In defense of being judgmental

A recent example of what happens when people ignore the traditional role of salaries as a means of rewarding performance is the owner who decided all his employees, himself included, should earn $70,000-a-year. The result was a disaster. Some people quit because less qualified people were rewarded simply for showing up and because new hires were paid the same as people who’d been there for years, and customers who feared prices would have to be raised to meet payroll started looking elsewhere. While an owner only has to deal with his family when it comes to setting his or her salary, it turns out that what you pay others counts. In fact, it’s the owner’s job to judge who should get paid what based on a variety of criteria.

The cultural norm relative to being judgmental these days is that it’s wrong. Critics argue being judgmental belongs to a bygone era when background, race, and gender determined one’s station. One problem with this ethic, however, is that it excuses anti-social and even criminal behavior in adults while admonishing parents not to pass judgment on their offspring lest they damage a child’s self-esteem.

As in the case of the misguided business owner, we as a society pay a heavy price for this non-judgmentalist ethic. It makes the job of those charged with enforcing rules and laws difficult if not impossible, as when a mayor restrains her police department from quashing a riot. It hinders teachers from focusing on learning skills and information; it makes it hard for business owners and public sector supervisors to accomplish tasks efficiently, and it restricts acceptable parenting, condemning for example allowing your child to play unattended in a park, even if it is across the street from your house.

Worse, non-judgmentalism provides a ready excuse for failure and justifies demands for treating those who fail as victims rather than demanding self-control, adherence to recognized standards, and taking responsibility for one’s behavior.

Judging others does not mean one can go around criticizing others willy-nilly. Passing judgment is inappropriate when offered in the wrong setting or at the wrong time.

Permission to be judgmental also doesn’t mean one can be hypocritical. You can’t criticize someone else for something you do yourself; you can’t be critical of a behavior you once engaged in in the past without admitting shared fault; you must focus on behaviors and avoid personal attacks; and you must be ready and able to defend your positions.

Our society needs people who are willing to be judgmental both publicly and privately. When people are able to get away with behavior that fails to come up to standards, ignoring that behavior often postpones the day of reckoning and the fall from grace is likely to be that much harder. Confronting a parent who is mistreating a child in a public place may be difficult, but unchecked such behavior may escalate, seriously endangering the child.

Most fields require participants achieve a high level of competence before one is accepted much less allowed to advance, which means passing judgment on aspirants. Professional sports are a prime example. Performance, not age, race, ethnic background, country of origin, intelligence test results, or other superfluous measures determines who makes the team and who gets paid what.

The arena where judgmentalism is most needed, however, is in our educational system. The pendulum has not just swung too far to the left, where the idea that a teacher may not require a black child to speak proper English because of slavery can be seriously entertained, the pendulum has gone off its tracks entirely. My wife was once expected to provide speech therapy services to five non-verbal children. That the teacher claimed she could tell what one child was saying by watching his eye blinks notwithstanding, the taxpayers, the child’s family, and the child were being bilked by a system that required a therapist be assigned to that child.

As in the past, many children learn today in spite of, not because of, what goes on in the classroom when teachers are fearful of defending established standards in the face of the notion that all ideas are equal and merit equal grades. Another disservice is the failure to demand students achieve minimum levels of competence before being advanced.

It is in the service of students’ need to acquire a core set of skills and foundational knowledge that I have never been in favor of undergraduate degrees in women’s studies, black studies, and the like. There is a difference between offering classes that focus on the experience of specific groups in society and pretending that taking a package of courses with that focus is the equivalent of acquiring foundational knowledge in an established field. This pretense damages students by postponing the reckoning that will inevitably come when they are confronted with social and workplace demands they cannot meet.

Of course, just as we have lowered our standards in education, we have lowered our standards for adult performance in the work place, making it difficult for supervisors to discipline and preventing people from being fired even for the most egregious behavior. In the long term, lowering standards fosters class conflict and makes us less competitive which lowers our gross national product, and which by the way contributes to income inequality. The job opportunities for black studies majors are miniscule.

Teachers do students a disservice when they are not subjected to judgmental responses to their contributions. Being forced to defend oneself and at the same time know when one needs to improve one’s effort are valuable lessons best learned by experience in school. The earlier the better.

Most successful people will tell you they started out as failures, but rather than making excuses or giving up, they learned from their failures and refused to accept defeat. Most will also tell you that there was someone in their lives who contributed to their eventual success by demanding they work harder.

It’s time for judgmentalism to make a comeback. Start by reviewing the standards by which you plan to judge restaurant food, TV reality shows, the hot novel, political debates, or whatever your target. Be certain you can defend your position and then, let your judgments fly.

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