The moral qualities of someone are as important as their expected competence.
A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.
What we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And we can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting.
The judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other.
It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.
You succeeded, so you must be happy, right?
It is somewhat curious to think how we arrived at considering happiness as a byproduct of success. Even in such disparate groups as my clients and my students have come to the same conclusion: that successful people must be happy because they reached what they wanted in life—money, power, social status, public acknowledgment.
This means that since happiness seems a reasonable goal to pursue my students and clients tend to imitate those models to chase that success.
My suspicion is that this attitude leads to the opposite result, especially if we do not define the word happiness precisely but rather define it only by its means.
The Value of Being Misunderstood
So, did you judge this book by its cover? Or were you intrigued by the title? The subtitle? And now you encounter these lines are you drawn in or put off by this attempt to engage you directly? It’s complicated now I think of it. As I write, I’m conscious of different audiences who might want different things and equally that there is no way to deliver on such a wide range of expectations.
Are you judging me? There is a quick heat in the question which is revealing. Implicit in my tone is chagrin and accusation. ‘Don’t be so judgemental’, I’m saying, in a quite judgemental way. To call someone ‘judgemental’ always seems like a negative judgement, doesn’t it? After all I wouldn’t say it after a round of applause, or a compliment. Those more positive appraisals just don’t have the same impact. When it comes to judgement, criticism weighs much more heavily than praise.
Calling you ‘judgemental’ is a defensive move on my part, an accusation that you are being critical and asks you to explain yourself. My question, ‘Are you judging me?’ is loaded with the discomfort of being scrutinized and found wanting and invites me to judge you in return as a form of protective retaliation. I’m asking what your status is in relation to me and what relevance my actions have to you. ‘Who do you think you are anyway?!’
But do I really want you to stop judging me? Sure, right there and then, I do. I want to avoid negative appraisal, so I’d like it to stop. The safer language of ‘live and let live’, ‘each to their own’ is where we turn when we feel exposed to the harsh glare, and wish to escape scrutiny.
But true escape from judgement is a fantasy. How can we live meaningfully without being judged at all? Even criticism is necessary to living well. Without it we’d be playing tennis with the net down. Other people are necessary for our survival on many levels. They are sources of pleasure, goods, information, but most of all they shape our self-image and self-esteem. While it can be painful at times, the judgement of others is also a source of significance and a necessary path to feeling justified. A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.
Alongside the tribulations and unfairnesses of critical judgement lies the tentative hope for kinder appraisals. Raymond Carver, in the poem ‘Late Fragment’, written at the end of his life, concluded that he got what he wanted from this life, namely ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ With Carver we want to feel beloved or at least admired, or respected or just recognized. So, what we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And I can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting, quite independently of that hope. I don’t want your charity, or sympathy, or to turn you into a puppet or to generate mere canned applause. It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.
The psychoanalyst Leslie Farber describes our attempts at willing what cannot be willed. His examples (I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping, eating, but not hunger, meekness, but not humility . . . ) are troubling enough. But this is worse. In the case of receiving good judgement, even if I could will it to happen, the judgement resulting wouldn’t be worth having. If there is no attendant risk of receiving bad judgement, then the good judgement we receive loses its value. Judgement worth having needs to be fraught with the possibility of painful failure if it is to matter. And this is why we feel so deeply ambivalent about it, and will often pretend to wish our need for it away. It is really why my question contains emotional heat.
By ‘judgement’ I’m thinking of the social and moral judgements we make of each other in different forms, mainly evaluations of character or action, including the appearance and status, of another person especially around their competence or motivation. These ways of seeing each other pepper our interactions, whether through barely perceptible flinches and gut feels through to more conscious assessments, sometimes negative and sometimes positive, but judging all along. Throughout this book I’ll be exploring how this capacity, while necessary, is often partial, inconsistent, self-serving, skewed and for these reasons unevenly distributed. And that this unreliability applies as much to how we judge ourselves as it does to how we judge each other.
