Sunday, May 15, 2011

Judgment Is Belief Used as a Weapon

Driving down the freeway, I saw an old van spewing exhaust fumes in a cloud behind it.  My immediate thought was, What a jerk!  (Actually, it was something a bit harsher than "jerk," but that will do.)  Then, I responded back to myself, Why is the driver a jerk exactly?  I drive a hybrid that leaves a much lighter carbon footprint than many vehicles, and although I am pleased by the sense of environmental responsibility, my primary motivation is that I get incredible gas mileage and spend less money on fuel.  I use canvas bags when I go grocery shopping, essentially because it is a very easy habit that I perceive as having a significant effect on the amount of non-biodegradable waste I create without inconveniencing me in the least.  We recycle, which doesn't cost us any more than having our garbage collected and is as easy as throwing something in a different receptacle.  Very low impact on our habits, for a perceived higher impact on the environment, whether or not it actually makes a significant difference in the grand scheme of things.

A depiction of beliefs turned into judgments?
So, when I see this van fogging up the road with exhaust, I label the driver a jerk because he seems unwilling to do his part.  I'm doing my part, so he should at the very least be courteous and conscientious enough not to smog up the road in his wake.  This unknown person became, in my mind, ungrateful, irresponsible, insensitive, unintelligent, and oblivious.  But wait.  What if the driver really is oblivious?  How much of a jerk can a truly oblivious person be?  And while I don't necessarily enjoy the smell, how much confidence do I really have about the actual impact of this vehicle's exhaust?  Aside from my indignation, I don't have a wealth of empirical facts to go on.

On that same trip, I was flipping through radio stations, and I happened to land for a moment on an individual making an outlandish claim based more on a personal victimization theory than on factual evidence.  At the time I didn't associate my own judgment against the van driver with the radio personality's tirade.  Rather, I thought, Why don't people use their brains?  And the dialogue in my own head continued, Maybe they do.

Everyone doesn't see the same things I do, and when they do, they don't always draw the same conclusions I do.  It doesn't have anything to do with right or wrong.  We all come from different circumstances and experiences with different sets of information and beliefs, and so we can't all look through identical lenses.  Although I can't be certain (since I'm not in other people's heads), it's as likely as not that other people do indeed use their brains to their fullest capacity, draw the best conclusions that they can, and choose the courses of action they deem best.  Or some people may simply be oblivious.  How would they even know if they are?  How harshly do I really want to judge someone who literally doesn't know any better?

At the end of the day, I am responsible for my decisions, and I want those decisions to make sense with my knowledge and beliefs.  I can't know what's going on in other people's minds, so it ultimately doesn't make sense for me to assume malice where there may be ignorance or even a thoughtful approach that simply differs from mine.  My conflict with thinking that each person is only responsible for his own life is that I believe that we are interconnected, that we have an impact on and are impacted by other people.  I don't believe that anyone exists in a vacuum.  Our actions (and inaction) have an effect in the world.  That belief provides a framework for my own choices, and it's easy to form an expectation of how that belief can play out with other people who have the same sense of connection.  But how does that work in a messy world of people who are unaware or who have deep conviction about an entirely different interpretation?

The best conclusion I can draw is that my sense of connection with other people does not rely upon their sense of connection to me or anything else.  To judge other people based on my impression of how they should act assumes that everyone should see what I see, know what I know, and draw the same conclusions I draw.  I don't actually think anyone can know how things ought to be, so I don't really want to put myself in that place of perceived omniscience.  All I can do is live out my beliefs to the best of my ability, and accept that there is a world of people who see things from different perspectives.  None of us are completely right, but none of us are completely wrong either.

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