Observe, don’t judge

Why judgments are often subjective, not objective.

Observe, don't judgeThree scientists were on a train, and had just crossed into the Indian state of Karnataka. A small herd of elephants were marching on a hillside. The first scientist peered out of the window and said, “Look! Elephants in Karnataka are black!” The second one said, “No, no. Some elephants from Karnataka are black.” The third one looked irritated and said, “My friends, there is at least one field, containing at least one elephant, of which at least one side is black.”

The third scientist was wise, as he did not jump to conclusions. He’s aware that our judgments are not necessarily the reality. But, such wisdom is rare. More often than not, we find ourselves thinking like the first two scientists. We go on living our lives judging everything and everyone without having enough information. This is most evident from the dichotomous language we use in our day-to-day lives. We tend to divide everything into neat little categories of opposites. For instance, we always seem to be thinking in terms of good/bad, happy/sad, right/wrong. To be sure, dichotomy, in fact, is unavoidable and helpful too. Legal or illegal, healthy or unhealthy, hot or cold, or black or white are all factual dichotomies. Trouble begins when we start to be dichotomous in our value judgments. Rooted in subjectivity, such judgments are based on the rightness or wrongness of something, very often of moral or ethical nature. Judgments have nothing to do with reality. They are our opinions, not facts.

Judgment and facts

The dictionary defines “fact” as a thing that is known to have occurred, to exist, or to be true. Judgment, on the other hand, is an individual’s opinion, or viewpoint, about a particular issue. In other words, it is what the person believes, or thinks, and is not necessarily the truth. Facts are the same for everybody, but judgments can differ widely. For instance, “Mumbai is a city in Western India” is a fact, while “Mumbai is the best [or, worst] place to live in,” is a judgment.

Think about the number of judgments we make everyday, and you will realise the folly of doing so. Take a simple example: if it’s very hot on a certain day, and heat is making you uncomfortable, you may conclude that the day is “lousy.” That the day is hot is a fact. But, the label “lousy” is your opinion. It is not based on reality. Whether you call the day great or lousy, good or bad, awesome or terrible, it has no effect on the day which continues being what it is – hot!

Labelling only defines you

When we label people, things and events around us, we are not defining them, we are defining ourselves. In the above example, instead of blaming the day for being what it is, and on which you have no control, it is wiser to own up the responsibility, and say, that, “I am feeling lousy, because the day is hot.” This simple act of owning up also gives you the control and you can, thereafter, choose not to feel “lousy.” Think about it, if feeling lousy isn’t going to change a thing, why not simply choose to accept the day for what it is, and even try to enjoy it?

Warning: Danger ahead

You may find Shah Rukh Khan’s acting “mediocre,” while your friend is convinced that he is the best actor in the world. Neither your nor your friend’s opinion changes anything about Shah Rukh and his acting prowess. They are your respective judgments, not reality. While innocuous judgments such as these are okay, judgments can be harmful too. When your belief in your opinion is so strong that you refuse to accept that they are only your views, not necessarily facts, then you are setting yourself up for conflict.

Take an example of an otherwise loving couple who find themselves divided over the issue of abortion. One feels that abortion is a form of killing, a “sin” against humanity and it should, therefore, be discouraged. The other feels that abortion is a personal choice, it has nothing to do it moral values, and it should be left to the individual. Both are subjective judgments, not objective facts. Many such differences, if not checked, can lead to annoying arguments that can cause a strain on relationships, unless each individual allows the other to be, without judging. Just because the other doesn’t subscribe to our opinion doesn’t automatically make him or her wrong.

Take another, more global, example: cricket maestro Sachin Tendulkar’s performance in the 2007 Cricket World Cup. After India was ousted in the league matches, everyone and his brother had an opinion on what Sachin should do. Some said he should retire, some felt he should stop endorsing brands, and others felt that he’s only temporarily out-of-form and would be back to his old-self soon. Tons of newsprint and hundreds of hours of TV/radio airtime have already been spent on this debate, which incidentally, still continues as I write this piece. Millions of people, both professionals and common folk, discuss Sachin’s batting. It is all fine, as long as the discussion remains friendly, with opposing viewpoints being allowed to co-exist. The problem is, often these debates turn out to be heated arguments. They promote angst and conflict among people, who are convinced that their judgment is “reality.”

If you insist that unless others subscribe to your viewpoint, you will look at them with scepticism, and you will find yourself worked up almost all the time. This is because there are potentially as many views as there are people on the planet, and none may be aligned with yours.

Observe, don’t judge

Understand that just like you have a right to voice a viewpoint about something or someone, so do others – and, their viewpoints do not have to be the same as yours.

Unlike facts, judgments are always based on subjective evaluation. They can, therefore, be misleading. Also, in the absence of absolute information, it is impossible to say what’s right or wrong. Unless you know enough, you can’t be accurate in your assessment of people, events, and the world around you. The best alternative to being judgmental is to be neutral. Wherever possible, simply observe. Do not “jump to a conclusion.” When you find yourself doing so, become alert and critical of your thought processes. Understand the differences between facts and opinions; interpret and apply both into your critical thinking.

Observing without judging is freedom from taking sides. It is an acceptance of the “fact” that our planet is round. To recall the famous words of Dr Wayne Dyer, “When you live on a round planet, there’s no choosing sides.”

Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri has spent the last two decades learning, teaching and writing about wellbeing and mindful living. He has contributed over 1500 articles for several newspapers and magazines including The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Statesman, Mid-Day, Bombay Times, Femina, and more. He is a counseling therapist and the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed best-selling book on self-transformation. An award-winning editor, Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".



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