A contemporary phrase, repeated mantra like in a wide variety of situations, is “not being judgemental”. The phrase (which in a positive negative variant can have an ism attached to as in “non-judgementalism”) is meant to clearly indicate that the person saying it brings no prior judgement or prejudice to meeting other people or any social situation. This is quite a large statement so it’s worth just briefly going into it a bit further.
By being non-judgemental, an individual in the modern world is declaring that they are approaching other individuals without prior prejudice. This would include any vestige of discrimination, assumptions, preordained opinions and even political views relating to their beliefs, faith, sexuality and gender. Being non-judgemental is then very closely related to the set of core values which in many ways have come to define our modern society, namely a vigorous repudiation of discrimination in any of its manifestations, anti-racism, anti sexism, multi-culturalism and a strong commitment to equality and diversity.
A refusal to judge people, or as the conservative commentator Theodore Dalyrymple somewhat acerbically describes it ‘The Rush from Judgement’, (Not with a Bang, But a Whimper: The Politics & Culture of Decline, Monday Books 2009) is not only a much desired and vaunted attribute of people but is proudly declared as a core value of organisations and institutions. In mission statements, annual reports, progress reports, statements to the media and in countless other formats organisations as varied as schools and colleges, social services departments of local authorities and those same local authorities as a unit, central government departments and their legions of arms-length quangos, social care providers and the voluntary sector as a whole, as well as private companies and media outlets, will all declare their total commitment to being non-judgemental.
Non-judgementalism is an idea which broadly began in the fields of counselling and psychotherapy. There the concept of ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’, the affirmation and endorsement of all individuals as they enter into therapy irrespective of why they’ve come for treatment is a central idea. In both fields non-judgementalism flows from this key tenet and, accordingly, should inform every part of a therapist’s practice towards their client.
As the language used and concepts borrowed from therapy now influence entire areas of modern society in a process that has been described as the formation of a ‘therapeutic society’ or the ‘psychologising of society’ so being non-judgemental has become a significant term in our contemporary lexicon. By its repeated use it has almost taken on the form of a health check verifying that the individual or organisation using it is enthusiastically committed to ‘anti-discriminatory practice’ and the main core values. Indeed, I suspect that one of the worst statements an individual or organisation could make in a modern setting, especially but not exclusively in a social care context, would be: “I make judgements on people”. Like the proverbial scene in a wild-west movie when everything in the saloon bar stops as the stranger walks in, so there would be the equivalent deathly silence at this unforgivable faux pas.
At first glance declaring oneself to be ‘non-judgemental’ would appear to be very laudable. But on closer inspection it is actually revealed to be completely untenable and actually quite dangerous. I should make clear there is an important distinction to be made between being ‘open-minded’ and being ‘non-judgemental’. The former implies a level of broad-mindedness, willing to see a number of facets of an argument, including different, possibly radically opposed interpretations. It also implies a considerable degree of tolerance. But, in the last resort, the capacity to have an open mind does not preclude making a judgement, albeit that judgement is based on a broad consideration of all the various opinions that go to make up an argument, including importantly all the relevant facts that relate to it.
By contrast non-judgementalism means not taking a decisive line on any one side of an argument. There is no one superior set of opinions which can decisively decide whether an argument is ‘right’ or ‘correct’. All opinions are equally as valid and what holds true for opinions holds true equally for cultures and lifestyles; there is no one form of these which are superior to or more valid than any other.
In practice this leads to cultural and moral relativism. All religions, all backgrounds, all lifestyles cannot be judged by some external code of values external to themselves, but must be judged by their own inner validity. We cannot, for example, make a judgement on Islamic values or ways of life by the light of Christian values or vice versa. We cannot judge or condemn the lifestyle of, to use another instance, a drug user as feckless, wrong or lazy and appeal to some notion of a ‘normal’ ‘decent’ way of living because to do so is to appeal to a set of middle class values which ignores the real life circumstances of people who use drugs as a way of ‘coping’. And so on.
Rigorous adherence to non-judgementalism, as you would expect, leads to all sorts of contradictions and problems which are effectively insurmountable. Take for example the core set of values that relate to anti-discrimination, diversity and equalities. Are these not allegedly universal values, applicable in all domains and superior to values or thought-systems which promote discrimination? And, therefore, in a contest between someone espousing anti-discrimination and another advocating discrimination are we not obliged (rightfully) to judge the former superior to the latter? If so where does that leave the very notion of non-judgementalism?
The limits of non-judgementalism appear rapidly when proponents of opinions that do support discrimination and repudiate diversity surface. When confronted by the BNP, or a working class white person fulminating against immigration, or someone telling sexist or racist jokes, the full wrath and vituperation of proponents of non-judgementalism is quickly brought to bear on those supporters of these positions.
In other words non-judgementalism is fine and valid as long as it is supportive of a set of core values such as anti-discrimination. If it is not supportive of these then it can adjudged to be wrong. Consequently, and to follow logically from the foregoing, there is a superior set of values and principles, that of anti-discrimination and opinions and thoughts that are anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic etc. Having cast aside all notions of superior values and principles as a key tenet at the front door, supporters of non-judgementalism reinstate them with a vengeance at the back door.
It is important to state that there is absolutely nothing wrong and everything right about supporting anti-discrimination, anti-racism etc. But that is a value-judgement in itself because there are superior values and opinions which are universal in scope. We can and do judge other people and their opinions. We know that a wife-beater or a terrorist or a rapist is wrong, not just because we disagree with their opinions, but because the implications of what they say and perhaps practice has such dreadful consequences. That is why we can and do judge. And in judging that there are right things and wrong things we try to positively intervene in the world.
Non-judgementalism is symptomatic of a wider tendency to take a laudable aim, that of not pre-judging people and to be as broad-minded and tolerant as possible and enlarge its scope to such an extent, not making judgements on anyone or anything, until it becomes self-contradictory, untenable, impossible to apply and even dangerous. In our earnest attempts to promote a spurious equality we are divesting ourselves of the ability to make good judgements and positive decisions for others who are unable to make these for themselves. And in not doing so, we are condemning them to perpetuate the problems and situations they find themselves in. Now that is dangerous.