The unreliability of our judgements ensures that the understanding we have of each other is similarly limited, which is why no one will ever truly understand you. Much of this book is an exploration of the limits to the knowledge we can have of each other and the corresponding feeling that most of us, for much of the time, can feel unknown, alone and other.
When I was nearly 10 years old, my family moved from Beirut to Purley in south London. We had left after the civil war in Lebanon started in 1975 and headed to be near my mother’s parents in Croydon. Our first British summer was the famously hot drought of 1976, with temperatures up in the 30s and people needing to ration water. This at least gave us all, my brother, sister and me, some familiar context in what felt an otherwise very unfamiliar country, a country with people who only had one pair of shorts! We all struggled with the adjustment in various ways, my Jordanian father tackling the idiosyncrasies of ‘British middle management’ and having to commute to and from the Middle East for work, my mother after fifteen years abroad finding us schools and somewhere to live. The primary school we went to was just up the road from our house in Purley, so an easy commute at least. But it was a disorientating experience nevertheless, not least because the teachers, seeing that I had a Christian middle name, decided to call me Paul, and I didn’t have the courage to correct them for over a year.
I remember one afternoon getting the results of a maths test. I had got nine out of ten on the test and should have been pleased with that. Unfortunately, the mark I lost was because I had written the correct answer in Arabic. The answer was six, which written in Arabic is indistinguishable from an English seven. Rather than just let it lie, I decided to mention it to the teacher during the lesson. Too seIf-conscious to put my hand up, I can remember walking up to the front of the class and leaning over to whisper to him what had happened. He looked at me with disbelief, and clearly thought I was trying to cheat. I felt embarrassed, and falsely accused during my slow walk back to my chair, my ears reddening with shame. I could hear sniggering. The sense of alienation I had in this new terrain was thus underscored, and I gained a painful insight that is expressed well by the writer and psychotherapist Adam Phillips in his book Monogamy:
“We work hard to keep certain versions of ourselves in other people’s minds; and, of course, the less appealing ones out of their minds. And yet everyone we meet invents us, whether we like it or not. Indeed nothing convinces us more of the existence of other people, of just how different they are from us, than what they can make of what we say to them. Our stories often become unrecognizable as they go from mouth to mouth.
Being misrepresented is simply being presented with a version of ourselves, an invention that we cannot agree with.”
My maths test episode stays with me as just one example of being misunderstood in this way. The story being told of me was unrecognizable to me. Yet I still internalized enough of the criticism to judge myself harshly for having made a fuss, and being foolish enough to get out of my chair. Pathetic! This kind of vivid example is thankfully relatively rare. But misjudgements, misunderstandings, misrecognition on a more banal level, are very common. Slight crossings of wires, mismatches in assumptions, desires, social missteps, all create a web of miscomprehension that shadows, and isolates us within, our daily lives. Even when written in lighter ink, these experiences of misjudgement and misconstrual, it seems to me, are a central feature of what it is to be human.
While this is a sobering thought, I’ll be arguing later that the story is not necessarily a bleak one. There is something hopeful that can come from our misapprehensions. In fact the gaps in knowledge between you and me often provide creative spaces in which our protean selves can develop and grow. Too much knowledge would be claustrophobic, predictable and bland. As Leonard Cohen puts it in the chorus of his song ‘Anthem’, a message echoed in the cover of this book,
“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Judging in the digital age
If you want to see how the terrain of judgement has become more complicated in recent years, just look at how much time and effort we invest in expressing ourselves online. And those who think we have become anti-social with an addiction to screens have got it backwards. As my daughter Anna once reminded me when I complained, ‘it is called social media, Dad’.
