A Swiss-born artist named Clarina Bezzola has a performance piece called “Judgment Day.” In a video of the performance, she wears large mitts that look like fingers, and strolls through Manhattan, pointing at things with the fingers, proclaiming her judgments of all she sees.
Bezzola begins her journey enthusiastically. She states the good (farmers market, dog run, outdoor cafe) and the bad (a big Ralph Lauren ad, Fresh Direct, church). But as her negative judgments turn into a frenzy, she loses steam. She judges, but without verve. Her pointing fingers drag. Judgment, the viewer can surmise, is hard work.
Bezzola’s performance is suggestive of the Hamletian maxim that “nothing is either good or bad, but thinking [or judging] makes is so.”
Her’s is not a novel concept (Hamlet was published around the turn of the 17th century and I think a few others have stated similar conceits). But it’s a nice illustration of how most of us go through the world: creating collages of positive and negative judgments. We like ice cream, social justice and Ira Glass. We don’t like Wonder Bread, the industrial military complex and Glenn Beck.
For all practical purposes, these judgments are gospel. They are true. Ira Glass is good. Beck is bad. It’s in their natures. It is the way they are and, presumably, the way they will always be.
It’d be swell if our judgments were relegated to the external world, but our knack for judging the outside is equaled by an ability to judge the inside. We judge our behavior, our appearance, our thoughts, our everything, making statements whether something is good or bad. I am good with numbers. I am bad with names. I shouldn’t think that.
But where do these—or did these—judgments arise from?
Chances are, our judgments are not our own. For example, if you grew up in a liberal family like I did, your judgment of Ira Glass is that he’s the kind of guy you’d aspire to become: literate, funny, unostentatious (my adjectives betray my affinity and positive judgment for him). If you grew up in a right wing family, your judgment might have a Beckian ideal: conservative, vociferous and unapologetically combative (these were the most positive adjectives I could conjure based on my negative judgments of Beck).
In Bezzola’s performance she comes across several men sleeping on benches. One particular man incurs her wrath. She thinks he’s a pariah, calling him a slob and admonishing his lack of contribution. Her judgment of this type of laziness is surely informed by her sense Swiss industriousness (full disclosure: I know the artist and can attest to her industry). But in many parts of the world, taking a nap in the middle of the day is perfectly acceptable. Which judgment is true?
The truth is there is no “true” judgment. They are always dependent on the judger and his or her culture, family, environment and various other circumstances; and since these things vary from place to place and from person to person, everyone has a different judgment for every different situation. In other words, there’s no such thing as a universal judgment. If there cannot be a universal judgment—one judgment that everyone agrees with in any given situation—it follows that our judgments are not true or fixed.
I’ll use my former ardor of the the Grateful Dead to demonstrate this point. I lived for the Dead. I collected bootlegs, saw shows, dropped a lot of acid (requisite behavior it seemed) and grew my hair out to match the manes of my Deadhead compatriots. My judgment was that the Dead were the best band to ever live.
Nowadays, while I still appreciate and occasionally listen to the Dead for nostalgia’s sake, it’s not often, and I hardly think they are the best rock band to ever live. My judgment has changed.
It’s not that my judgment at the time wasn’t true for me—I really loved the Dead and thought they were the best band. It’s that the judgment wasn’t true in any objective sense. If it was true, they would always be the best band. My judgment also put me in conflict with others. My judgment was that anyone who couldn’t appreciate a twelve-minute Jerry Garcia Dark Start guitar solo was stupid. Holding this judgment, I collided with a lot of stupid people.
But it was merely a judgment I held at the time. By extension, if there’s nothing intrinsically good about the Grateful Dead, I’m afraid there’s probably nothing intrinsically bad about Glenn Beck. My judgment of Beck is just another idea cobbled together with inferences and conjecture gleaned from my environmental circumstances.
If our judgments are not true, what is their utility? Are they even necessary?
Judgments provide so many things. They give us security and direction. They are like an existential compass. Even though it’s a compass without fixed bearings, they show us what to go toward (the good) and what to move away from (the bad). And when many others hold the same judgment, we feel safe in the middle of the judgmental herd. We think, “Nine out ten judgers agree, Osama Bin Laden is evil.” To think otherwise is too risky.
They also save time and mental energy. If we had to pay attention to everything, free from our preconceptions and environmental conditioning, it would take so much time and effort. It’s much easier to use our default settings.
The pitfalls to this security is that by separating the world between the good and the bad (not to mention the indifferent, which we don’t even bother talking about), there is always tension—there will always be things to get away from or ignore. In this judgment-directed reality, if things happen to be good, it’s because we’ve expelled the bad for some brief moment—like being at a Dead show was for me. Once the show is over, I was prey to badness.
But what if judgments weren’t necessary? What would it be like to just observe and accept things? What if we took away the judgment we ascribe to things, particularly, though not limited to, things we deem negative? What if things just were—neither good, bad or indifferent.
To be judgment free may sound like death, apathy or blandness, but observation doesn’t mean we cannot respond to what we observe. I might observe Glenn Beck and respond by boycotting the News Corporation or starting up a talk show that promotes sensibility and a compassionate worldview. But Beck has no charge. He’s not a bad guy.
No judgment need not mean we cannot have likes and preferences. But likes and preferences are uncharged by judgment. I can like Stanley Kubrick and prefer to watch his movies over James Cameron’s. But Kubrick is not intrinsically good; I just like and appreciate certain aspects of his movies. And Cameron is not bad. If he were intrinsically bad, I couldn’t enjoy any aspect of his movies.
My favorite favorite TED talk is by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffers and observes her own massive stroke. She describes how her brain’s left hemisphere—the hemisphere in charge of language and, by extension, judgments—started to go offline. The experience put her in a place of undiluted, unmediated observation. She just perceived. She experienced perfect silence—just observing without commentary, without judgment. And in this silence, there was just peace and wonder.
While a stroke might not be the optimal route to enlightenment, her experience alludes to the source of most, if not all of our discontent: our unceasing insistence on labeling, discriminating and perpetrating all forms of judgment. The experience also alludes to what is possible: a world of observation and wonder, free from finger-pointing, name calling and avoidance. In short, a world without judgment.