How to be Non-Judgmental

by Dan on August 29, 2009


This was a big issue of mine for a long time, so I’m happy to finally post the solution here.

I grew up very religious, in a faith where the scriptures said God brutally punished those who were bad, and people who disagreed with your value system were labeled “evil” or “immoral.”

This was from no fault of my parents.  They were actually a lot more moderate than I was, and took a non-literal view of the Bible.  I, however, saw “God’s word” as clearly saying there was a black and white duality between good and bad, right and wrong.

So if there’s good and bad, then I have to be good, right?

Being good included the usual stuff of not killing or stealing, but it also added a lot of minor offenses to consider.

Was illegally downloading MP3’s bad, and what does it say about the person who does it?  Does doing a bad thing make a person bad?

If someone cheats on their boyfriend or girlfriend, are they bad?  And if the person they cheat with knows about the relationship, are they just as guilty?

The Old Testament is all about moral superiority, what makes a man righteous vs. sinful, so of course I kept to the good, and labeled violators as “bad.”

To my own credit, I was actually very consistent with my own values.  There was a little hypocrisy here and there, as I held the bar for myself very high.  Because I could reach these very high standards, I had no problem letting other people know that they were doing something that didn’t fit them.

Not only did this lower my social popularity, but it also was completely useless in influencing others to be “good.”

Sometimes I wish that there was a figure in Judaism like Jesus who would let everyone know you should only worry about yourself, and not judge others.  In the Old Testament (or Tanakh), not only were prophets called on to stop people from sinning, but if the sinners didn’t listen, even the GOOD people would be killed with the inevitable divine punishment.  What kind of message do you think that sends to people?

I can’t blame religion for the judgmental nature in everyone.  There are plenty of other sources, such as egotistical self-righteousness and having a caring nature so strong that you worry that if you don’t take a stand, other people will get hurt.

The fact is that judging does not help anyone.  You don’t help the “violator,” you don’t help the “victim,” and you certainly don’t help yourself.

I used to get into constant ethical debates on music piracy, and even if someone admitted I was right, they wouldn’t change their behavior.

A shift I made some years back was treating “unethical behavior” like a health-minded vegetarian treats hamburger meat, “Glad you like it, but not something I enjoy.”

If a friend offered me a burned CD, I would say, “Thanks, but I only listen to originals.”  Sometimes I would say, “I don’t really like pirating products, so I’ll find a good deal on it somewhere.”  I would refrain from condemning the person’s behavior or even implying that my reasons were ethically based.

What followed was very enchanting.

Over the next year, several friends would tell me, “You know, Dan, it’s weird.  I somehow find myself buying products instead of downloading them, and I think it has something to do with you.”

In my college days, over countless debates, I was never told that I’d logically convinced someone to be more ethical.  Logic just doesn’t work in this endeavor.

Even with this magnificent milestone, I had a lot farther to go.

It was easy for me now to excuse downloading music for free.  However, how was I going to deal with matters of adultery, cruelty, and even mass murder?

You could say these are offenses worth judging, but I disagree.  Judging anyone does not make you any kinder, and it doesn’t stop an aggressor either.  It only weakens your will and drains your energy.

In late 2007, I had the breakthrough.  I decided that I was going to stop judging anyone for any reason.  This was something I had to do for myself.  I sat down, and wrote everything I thought and felt about being judgmental, until a final sentence came out which answered the mystery.

“If I had the same genetics and same upbringing as this person in question, would I be much different?”

I considered the people in my life I disapproved of.  I hadn’t considered before that I had been given both genetic and environmental tendencies to being a kind, principled person.  My brain chemistry is naturally more resilient to peer pressure than anyone I know, and I had two very loving parents who set excellent examples.

Could I say the same for everyone else?

What if my DNA did not make it easy for me to hold to a strong morality?

What if I was raised in an orphanage in a ghetto where child beatings were common?  Would I be the same?

Likely not.

While not tolerating harmful or violent behavior in our homes and communities, we can still abstain from feeling like we are superior to the offender.

I’m not excusing Saddam Hussein for his cruelty as a dictator, but if you skim through his biography, you will see that his early life was far more hellish than even the stories that make the headlines today in the USA.  Had he grown up in a loving, affluent home, he very well could have been a powerful leader of peace for all Muslims.  He was born with unquestionable political and leadership talent.  Unfortunately, he was also born with a capacity for evil that was activated by repeated abuse.

We’re never told in this life how we would have turned out if the quality of our upbringing was reversed.

I believe many of us were born with the potentiality of doing great evil, but lucked out enough in the parents department that the problems never surfaced.

There are some people who have awful childhoods, and then grow into powerful kind people as well.  Some people just turn out great no matter what life throws at them, thanks to absolutely amazing genetics.

In other words, for every good character trait you’ve developed, you’ve had some luck getting there.

My point is that since we really don’t know how much our childhood or genetics contribute who to we are, we should avoid the temptation to feel superior to anyone.  It’s even questionable if there is anything to who we are beyond our genetics and upbringing.  Maybe there’s a soul; maybe there isn’t.

Either way, make your life easier by letting everyone off the hook.  No one has to live up to your standards but yourself.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 DJ Fuji September 6, 2009 at 7:27 am

Brilliant post. Discussions on this topic with you were a big inspiration behind my post on why we shouldn’t judge George Sodini.

2 Rose April 14, 2011 at 2:56 am

An awesome post, you are a thinker! It’s the behaviour we judge NOT the person. If we separate the person from their behaviour we can look at the action objectively. The New Testament does indeed say you should take the log out of your own eye before you even try to take the splinter out of your friend’s eye. Although we have to be careful not to label evil as merely psychiatric (we need discernement) we do not know the sufferings and crosses others carry. Compassion and love heal quicker than condemning words.

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