In presenting ourselves through digital lenses, only seemingly locked away from everyday life, we are instead locked into networks of others who communicate with and assess each other’s presentations of ourselves in a quite intense way. This is not always easy to see. We may focus on connection, relationships and gathering information as we communicate this way but this view tends to require we avert our gaze from how online performances are often set out with the hope we will be assessed well by others, who in turn respond in a similarly deliberate way, creating a hall of mirrors of mutual, hopeful, selfconscious reflections. It is hard to feel good about yourself when you now have a window on to a world of people presenting themselves in their best light, for comparison.
The way self-esteem is fed or starved through this medium can be seen with the rising rates of self-harming and online bullying alongside the everyday flow of selfies, gossip and the growth of tools like Instagram and Snapchat. And, of course, there can be harmful consequences for people who have yet to find out there is no delete button on the internet, who might say and show things they later regret.
Our culture has been so permeated by new forms of communication that we are no longer shocked to hear numbers that would have left us openmouthed in disbelief a decade ago: two billion people on Facebook consume 500 years of video every day; 350,000 tweets are produced every minute and 650 million blogs are written each day. And all of them adorned with metrics that give you some basis for comparison. You can count how many friends a person has, or how many ‘likes’ their post receives, their followers and subscribers, their retweets, Tumblr re-posts and YouTube views. And much as we deny the significance of such simplistic measures of success, it is very likely they have some kind of skewing effects on most people’s behaviour.
When you get out of an Uber you are invited to score the driver by clicking on one of five stars, but you need to remember that they are scoring you too. The first episode of Black Mirror, season 3, by Charlie Brooker takes this mutual scoring into a satirical dystopia in which people whose scores are constantly changing and constantly visible to all, panic as their rating falls below 4.2, which then limits their access to highstatus goods. Those who have fallen catastrophically to under 2 become the underclass. The power of the programme comes in echoing the ubiquity of digitally mediated social judgement that has so quickly become part of contemporary lives.
Take Twitter. Who can honestly say they have no idea how many followers they have? Who won’t feel a little blip of satisfaction to see new followers or re-tweets appearing under that little blue sign dubbed ‘notifications’. And who doesn’t send out a tweet wondering whether it will get acknowledged in some way? Why tweet at all unless you hope to be noticed and acknowledged? Three hundred and fifty thousand tweets per minute adds up to over half a billion attention-seeking messages every day.
We have all become broadcasters and now can reach much larger audiences with a click of a button than would have been possible for anyone outside of the media industries only a few years ago. And this leaves us open to much faster judgements if we get it wrong. The intensity of judgement is refracted brightly through a digital lens and makes it quite clear that those who thought the internet was a place to express yourself privately got it completely wrong. When Emily Thornberry MP sent out a tweet including an image of a house in Rochester swathed in England flags she was immediately judged harshly for the apparent sneer she was directing at a patriotic working-class voter.
This led to her resigning her post as shadow attorney general within days.
I’ll advised comments made can now race around the world in a Twitter storm as happened to Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate, whose career was ended within days of making sexist remarks during a conference in Korea.
Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been (Publicly) Shamed works through many cases of disproportionate punishment meted out to witless Twitterers who have crossed a line. The digital world may have intensified our proneness to judging and being judged in return. But it didn’t create that need, it just feeds ancient appetites. Rather like cheap fast food, so ubiquitously available today, that satisfies ancient evolved cravings for sugar and fat, we now can access mechanisms on a scale never seen before that feed the deep yearning we have for giving and receiving social judgement.
I was caught by a simple question recently, from a man who lives in difficult conditions in Zimbabwe. ‘Why do people in the West ever commit suicide?’ he asked. The question asks how it could be that life could seem unliveable when the profound hardships and deprivations that so many in the world still face have been so abundantly overcome. But we also, despite a culture that encourages us to fill up on luxuries, sense that consumption and material needs met do not ultimately satisfy. This observation also invites us to think about the comparisons we make with others and the standards we are then set by which we might see ourselves as failing. The internal judge of ourselves, based on such comparison, is often the hardest critic we face. In looking at and judging others’ lives, we can value our own by those lights, and this can lead to imagining their judgements of us in return. This in turn can lead to internalizing those verdicts, and often to finding ourselves so wanting as to make life seem worth less. Far from the optimistic assumption that our needs become more optional as they move from the primitive basics of food, clothing, shelter and ascend into the more abstract domain of self-esteem and recognition (as Maslow’s pyramid suggests), the need to feel justified in our lives, however physically comfortable, is just as profound as the need to thrive on a more basic level.
