The Necessary Evils of Being Judgmental

Jon Rivers

I’ve always been a terrible snob, but almost everyone is, in one way or another. We all judge negatively from time to time, and when we judge negatively we look down, and when we look down on anything we are being snobs.

If I replay the judgments I made just this morning within three blocks while walking to the library, it’s a rather shameful catalog of intolerance. As I made my way down the hill to Santa Monica Boulevard, I was forced to leave the sidewalk and walk on the street. I was about to tweet, “Obese couple + Dogs on long leashes = Blocked sidewalk.” I thought better of actually posting it because I correctly judged it too nasty for public comment; a more balanced, tolerant judgment overrode a grumpier, bitchier one. Did I really need to broadcast my transient wrath over such a silly thing?

Turning the corner, I made the following observations to myself: Three old queens walking one dog… No wonder small dogs are the symbol of West Hollywood… Kill me if I ever get like that… You won’t get like that: They’re lifestyle queens, sisters wearing Brooks Brothers, you look like an aging Norse king… There’s that awful rainbow crosswalk, so dirty now; it’s even more of an eyesore than it ever was… That hick tourist teen I overheard that day complaining to his parents that he didn’t want to walk over it again was so right: it is the very worst of Ghey. Sickening. That homophobe kid was kinda cute, though. Stop, he was maybe fifteen, you old pedo. Hey, if they’re old enough to breed… Shut up. You don’t even like kids; they’re not sexy.

Near the library, a street schizo talking to himself out loud limped by. He evoked feelings of pathos, and relief: There but by the grace of God go I. Just before reaching my destination, I crossed a playground area where I saw a three-year-old boy wearing a white yarmulke. Again awash in pity, I thought, Aw. So sad. Too young to be indoctrinated with that dangerous bullshit. Then I thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the electronic doors of the library whooshed open, I rounded the whole fusillade off with my usual outraged mantra: Religion poisons everything.

I’m somewhat less draconic with my opinions now than I was as a teen, but I’m certainly no Dalai Lama, who makes judgments all the time, of course; they’re just not as unkindly as mine. The whole reason he’s the Dalai Lama to begin with is because of a series of judgments he made as a child about possessions that belonged to his predecessor. This led the interregnum authorities of the medieval theocracy that ruled Tibet to declare him the fourteenth reincarnation of the same being, Kundun Drup, the Bhodhisattva of Compassion. I judge that to be ridiculous and impossible, but there I go being unkind again, although not uncompassionate toward those who feel the need to believe such nonsense. Religion poisons everything — yes, even Buddhism.

A battle of judgments erupted last week between fashion critic Joan Rivers — how a garish, vulgar, loud-mouthed comedienne ever became and arbiter of style is a mystery*, but nothing to be taken seriously by the real fashion world, but there I go again with my judgments — and CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield during an interview promoting River’s new book. If you haven’t seen it, take a look:



The upshot is Whitfield rightly calls Rivers “mean,” and Rivers judges Whitfield to be the wrong person to interview a comedian. In my judgment, Rivers is being outrageously hypocritical. It would be polite to say that her logic is fallacious; she’s making her glass-slipper argument fit the foot of a hideous stepsister. We don’t need the Dalai Lama to tell her that making fun of people and their sense of style as an antidote to the harshness of life is just plain cruel. As for Whitfield not being the right person to interview a comedian, that’s just purely preposterous; the woman clearly has a sense of humor, and it’s not like Rivers is some special creature who speaks another language, the context of which is being lost on Whitfield owing to poor translation. But Rivers kept repeating this specious unsuitability excuse right through to her coup de grace against the hapless Whitfield a few nights later on David Letterman.

Whitfield inadvertently pushes Rivers into cognitive dissonance, which I’ve written about before in the context of the increasingly delusional actions of the Republican Party. Rivers’ judgment derails and she begins to tell outright lies with the express purpose of making herself right. As a seasoned entertainer who, as she notes, has been making people laugh for fifty years, Rivers should know that no actress makes anywhere near twenty-eight million a film even with a hefty performance bump, unless Scarlett Johansson has substantial points on gross for The Avengers series, and if she does then I want her agent to represent me when I grow up.

As for celebrities not caring what the press — particularly TV press — thinks about what they wear? Every celebrity I have ever known or worked with has taken to heart what the press said about how they looked on the red carpet; it’s a performance like any other, and he or she has been critiqued. Why not care?

Knowing that she has dug herself in to a logical sewer swarming with mendacious rats that even she can’t tolerate — perhaps even fearing that she has tipped over into being a bat-shit-crazy old lady — Rivers leaves in a huff. Then she makes an appearance a few nights later on Letterman and spawns yet another viral video when he walks off. This time it’s clearly staged. I don’t believe the first incident with Whitfield was a deliberate publicity stunt; it’s too wacky, with the animal-rights issue and the warped logic about the purpose of comedy.

Right there, in that last clause, I made two judgments: that the interview was “wacky” and that Rivers’ logic was “warped.” How am I any better, any less wacky and warped than she?

