Judgers, Haters, and Austen
Should we "judge" others?
I had to wait a long time for a recent lab test. The tech explained that they were shorthanded. “One of the techs stayed home sick today,” she said. “If you really are sick you should stay home. But you shouldn’t pretend to be sick. I never pretend, I only stay home if I really am sick. But if you pretend to be sick it’s like bad karma…”
She clearly wanted to judge the person who stayed home, while not being “judgy.” Trying to do both at once is not easy. Just watching her exhausted me.
When I was in college, it was popular in Christian circles to talk about the importance of being “non-judgmental.” Rape, pillage and murder… if you simply must. But don’t judge other people.
I can understand it in one sense. We do not want to be judged for our choices. You do not want people looking down at you for how much money you spend or how you dress. Judging should be outlawed, we think.
Yet, in the very next breath we list off all kinds of judge-worthy behavior. It’s okay to judge the judgers for one. Feel free to hate the haters. Then just a few other things intrude… I guess It’s okay to judge wife-beaters, child abductors, politicians, and my co-workers. But that’s it.
Like my lab tech, people do a lot of strange mental gymnastics to make it all work. I’m sure he has a good explanation… but he can’t possibly have a good explanation!
Pretty soon people have completely changed their position. Judging is totally fine… As long as me, and everyone who agrees with me, are the only ones doing the judging.
What did Austen think?
It is not a question of whether or not we should judge. If I could sum up most of Austen’s books in a word it would be the importance of learning how to judge well and wisely.
Judging assumes a moral standard. In Austen’s day, there simply was no question of whether right or wrong existed. Today, of course, that is not so. And this is where people get stuck.
As C. S. Lewis demonstrates in Mere Christianity, the simple fact that we make any kind of judgment at all, (even if we are only judging the judgers), in itself proves that we believe in a standard of morality to which we are all subject. People do not want a moral standard. But they cannot deny, no matter how hard they try, that a lot of people are behaving pretty badly.
We betray our own moralistic convictions every time we say things like, “I just think he should show up on time, that’s all…” I’m sorry. You just wouldn’t say that about a squirrel.
We are all judgers, but as Austen’s stories demonstrated, there is very much a wrong way, and a kind way to go about it.
In every single one of Austen’s books, the happiness of at least one main character entirely depended on the ability to “judge” correctly. The ability to discern wisely. The villain was often a rascal who appeared good on the outside. For example, in Persuasion, Mr. Eliot was well liked and respected by those who knew him. He was approved by the strictest moralists. He was attentive, courteous, upstanding, and a crowd pleaser. He checked off all the boxes.
Yet Anne, the heroine, alone did not trust him. He was too “universally liked.” An honorable man, she reasoned, should at least have some enemies. If everyone likes you, it could mean you are changeable. You could have a secret agenda, could be using people, or could be a spineless people-pleaser.
Austen also showed us the wrong way to judge. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet made judgments pretty much every second of the day—Irritable, emotionally-charged, indictments against anyone who crossed her.
In one case, Mrs. Bennet bemoaned that her daughters had not yet met the new, rich man who just moved to town. She held mercenary hopes that he would marry one of them.
One daughter pointed out that,“Mrs. Long promised to introduce him.”
Mrs. Bennet replied, “I do not believe she will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.”
In part two of this article we will unpack in more detail the wrong and the right way to judge according to Austen. For now, learning how to judge with wise discernment and kindness is not easy. But if you do not even try, you are almost guaranteeing that you will get it wrong.
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10).
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