I Am Ethically Obligated to Judge You

There are a lot of things about me that shock people, but one of the most shocking seems to be my lack of unmitigated open-mindedness. I’ve surprised many a person with how close-minded I can be to, say, dating a Christian or promoting the work of an unapologetic anti-trans bigot. As someone who struggles for acceptance, I am supposed to be accepting of all things. Anything. Even things that harm me and mine. Because Tolerance!

As you might suspect, I’m not on board with this line of thinking.

In the quest for a better society, the idea of judging anyone for any reason has seemingly become verboten. I can’t help but feel that some nuance regarding why generalizing and stereotyping can be bad has been lost in the shuffle.

I don’t think that judging people based on what they call themselves and with whom they associate is such a bad thing. In fact, in the case of self-identified choices in affiliation, it would be far more unjust to the person to totally disregard what they’ve said about themselves to me.

To be clear, I am not speaking of affiliations over which people have little to no control. I am strictly referring to aspects of identity that are chosen, at least to a greater extent. Very few things are wholly chosen or wholly imposed, but there are certain aspects of identity-related affiliation that are more chosen than not.

For example, not believing in a deity is not necessarily or really a choice, but deciding to call oneself an “atheist,” “agnostic,” “anti-theist,” “Bright,” and/or “apatheist” is a choice that conveys information about oneself. That most of us make choices about what to call ourselves based on the situation at hand indicates how much of a choice the labels really are. I know that I am not the only atheist blogger who sometimes mumbles something about not caring for church instead of proudly declaring my atheism. Saying who I am is not always worth the struggle nor is it always terribly germane.

black & white bisexuality logo

Another example, one where there is far less disagreement about choice, has to do with sexual orientation. I could call myself “bisexual,” “pansexual,” “queer,” “omnisexual,” or any number of other self-identifiers that convey the information that I am attracted to people across and through the gender spectrum. Aside from “omnisexual,” which I wasn’t aware of at the right time and place for it to appeal to me, I’ve used all of those terms and more to self-identify based on the spaces I was in and the people with whom I was communicating.

It would upset me to think that people would think that my choice in self-identifiers was completely meaningless. It seems ludicrous to disregard people’s affiliations and statements about themselves in favor of “not generalizing.” Not everyone has the time to get to intimately know the nuances of every single person they ever encounter in any context. Labels are useful in that they are meant to convey information quickly and easily to facilitate interactions where deeper exploration is not possible.

It’s not unfair generalizing or stereotyping to assume that someone’s chosen affiliations mean something about them. Otherwise, why would they have chosen that affiliation? If someone chooses to work for a certain organization and/or ally with certain people, that says something about them; it is not at all unreasonable for others to make an assumption or two about them based on said facts.

a parrot saying "Free speech doesn't mean careless talk"

Even if someone fell into an affiliation by accident and without thinking through exactly what it means for and to them, that in itself tells me something about them: That they aren’t terribly meticulous about this particular part of their life. That they don’t vet closely or very carefully, or they don’t exercise a particular level of caution about their allegiances. That I can’t trust everyone whom they call colleague and/or friend based solely on that affiliation. That it’s up to me to examine the groups and organizations that they endorse before throwing in my own support. That it might be best to not mention certain sensitive bits of  information around them. The list goes on.

Before you ask, yes, I’ve been on the ugly end of people making assumptions about me that were untrue for me based on my affiliations. Although it certainly stings when such things happen, the miscommunication is on me as the outlier in terms of people with said affiliation. It is my duty to clarify myself and my position, not the job of the outsider to figure out the subtle nuances of my particular life. In such situations, it’s very much my job to clarify that I don’t agree and/or endorse certain aspects of that affiliation, not theirs to pretend as if my affiliations mean nothing to and say nothing about me.

On that note, I would like to thank those who have the courage to take the initiative in letting me know about the issues with my chosen affiliations. I want to make an informed choice about the labels I use, the people with whom I associate, the groups I promote, and the events I endorse. I couldn’t do so without the much-maligned ideological purity police. I want more of that and less “non-judgmental” posturing in my life, please.

