, better put, no longer being able to distinguish the better from the worse, the excellent from the mediocre, slavishness from self-responsibility. Democratic despotism, according to Tocqueville, would have a “different character” from the tyranny of the Old World. “It would be more widespread and milder; it would degrade men rather than torment them.” Thus, Tocqueville sees citizens withdrawing into themselves, circling around one another in pursuit of “the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls.” The exercise of genuine free choice becomes rarer, the activity of free will occurs “within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.” The words Tocqueville uses to describe this state of things are “hinder . . . restrain . . . enervate . . . stultify.” Losing over time the “faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves,” these citizens “slowly fall below the level of humanity.” Tocqueville nowhere talks about collapse of the faculty of judgment in a specific sense but that, surely, is much of what is at stake. Judging is central to, indeed constitutive of, both our self-identity and our sociality: it helps us to disentangle, analyze, separate, discern and, in so doing, puts us smack dab in a world of others—not apart, not above, not below, but among .

Told that, if we are “powerful” we cannot judge others but can only be judged, and on the other hand that if we are “powerless” we can judge totally but cannot be judged—since the “powerful” by definition “don’t get it”-we fall into an intellectual laziness that is itself ethically corrupt and corrupting. As Midgley notes, Jesus’ message was: do not stone people, do not cast them out, do not write them off. His target was punitive self-righteousness. With such self-righteousness now a major cottage industry, are we in the danger zone imagined by Tocqueville? That is the question to which sober reflection on judging leads us—or at least where it should.

Jean Bethke Elshtain will, starting in January, be the Laura Spelman Rockfeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her newest book, Democracy on Trial , will be published by Basic Books later this year. An earlier version of this essay was presented to the Symposium on “The Ethics of Everyday Life,” which is sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life with the support of the Lilly Endowment.