There is something poignant in Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘every man, however hopeless his pretensions may appear to all but himself, has some project by which he hopes to rise to reputation; some art by which he imagines that the notice of the world will be attracted’. It is poignant because we can picture such hope with no guarantee that it will be well met. Or maybe that we picture it will be met with harsh critique or possibly worse indifference; the vulnerable hoper is exposed callously to the depleted language of being ‘a nobody’ instead of ‘a somebody’, let alone a VIP.
As with economic and other resources, the judgement of others is very unevenly distributed. Some are rich with recognition, applause, goodwill, trust, reputation and others are starved of a good word. This would be bad enough if this uneven spread of good judgement were based on something approaching a fair and rational set of assessments. The courts dispensing ‘blind justice’ claim to be the emblem, if not the reality, of this ideal. But the worst of it is that the judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other, as I will explore in detail in this book.
This unequal distribution is intimately tied up with other kinds of inequality. Recent newspaper articles have talked about how the middle classes create a glass floor for their children. They have resources to ensure no child of theirs falls below a certain level of attainment and expectation in life no matter their lack of intellectual or other merits, and crucially this is because they have opportunities to increase their confidence in the world: their preparedness to expect to be well judged. As the acutely observant sociologist Erving Goffman commented over fifty years ago:
“In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports . . . . Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself during moments at least as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.”
By this account the vast majority of people are stigmatized one way or another. They have ‘spoiled identities’ in Goffman’s language. I don’t imagine this inequality will change any more easily than other entrenched unfairnesses that plague our society, but there may be benefit in exploring the strange texture of social judgement so as to avoid at least some of those pitfalls. In this book I want to explore the mechanisms of social judgement which happen every day so as to better understand the uncomfortable outcomes we seem to take for granted. And one of these uncomfortable outcomes is the feeling of isolation arising from the uneasy sense that people don’t truly understand us.
A tour of this book
When assessing claims it is understandable to ask for the evidence, and this often means scientific evidence. Evidence and argument are critically important in supporting claims, and it is thanks to this scientific principle that we can distinguish between effective medicines and magic, between bridges that will carry the weight of traffic versus those that will not. But these are relatively ‘tame’ problems. The scientific method will not always offer satisfying explanations of more complex phenomena, which are not so tame. By contrast many of our concerns in social life have instead the characteristics of ‘wicked problems’. ‘Wicked problem’ is a term used to describe a problem that does not have right or wrong answers (though hopefully better or worse ones); it is usually so uniquely set in a context that you can’t easily generalize from it; and the attempt to identify the dense array of underlying causes changes dramatically depending on what frame of reference you are using.
Many of the major social concerns of our times, such as inequality, good relationships, satisfying work or general well-being fall into the category of ‘wicked’. If you want to understand why unhappy families are unhappy in their own way (as Tolstoy said in the opening line of Anna Karenina) the sources of evidence and the nature of the argument will be a much wider array than falls within the ambit of experimental science.
And so it is with judgement in my view. Our ambivalent relationship with judgement, our often partial and unreasonable mechanisms for deploying it, and our flawed dreams of escape from that kind of scrutiny certainly can be illuminated by the work of experimental psychology. And I will be drawing on this work throughout the book. But this is also true of the more qualitative insights to be gleaned from philosophy, psychoanalytic traditions, anthropology, sociology, as well as those other deep repositories of human knowledge, popular culture and literature.
