Stuck in Judgment Ruts

Sarah Palin at the Chambliss rally, Dec. 1, 2008  Hillary Clinton at her confirmation hearing for Secretary  of State, (Department of State photo)

Sarah Palin at the Chambliss rally, Dec. 1, 2008
Hillary Clinton at her confirmation hearing for Secretary
of State, (Department of State photo)

The mantras of our times:  Barack Obama is a liar and a threat to our nation. George W. Bush was a liar and a threat to our nation. Sarah Palin is an ignorant Barbie doll who can’t put two words together. The police in Ferguson, Missouri are all racists. Black residents in Ferguson, Missouri are hyper-sensitive and see racism whenever white people are around.  And so it goes. We’ve lived together on this planet for millennia, and we’re still stuck in judgment ruts.

We love to focus on our differences, but what do all of the people in the preceding paragraph have in common? Simply this:  they are all acting out of their own sense of what is right. None of them wake up in the morning and think about how evil or wrong they can be that day. It doesn’t happen. They have their own perspective, certainly. They have their own prejudices, their own experiences to inform them. They make their own choices, and not all of them are good ones. But they are doing the best they can. Just like everybody else.

All people are “good,” even if they don’t act that way. Some folks are mentally ill, too, and may be a danger to themselves and others, but that doesn’t negate their inherent worth. Even nominally sane people are capable of deluding themselves and doing some very harmful things while being in denial of that fact. But everyone deludes themselves at some point. Why are we so hard on some people, but not others? Why do we single out certain people to vilify, while having compassion for others?

We are all raised with certain beliefs, emotions, and truisms that are not necessarily true, but we follow them blindly because they have left “judgment ruts” in our mind. For example, there are many kind, compassionate people who would gladly help a friend in need, support their local food bank, or perform any number of charitable acts. This same person, however, may reflexively avert their eyes from a homeless person on the street because they have a judgment rut that says, “All homeless people are either lazy or addicts.” And the corollary to this rut is, “Addicts and lazy people do not deserve my help.”

Of course, the truth is a gray area. Any given homeless person may be a veteran suffering PTSD, a sick person who lost their home because of a medical crisis, a victim of child abuse, mentally ill, or someone who just lost their housing for whatever reason. And yes, they may have addictions, but a person is more than their addiction. Does an addiction really make them unworthy of help? Does this judgment really vindicate our decision not to help them? What would a compassionate person do? What would love do?

Perfectly kind and reasonable people also make judgments on the basis of race as though it really is a black and white issue. You are a racist, or you’re not. Or, you see racism everywhere because you’re a paranoid victim; or racism, however subtle, still exists. Whichever view you prefer depends on the judgment ruts that you formed growing up.

In modern American society, we are as divided as ever. If you are a conservative, your judgment ruts may predispose you to defend Sarah Palin from unwarranted and often vicious personal attacks by the left. If you are a liberal, your judgment ruts may say that Sarah deserves what she gets. On the other hand, conservatives felt that they could attack Hillary Clinton with equal impunity, while the left defended her just as fiercely. And both sides accuse the other of misogyny. And the winner of this battle of judgments? Not a soul.

Jerry Rubin said, “Ideology is a brain disease,” and that is true, regardless of the ideology in question. You could say that ideology is determined by our judgment ruts—and we just know that they are right. The truly interesting thing about them, however, is that because of their nature, few of us have ever actually examined our reasons for our judgments. Because if we did, we would find that we don’t really know what our reasons are. This is the peril of inherited thought.

When we grow up in a given culture, we accept it as normal. We assume that this is the way the world works—the only way. But other people grow up in different cultures, with different ideas and world views. And they know just as certainly that this is how the world works. That is, until they find out otherwise.

This is why some people fear education. The Taliban love to burn down schools for precisely this reason. Becoming educated and being exposed to new ways of thinking can fill in some of those judgment ruts. It can help you to think about things from multiple perspectives. Of course, it’s not a panacea. Educated people still hold judgments. But the possibility for understanding increases. It can, if nothing else, make your judgments more flexible.

Are we doomed to judge, then? Must we always pick up a stone, knowing full well that on a different day, we might be the ones who are hit by it?

We can choose to pave over our judgment ruts, but we must recognize them, which isn’t always easy. Most judgments are unconscious. They come so naturally to us that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. We see a person or a situation, and bang! Our thoughts are instantly moving along that same old rut, making it deeper with each passing. So, how do we begin?

The key is our emotional state. When we make judgments, we feel fear, anger, contempt, or jealousy. There is always a feeling beneath a judgment, and it’s never joy. Recognize that. Are you angry with Sarah Palin for not behaving the way you think a woman should? Are you angry with Hillary Clinton for the same reason? Do they represent something that frightens you or makes you uneasy? What are you projecting onto them? What is it about the person that reminds you of you? What is that you are not able to love about them? Whatever your feelings are, they’re not about the person. They are about you. The answers to these questions will tell you what your fears and feelings are, as well as what you need to learn to love in yourself. When you address these issues in yourself, your judgment ruts will disappear.

Every person and situation that comes into our lives is a mirror. If we love something, then it reflects back what we love in ourselves. If we dislike or hate something, then it reflects back what we dislike or hate in ourselves. This is a gift. The people we judge or don’t like are showing us what we need to heal in ourselves.

There is no right or wrong in our ideological divides. No one side has it all figured out. What we have to offer each other, however, is healing and a third road, just there—on the far side of our judgment ruts.

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