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I Am Ethically Obligated to Judge You
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31 thoughts on “I Am Ethically Obligated to Judge You

  1. 1

    I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, if there was one underpinning idea behind the social justice movement, it would be “don’t make bullshit assumptions about people.” Sure, labels do convey some information, but going beyond that and trying to make assumptions about people based on what others do who share that characteristic doesn’t make tons of logical sense.

    For example, the stop and frisk policy in New York was based largely on race and sex, but on other characteristics, such as where the individual chose to walk (the proverbial high crime area), the clothes someone chose to wear, the others someone chose to be around, and how the person chose to carry themselves. These “choices” certainly gave the officer information with which he chose to stop and frisk them, though none of these characteristics seem to justify being stopped and searched.

    1. 1.1

      There is nothing “bullshit” about an assumption about a person based on information that they told me.

      going beyond that and trying to make assumptions about people based on what others do who share that characteristic doesn’t make tons of logical sense.

      I suggested that… where?

      1. Here, maybe?

        It’s not unfair generalizing or stereotyping to assume that someone’s chosen affiliations mean something about them. Otherwise, why would they have chosen that affiliation? If someone chooses to work for a certain organization and/or ally with certain people, that says something about them;

    2. 1.2

      Oh, and social justice isn’t primarily about killing assumptions. It’s about working to make a more equal society. Ending oppressive assumptions is part of that, sure, but power structures and inequality are far more important to end than every little assumption every person makes.

  2. 2

    I have a half-assed blog percolating somewhere, and I wonder that I should just not bother and replace the whole thing with “Best of Dadabhoy” links. If my worthiest thoughts and feelings should be (originated &) expressed by anyone, they should be someone better at thinking and writing than myself. 😛

  3. 3

    I’ve been on the ugly end of people making assumptions about me that were untrue for me based on my affiliations

    …can be said by every progressive atheist these days, whether or not that’s what you were referring to. 🙂

  4. 4

    I suggested that… where?

    I made some assumptions…ZING 😉

    Oh, and social justice isn’t primarily about killing assumptions. It’s about working to make a more equal society. Ending oppressive assumptions is part of that, sure, but power structures and inequality are far more important to end than every little assumption every person makes.

    Maybe. I’ve thought a lot about how to frame social justice, because it’s such an amorphous subject. How does one know if a power structure is oppressive? What types of inequality are acceptable? These questions are difficult to comprehend, must less answer on a case by case basis. “Be equal” may be the goal, but getting there is a process, and diffusing assumptions about people that aren’t based in fact or logic is a process to get there.

  5. 6

    Edward Gemmer: if you were to encounter somebody with several prominent swastika tattoos, would you feel it inappropriate to make some assumptions about that person on that basis?

  6. 8

    Agree with everything here. What’s trickier is when someone refuses a label, despite being a perfect fit for it. Obviously, this can be problematic, but is it really a stretch to say that (for instance) someone who opposes feminism and blames it for all things wrong in the world, and who supports biotroof excuses for rape and sexism, and who actively thinks that ‘misandry’ is a thing that needs to be confronted, is an MRA, even when they insist they are not?

  7. 9

    In our personal lives labels marking chosen affiliations are a great hazard flag for the kind of people we shouldn’t waste our time engaging with (whether it’s being friends, dating or even just spending our time discussing politics with them over the intertoobz.)

    The other night at dinner with some old friends I mentioned that I generally am not friends with Republicans/TeaPartiers etc. on FB. Somebody responded “that’s real open-minded” sarcastically. I then had to explain to them that I’ve listened to, read, digested, considered etc., just about every conservative argument on just about every issue imaginable for the past 20 years and I’ve come to the conclusion that their arguments are bullshit, their logic is typically flawed and dripping with bias (hidden and proudly worn), their values are not the same as mine and they are usually not arguing in good faith. So yeah if somebody self-affiliates with the Republican Party or is Pro-Life or an MRA/Creationist/AntiVaxxer/911Truther/Global Warming Skeptic etc.,….not worth my time. To me such a policy is not closed-minded, it’s pragmatic. Like Heina notes, they choose those badges for a reason and those labels can save me alot of time/energy by taking them into account.

