I have always prided myself in being the person that my friends can talk to when they are in a bad place. It is in my nature to be mothering to my chosen family. I have had people come to me for all sorts of advice, including wading the murky waters of mental illness or escaping a toxic relationship.
In my own mind, I am a thoughtful and caring human being with an open mind and an open heart. No matter what the situation, no judgement or criticism befalls those that I care for. Or so I believed.
Over the past year I have come to discover that in truth, I am an extremely judgmental person.
I am not just talking about laughing at people who wear camouflage dresses at their own weiding or rolling my eyes at a talk show host I do not agree with. I have found myself complaining to my partner about people I call friends for doing little more than just being themselves.
When I was a child, my father always tried to teach me not to be too harsh on other people. He would always say “they are just trying to get through the day.” The statement echoes in my ears now and again when I realize I’m not being as compassionate or empathetic as I think I am.
But is this just a personal realization, or a global cultural trend?
Of course, as a young person, I am quite active on social media. Every other day I see a viral post where someone does something “cringey” or something that seems innocently hilarious. Over the next few days, because of the circles I am in, I will see the same viral content with comments elaborating on why the post’s reaction is problematic, bullying or some other form of wrongness.
It is natural to have a gut reaction to something. A video, on the surface, may make you chuckle, cry or get angry. But a second look is required to get the full picture of what may be going on, not just in a viral video but in loved ones’ and even strangers’ lives.
It is easy to judge and make assumptions when you have never been in that situation. Does the saying “walk a mile in their shoes” ring a bell? But this advice isn’t so simple anymore, not when we’ve created communities around prejudice and shaming. For example, a group on Facebook exists dedicated to “wedding shaming,” particularly ugly dresses, confederate flag decorations and what the group is at liberty to deem bad decision making from grooms and brides to be.
There are nearly 150,000 Facebook users in this group. What probably used to be a community of “good intentioned” folks is now a Facebook group four times the size of the student body of Tech. And this isn’t the only “shaming” group I have encountered.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of groups like this where people poke fun at strangers on the internet.
Sometimes it is funny. Sometimes people post their own wedding stories because they want to share their mistakes. But sometimes it is not funny. The group turns into what the internet likes to call a “dumpster fire” of people making fun of poor couples in courthouses or plus sized brides in ill-fitting dresses. I can only imagine what other groups on the internet may be lurking, with far worse intentions, but with the same purpose: to judge.
In high school I had a friend who had a particularly hard time. Family issues coupled with confusion revolving around identity and friendships left them exhausted and manic. A close friend of theirs to this day, I bristle in anger when anyone tries to explain their behavior saying things like “they were just crazy” or some other judgmental and ignorant statement. I think about how it must feel to be them and feel this judgement so long after the fact. Then I think about that person who just does not seem to understand. But I am that person, not for my friend but for others.
I have cast aspersions on people I did not know for their actions and choices for which I did not know the context.
I have become assimilated to a world where judgment and dismissal are normalized, and I believe many people my age have too. I wonder how people may perceive me, not knowing the context of my life and my surroundings, and I realize that I, along with virtually everyone on Earth, desires acceptance and understanding.
If others could see the big picture, or even realize that there is a big picture, things might move a lot easier in our culture.
It is okay to make those first judgments — where we cringe, cry, or laugh — but only if we are committed to returning to those judgments and reflecting. It is more important to think critically and see the bigger picture than it is to derive enjoyment from judgment and shame.
Sometimes it is okay to just take things at face value, and sometimes we must challenge ourselves to look deeper.
It is our job as young people, as intellectual people, as humans, friends and family members, to decide which action a situation calls for and when we must act instead of simply sit and judge.