To deny this is to resemble the drunk man who leaves a pub one night and goes to the carpark to find his car. On his way, he realizes he has lost his keys. So he goes over to the nearest lamppost to search around for them. A policewoman looking on starts to help him, but after a few minutes of fruitless searching asks whether that’s in fact where he lost them and the drunk answers, ‘No, I lost them over there’, pointing over to an area in the surrounding darkness. The policewoman, puzzled asks him, ‘Then why are you looking for your keys here, if you lost them over there?’, to which the man replies, ‘Ah, because this is where the light is good.’ It is understandable to look for more certainty than can be had when investigating a phenomenon, and this ‘streetlight effect’ is a tendency to rely on what is more measurable than what might be more insightful even if harder to explore rigorously. Wicked problems often require that we peer into the dark.
Experimental psychologists nevertheless can help us see some features of human nature that generalize across human experience, and shed light on this by arranging the world to show up these daily illusions. They ask people to imagine a stone being dropped from a plane and then to guess where it would land. By showing the gap between our guesses (straight down) and the reality (miles ahead, we overlook the fact the plane is moving so fast), they can skilfully illuminate the biases and preoccupations that can fuel our outlook on the world. But in looking for such common features it is easy to overlook the very particular experiences that we as individuals encounter every day. An ultra-social animal trades in judgements because reputations are of the highest importance, but the particular experience of such judgement is highly contextualized and unique to the setting in question. To develop some insight into these it is valuable to look to films and novels and other forms of popular culture which tell particular stories set in a particular context. To understand the choices involved in developing a reputation we might turn to the compelling and specific story of Walter White in the hit TV series Breaking Bad as much as to generalizable experimental data. As the psychologist Dan McAdams puts it, ‘As artists we each fashion a singular, self-affirming life. As scientists, we notice how the life we have fashioned resembles certain other lives; we detect similarities, regularities and trends.’ Emphasizing the general over the unique, psychology tends to lump while literature splits.
In the spirit of a multi-level approach I draw on these diverse sources to build a picture that I hope more faithfully reflects the complex, ‘wicked’ reality, rather than to boil it down merely to what can be determined in the lab. I hope that this diversity of enquiry will also make for a more interesting read and help to justify the judgement you made in picking this book up in the first place.
I start with a tour of the social minefields in which we operate. As we tiptoe our way through convention and expectation, the threat of being judged ill plagues us and exposes us to many forms of social pain. Anxieties about awkwardness, embarrassment and guilt, shame’s fellow travellers, police our behaviour in profound ways, leading us to find ways to cope by hiding; by veiling our speech and our behaviour. People vary in the skill and knowledge they can use to develop good enough technique. Most of us move somewhere between seeming cool or chic on the one hand, and awkward and gauche on the other, micro-managing impressions as best we can along the way.
Zoom out from the micro-analysis of impression management and you start to see how reputations rise and fall over time. This is the subject of the next chapter. Reputations are some of the most valuable assets a social animal can accrue. In particular, the best reputations need to manage an unlikely tradeoff between being seen as well motivated on the one hand, and as competent or skilled on the other: both moral and able, to put it simply. But no one builds a reputation in isolation. It is granted. Whether you are deemed moral or able, both or neither of these of course lies in the eye of the beholder.
Unfortunately, the beholder’s eye is an unreliable one; the subject of Chapter 3. The lessons learned about how we deploy social and moral judgements on each other are sobering. We are laden with implicit biases, moral flinches and yuk reactions, alongside self-serving and hypocritical judgements which are coloured by the group allegiances to which we subscribe. Recent research in social and moral psychology, which I’ll explore in this chapter, reveals the scale of these tendencies. Our judgements of each other are far from a fair-minded and neutral assessment, however much we might persuade ourselves to see them in that light.
. . .
Judged, The Value of Being Misunderstood
by Ziyad Marar
get it at Amazon.com