  8. 10

    Heina, I’m glad you wrote about this. It’s so irksomely common.

    Here’s what I think. There’s no great moral conundrum that you or anyone else is obligated to mull over with angst before deciding that someone who flies a bigot flag is a bigot or functionally a bigot (yes, identifying proudly as Republican is flying a bigot flag because that’s what the party is legitimately and rightly known for.).

    This is chaff thrown up by resentful people angry that they’re asked to take responsibility for examining their views and examining the moral implications of their public shows of support for certain political identities. Oh, they dislike it very, very much. It’s easier to whine and #NotAllRepublicans or #NotAllTeaPartiers than it is to do the work of justifying to yourself and the world why you think it’s OK to even tacitly or passively fly the flag of a supremacist, sadistic political party.

    That’s all it is. It’s resentful irritation at being asked to be a responsible moral actor in the world. That’s all. It’s not more complicated than that. Edward Gemmer, above, is a prime example. He wants very, very much to make it more complicated. He wants us to agree to a social world where someone wearing a Girl Scout uniform cannot be assumed to be a Girl Scout. Seriously—it’s that level of disingenuous, willful nonsense.

    All in the service of sparing one’s self ethical responsiblity.

    I hope you feel comfortable dismissing that shit out of hand. It’s insulting to you and anyone in your position. It’s a deliberate and ridiculous waste of time. It should be labeled that way and walked away from.

  9. 11

    Freemage: Not only is it not a stretch to call such person an MRA, it’s the truth.

    This is *extremely* important for liberal/left people to notice more openly: bigots have co-opted the language and form of personal identity to perverse uses. Refusing to accede that someone opposed to equal pay and maternity leave and such, for example, is not “disrespecting my sovereign, chosen identity.” It’s refusing to call bullshit gold bullion.

    When we talk of respecting people’s identities, we’re talking about, mainly, making social space safe for people with *marginalized* identities. People whose politics or gender or skin color are institutionally used to oppress them.

    When a bigot co-opts that “respect my identity” language they’re claiming to suffer the same ethical harm in scope and degree as the trans woman who objects to being misgendered. It’s worse than wrong, it’s a moral outrage and the lowest possible insult. It’s what I would call an ethical “sin.”

    We need to recognize this and stop allowing these liars to pull our chains and cause us to morally agonize in public about whether we’re “just as bad.” They’re playing us, and we need to call them on it and then shut them out of conversation.

  10. 13

    @ Josh,

    Edward Gemmer, above, is a prime example. He wants very, very much to make it more complicated. He wants us to agree to a social world where someone wearing a Girl Scout uniform cannot be assumed to be a Girl Scout. Seriously—it’s that level of disingenuous, willful nonsense.

    Not really. Assuming a person wearing a Girl Scout uniform usually makes a lot of sense. It’s that next step that usually doesn’t. Perhaps you don’t like something about the Girl Scouts, and you use this as some sort of grounds to dislike this person too. Or perhaps you knew a Girl Scout once and didn’t like them, so you don’t have t like any Girl Scouts. These leaps are easy to make and pretty prevalent on the internet.

    Unfortunately, these attitudes are pretty common. When you have the attitude that your assumptions are more important than facts, you can get to some pretty outrageous places. Racism grew and festered with common assumptions that everyone “knew” to be facts. It prospers now because of other assumptions. There is a theory that racism and poverty prosper now because of criminal justice systems, which itself makes wide assumptions about large groups of people, i.e. criminals, convicts, ex-cons, pick a name.

  11. 14

    This is an area where I haven’t found a balance, and I don’t even know if there is one. On the one hand … christians. If you tell me you’re Christian, that means, in all likelihood, that you revere the Bible, and more often than not that you accept it as God’s Word. And the Bible says that God said to kill apostates … which I am. Also keep slaves, also kill gays, etc. How responsible for all that crap do I get to hold them?

    Or what about republicans? I’ve got a lot of few republican friends. Just how much should I judge their asses for their voting habits?