That’s up to you, dear reader, to decide, by making your own judgment about me. As an opinionator, someone who “provokes the provocateurs,” as I proclaim in the marketing for this website, I have almost as many people who dislike my judgments and believe them to be wrong as I do people who think them right. Well, maybe not almost as many; I’m being unkind to myself and overly judgmental.

Indeed, when we don’t like people’s opinions, we often accuse them of being judgmental, as if that’s a bad or unnatural thing. But imagine going through your day, even for a single hour, without making a single judgment call. Impossible: we make them even when we dream.

Rather than telling others to stop being so judgmental, rather than taking exception when they differ with us, we should take a step back, let that water of difference of opinion slide off our backs, and shake the excess off with a wiggle of our tail feathers. Then devise a response.

In other words, we should behave more the way Rivers imagines celebrities do with regard to her judgment: with barely a shrug. And we should behave more the way Rivers ought to have behaved in the Whitfield interview. She could have calmly — even with her signature abrasive, raucous style — agreed with Whitfield that she is mean, but explained that being mean is part of her currency in trade, that it is the nature of satire and her brand of comedy, and therefore legitimate; love her or switch her off. Rather than erroneously stating that celebrities don’t care that she’s splattering shit all over their sense of style and tarnishing their images, she could have rightly pointed out that attracting more judgments than usual is the price of being in the public eye, and used her old catchphrase, “Get over it.” And Rivers herself should have gotten over it when Whitefield judged her objectively and correctly.

Rivers’ decision to leave the interview was an impulse judgment, the most dangerous kind. It was wrong, but we forgive her. Had she been Lindsay Lohan, she would have been seen as a bratty Hollywood kid. Most of us see Rivers’ as the actions of a cranky old yenta who feels she is being dissed.

There are three types of judgments that correspond with Freud’s three types of awareness:

  • Instinctive Judgments (Id). These are simple actions taken with no apparent thought guiding them. Must go to post office now…Walk to car… Turn on car… Foot on accelerator to go, brake to stop… Left at traffic light… Indicator on
    No longer conscious of her actions, Rivers takes off the earpiece and leaves the interview.
  • Subconscious Judgments (Ego). These are made by your inner voice in conversation with itself. Hot guy over there, nice body. Couldn’t date anyone who wears that white flat cap. What is he thinking? Oh, they repainted that railing. Looks good.
    Rivers makes the judgment that she is being disrespected, that the interviewer isn’t aware of who she is and what she has done for animal rights, that Whitfield doesn’t agree with her justifications of being mean in the name of good comedy.
  • Conscious Judgments (Super-Ego). These you are completely aware of, often because you are being asked to vocalize them by an external entity. When the trial began I assumed he was probably guilty. (Shit, am I racist? Was that racial profiling? I hate myself.) But now that I’ve been presented with the evidence I am fairly certain he is innocent.
    Rivers is not only a well-known arbiter of style — and therefore objectively right in her judgments because she gets paid for them — she can make the correlation between leather shoes and fur coats, and vocalizing it makes her feel even more right.

Self-judgment is essential; it ultimately influences how we judge people, actions, objects and events outside ourselves. It’s a challenge to have accurate self-judgment; to a man and woman, almost all of our inner mirrors are warped to some degree by external forces, namely those that were formative, by our parents, teachers, friends whose opinions we admired when we were younger. Those who aren’t completely insane, only relatively so — we are none of us completely sane —, must use all three levels of judgment to select those who would adjust our inner mirrors so that we can function better.

How do you know if someone’s judgment about you is correct? You cannot rely on one source. You need a jury of your peers. If the consensus points to an area that has room for improvement, or conversely one that is a positive attribute — and we should give as much weight to the positive as we do to the negative, which is counterintuitive given that the positive doesn’t threaten us, but the negative does — then it is worthy of our focus.

I’ve alluded a great deal to my traumatic formative years, what I tell people was a “miserable childhood in a gilded cage.” My inner mirror was severely warped. As a result, my self-judgment was more often than not crippling, and absolutely nonsensical; it had little bearing on the objective reality of who I am.

My twin Achilles’ heels were correlative: arrogance and low self-esteem. By adjusting one, I eventually took care of the other.

When I was in my twenties, the adjective I heard most often to describe me was “arrogant.” As long as I lived within the rarified districts of the socio-cultural background I was born into, this wasn’t a problem; everyone was somewhat arrogant and grandiose compared to less affluent social groups. And the combination of sophisticated judgments with an aristocratic tone of voice that has been fine tuned in Europe yields the appearance of true snobbery in an American. But even by those standards, I was pretty bad, and it was setting me back.

The first person to make me aware of my arrogance problem my roommate’s boyfriend when I lived in Australia. I was twenty years old. I’d gone down there because the local film industry was booming, I had Aussie citizenship via my mother, and it was about as far away from my family as I could get. Australia is also somewhat of a right of passage for Britishy kids like me from a certain background; there’s nothing like Australians to put you in your place, mate. It’s a sobering experience, a good one.