    Clearly I’d be justified in ripping someone a new one for being a Nazi. On the other end I’ve got friends who are super-progressives who look down on anyone who votes democrat, and that’s egregiously stupid (see Florida 2000 Presidential Election).

    I haven’t found the line between the two, either in terms of what’s justified or in terms of what’s productive.

  12. Ed
    15

    Uncle Ebenezer (9)

    I often feel that way, too, but to use a famous example, would you like to meet someone who was not only a Biblical literalist but also an alchemist? If it was Isaac Newton, I sure would (if I lived back then). Voltaire used him as a perfect example of how people can be deeply devoted to rational values in one area of their lives but not others.

    If there was a thriving, sizable minority of people in all places and occupations who were essentially free of the major prejudices and superstitions, I may or may not decide to limit my close personal interactions to them.

    But if I tried to apply such standards in my setting, I’d have to meet all my communal needs with the dozen or so people in my Humanist group and a guy at work who is active in American Atheists (and apparently some of them are pretty weak on important social issues, though my friend is not an example of this).

    My experience has been that there are people who all things considered make the world a better place even if they believe in ghosts or have been conditioned to give lip service to unenlightened ideas.

  13. 17

    andrew says

    February 19, 2015 at 2:06 PM

    This is an area where I haven’t found a balance, and I don’t even know if there is one. On the one hand … christians. If you tell me you’re Christian, that means, in all likelihood, that you revere the Bible, and more often than not that you accept it as God’s Word. And the Bible says that God said to kill apostates … which I am. Also keep slaves, also kill gays, etc. How responsible for all that crap do I get to hold them?

    Well, you should at least recognize that self-identified Christians often haven’t even read a good portion of their own book, so it might be a better idea to at least pin down their denomination, first, and know what it means when they say “High Church Episcopalian” vs. “Roman Catholic”. Merely being ‘Christian’, frankly, the only really safe assumptions (and even here you need to be ready for exceptions) is that they accept the tenets of the Nicine Creed.

    Or what about republicans? I’ve got a lot of few republican friends. Just how much should I judge their asses for their voting habits?

    Just because someone identifies as Republican doesn’t mean they always vote straight-ticket. It’s also reasonable to include, in larger group judgement calls like this, the possibility of ignorance of elements of their own organization’s traits. Hell, in some cases, assuming ignorance is actually the better bet–look at how the country as a whole voted more for Republicans–even in states that passed laws about pot legalization, gay rights and the minimum wage.

    I haven’t found the line between the two, either in terms of what’s justified or in terms of what’s productive.

    There’s a lot of elements at play. I think that, if you’re going to judge group affiliation, you do need to know something about the dynamics of the group, in particular how lockstep they are in their views. A specific congregation is going to be more homogenous than a denomination, for instance–so if someone is cheerfully attending mass and nodding at sermons delivered by a ‘the gays will burn’ preacher, you’re justified in making a more solid assumption than simply knowing that someone identifies as an evangelical Christian without further clarification.

    Another element is how strong the group identification is. Someone who answers, “Which party do you support?” with, “Why, the Gee-Oh-Pee, of course!” is in a different boat than someone who says, “Oh, I suppose I’m a Republican.”

  14. 19

    @OP
    Very agreed.

    Now, if only most people around here would understand this as my basis of (mildly) condemning self-identified Catholics (because of their support for an organization which child rapes and systematically protects the rapists, which is responsible for the deaths of millions of people in Africa from AIDS because of their lies and obstruction regarding condoms, the deaths of many pregnant women who are denied life saving abortions, etc.).

  15. 20

    One of the best things i have read in a long time. Thank you – discrimination *In Its Original Sense* is a sign of thought, not assumption. What a person chooses to say about themselves matters.

  16. 21

    @Ed 15- I ‘m not an absolutist per se. I have a couple FB friends with substantial views that I disagree with but they are 1.) family, and/or 2.) they don’t post/argue on the topics of dissent. A couple points on your Newton analogy though: being a Biblical literalist or Alchemist would be much more acceptable in Newton’s day than it is now. Being a BL now would mean ignoring: Darwin, Paleontology, genetics etc., and likewise being an Alchemist in 2015 would mean ignoring centuries of progress in Chemistry/electromagnetism etc.

    More to the point, neither one is an affiliation that speaks to human values. A person could be a Biblical Literalist even today, but provided they don’t fight against Secularism, support Creationism/ID in schools or support/promote abortion restrictions, restrictions on SSM, Hobby Lobby type discrimination etc., their views wouldn’t bother me to the point of shunning them.

    For example: I have a friend who is a pretty hardcore Catholic, but he mostly doesn’t preach to others about it, so we get along fine and I continue to be friends with him in person and on FB. He recently got married. And his wife is REALLY outspoken about her Pro-Life stance. It makes me sick for several reasons, so I’m not FB friends with her and would probably choose not to be around her too often because of her views and her activism that is trying to actively harm women by assaulting their bodily autonomy.

    1. Ed
      21.1

      (21)

      Yea, that’s pretty similar to my criteria. Do they insert the problematic issue into conversations and activities that have nothing to do with it and how extreme is their commitment? Do they simply hold an opinion that I consider offensive or do they belong to dubious organizations? If so, is their membership still more of a social thing with token support or are they serious activists and donors?

      Like your friend`s wife, some people aggressively push their agenda to the point that close association with them is almost collaboration in itself (or a non-stop debate). I had a friend who I knew was a Petecostal and believed in demons constantly active in people’s lives.

      This was annoying but not terrible until she started bringing it up all the time, saying that several events per day were the result of demons or witches, accusing me and other people on a regular basis of being possessed by demons and/or being witches, praying loudly in public and generally being a creepy nuisance. No thanks!

      Then things like intentional, self-conscious racism and membership in hate groups are so offensive that just knowing someone was like that would ruin it for me even if they behaved perfectly well in regular settings.

      But there is also an interesting dynamic where the more mainstream enlightened ideas become, certain people go from the “wrong but tolerable” category to the “horrible” category because society, or at least a large part of it, has progressed while they stood still or even moved backward.

  17. 22

    Shorter Gemmer:

    It’s okay to assume good or neutral things based on information a person gives you about themselves, but it is not okay to assume negative or harmful things from negative or harmful information, because that would remove the cover under which manifestations of oppression operate, and give the victims some power/voice. We can’t have that now can we.

  18. 23

    Wayyyyy back when I was a teen / early twenties sometime, I joined some kind of local chapter or whatever of the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Back then, it would have been entirely true to characterise me as having zero economics knowledge, although I would have resented that aspersion at the time. Today, I would go further and say that lacking economics knowledge is actually a defining characteristic of someone identifying as a LaRouche Movement member, and hence I would immediately think less of anyone identifying as such on that basis.

    Plenty of other labels lend themselves to similar judgement in my view; another example might be someone identifying as Republican, a Glenn Beck fan and so forth. Those are identifiers of choice, and tell me that the person is likely bigoted and politically repugnant. I’m sure there are exceptions, but judgement based on chosen identifiers seems to work as a rule of thumb.

    Other times though, I can see some problem areas. If I told someone that I was an atheist, and on that basis they assumed I shared Sam Harris’s horrible views on Islam, I would be pretty damn irritated; not just at the person for insulting me with that comparison, but also at Harris himself all over again. This would be a similar judgement in that it is based on my chosen identifier, but happens to involve things that another person with that identifier has chosen to do.

    Thus, while I agree with the general point being made, it is entirely possible to go overboard with the assumptions of generalised behaviour (which I believe is the point Edward Gemmer is trying to make). Identifiers can be informative about someone’s politics for example, and judgements can certainly be a useful shortcut in many scenarios, but the possibility of inaccuracy can’t be discounted. In the example of the girl scout uniformed child earlier in the thread, assuming the person to be an actual girl scout is a pretty damn solid assumption, but maybe it’s just a costume for a party. No drama, this doesn’t discredit the usefulness of the shortcut. Just make the initial judgement cautious and open to revision and I think things will be all good.

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