The roommate’s boyfriend was a commercials director. He came home one day from a shoot for a new men’s fragrance called Arrogance and handed me the bottle. “Here,” he said. “Thought about you all day on set. This has your name on it.” The trouble is, I was flattered. After all, how negative can an attribute be if it is the name of a fragrance? Never mind that the product flopped; they had bottled me and shot a whole commercial for it. From then on, I got so used to hearing people call me arrogant that I just assumed it was akin to a physical attribute I could do nothing about, like being tall or having blue eyes.

It wasn’t until twelve years later that the same mess of faulty wiring that made me appear so arrogant — how can anyone who is truly that also have such low self-esteem? — hampered me to such a degree both in my personal and professional relationships that I sought help in the form of concentrated meditation and what might be considered dialectical behavior therapy at the hands of a psychiatrist who was also my spiritual teacher. Gradually, over another eight years, as my behavior towards others changed, as I halted the withering judgments in my mind as well as on my tongue. People stopped calling me arrogant.

The cause of my arrogance was entirely behavioral, a defense mechanism; I made judgments based on reflections from my hitherto warped inner mirror. The low self-esteem that had given rise to the arrogance was far more difficult to manage; worse, the arrogance was no longer there to shield the low self-esteem from view. My warped self-image was a deep-seeded belief planted and nurtured by my parents, kept hothouse-robust by my own hypersensitivity.

My life partner, who listened to a litany of insecurities every night that had long replaced my childhood bedtime prayers, said, “People who don’t know you as I do would never believe how you see yourself. It makes no sense. It’s your Achilles’ heel.” And yet it seemed nothing could ever stop this monstrous self-judgment from gnawing at my mind relentlessly.

That single judgment, from the person closest to me who wasn’t a toxic family member, began to unwarp my inner mirror, to redirect it. It wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t the only outside influence to redirect the inner mirror. Over the course of a few years, my self-judgment changed, to the point that my internal sense of being is now more or less in line with the external confidence I project.

I am still judgmental, always will be, and heartily self-critical, but wholesomely so, I think. How do I know it’s wholesome? I am so much happier in general, consistently.

Self-judgment is crucial for many reasons, foremost amongst which is it determines the direction of your moral compass. A corrupt set of values can set off a series of bad judgments that can be detrimental to you. In the worst case scenario, they can grievously harm others — heaven forbid you wield any real power over others.

We need to be particularly careful in the era of social media; our poor or skewed judgments can be broadcast instantly. The exceedingly poor judgments of a multitude of Republican loudmouths aren’t even worth discussing; they’re so deranged as to evoke the same pity I showed the shouty-crackers schizo in the park outside the library. I’m talking about people who are worthy of admiration who tend to misstep before thinking clearly.

Celebrities like Joan Rivers, or liberal blowhard Alec Baldwin, or even the affable Jonah Hill are understandably warped by an arrogance brought on by public adoration. Thoughtless bad judgment landed Baldwin in such hot water, over and over, that he’s had to retire from the public eye. It’s probably for the best: his internal mirror could use a little quiet time to adjust itself.

That brings me back to the series of judgments I made before I wrote this piece. I resisted tweeting about the obese couple with the dogs on long leashes, who took over the entire sidewalk and forced me to walk on the road. I also thought they were terribly dressed, by the way — those tight shorts were very ill advised for people of their age and girth. But if I replay the scene, I can look at them differently: they are a loving couple, secure enough with themselves that they don’t have to worry about appearance; they are still engaged in pleasant conversation with each other after what is clearly a long time together given the ages of the matching dogs; their dogs are pure breeds, they are in an affluent neighborhood, and we know what the result of that equation is; my judgment about their clothing is based on a set of criteria that they don’t share — they’re out walking the dogs! — so fuck me.

In the end, I made the right conscious judgment to rein it in and not broadcast my subconscious judgment about the fat dog walkers to Twitter and Facebook. It wasn’t funny; it was merely me thinking I might appear funny in public at the expense of two very nice people who didn’t block my path on purpose. And, no, Joan, my life isn’t tough enough to squash somebody else’s ego to make myself feel better.

We can never stop being judgmental. In fact, we’d might as well stop saying, “Stop being so judgmental.” But how do we know when it’s good or bad to deploy negative judgment? There’s a great deal of subjectivity in that, but I think it boils down to humaneness. Does your negative judgment correct wrongdoing? By wrongdoing I mean a serious crime, not a transgression against our individual morals or a failure to adapt to a set of behaviors we subjectively deem as correct. In that instance, we’re no better than Joan Rivers on the red carpet. We’d might as well keep our mouths shut and cross to the other side of the road.

But if your negative judgment is righteous, if it will change humanity for the better, or even divert a single person from harm, then by all means fire away.


* In fairness to Joan Rivers, I like her very much personally. She has entertained me in her stupendous ballroom apartment in New York, and it was a great party, buzzing with positive energy and laughter. While not exactly modernist restraint, every inch of the place was impeccably decorated. I fully understand why she is a style critic; she does have great taste.

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