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What does it mean to be judgmental

What are the signs of being judgmental? It is harder to define than one might think. The descriptions I found tend to be too strong in one way or another. My definition is:

The judgmental person is one who is prone to express harsh judgments of others out of a sense of moral rightness.

Perhaps a better word to describe a judgmental person is ‘opinionated’. Of course we all have opinions. A judgmental person is different in that they are often express their negative opinions of others.  Such people feel justified in doing so because they are sure that their opinion is right. There is no thought in their mind that maybe they do not have all the facts or maybe the person has good reasons for doing what seems bad. And there is definitely no thought that they are simply wrong.

A judgmental person is confident in their own moral standard, confident that they understand the situation sufficiently to draw a conclusion, and confident that they are right in sharing their negative opinion with others. 

It should be noted that being judgmental is not always wrong. It may be appropriate to voice your opinion, especially when you understand the situation fully. A person would be considered judgmental if that is their habit. make a habit of expressing these negative opinions.

A judgmental person faces the same difficulty as a person who talks too much. There is nothing wrong with talking, but the talkative person often ends up saying things better left unsaid. And sometimes things are said that are patently wrong. So the judgmental person invariably makes judgments that are wrong. The warning from Jesus is very relevant here:

Mat 7:1-2 ESV  “Judge not, that you be not judged.  2  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.

Anyhow, here is my list of the traits of a judgmental person (sources at the bottom).

1. Expresses regular negative moral evaluations of others.

A person who rarely makes critical comments about others would never be considered judgmental. It is only those who are known to express negative opinions about a person’s character or actions that would be considered judgmental. Note that to be judgmental you must first form a negative opinion and then express that opinion. There is no wrong in observing what others do and measuring that against what we believe to be right. It is only when we express that opinion out loud that we are at risk of being judgmental. The old adage that mother’s gave their children is worth remembering here – ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’

Judgmental people convey the attitude of “my way or the highway”. That is, they believe that they are always right and often show little inclination towards discussing the possibility they are wrong.

2. Inclined to jump to negative moral conclusions about others

Judgmental people tend to make a negative assessment of a person on less evidence than the non-judgmental person. The reason for this is often a misplaced overconfidence in their own moral rightness and knowledge.

2.1. Draw conclusions about others with little consideration to their history

The history or the person being judged is of only passing interest to a judgmental person. They don’t really see a person’s present actions in light of their past experiences. Or if they do consider their history, it is often to show that they made bad decisions in the past which they now must accept and live with. 

Our past does not excuse us from our present failings. But it can explain them and I think it can mitigate them to some degree.

The experiences noted below can have dramatic affects on how people think and what they do.  An they may have little or nothing to do with the person’s own action. 

  1. Abuse of all kinds – sexual, physical, mental.
  2. Absent fathers.
  3. Neglectful mothers.
  4. An absence of good role models.
  5. The presence of bad role models.
  6. A propensity to mental illness.
  7. Spiritual oppression.
  8. An absence of God in their lives.

A person who has experienced one or more of these things may act in ways that are self-destructive or hurtful to others. I am not sure how God will judge the neglectful mother who herself was neglected and abused and who struggles with thoughts of self-harm. Perhaps I would be do no better or even much worse if I had the same experiences. My uncertainty dissuades me from being judgmental.

The judgmental person however does not give much thought to this. They don’t usually ask what the person’s past is like. They tend to judge the person based on a hidden assumption that the person’s history was similar to their own. And based on that assumption, they draw their negative conclusions.

2.2. Coming to conclusions on limited information

“Acting as if you can know that what so-and-so did was wrong even though you know much less about the context of so-and-so’s action than so-and-so.”

A judgmental person will regularly express negative conclusions about another based on little information. This trait is closely related to point 4 – assuming others see the world as they do. Although they do not have all the information, they do not need it to draw a conclusion about the goodness of a person’s action.  That is because, given what they do know, they are certain that they themselves would never do what that person did. 

A friend once scolded me for making what seemed to her and others a very unfair change to a person’s employment. Although it would have only taken a few minutes to justify my actions, I did not want to damage that person’s reputation. I encouraged her to go and speak to the person directly if she wanted a better picture.

Several months later my friend came and apologised for what she had said. Unfortunately the person in their new role continued to demonstrate the same failings. So it became clear as to why I made the decision I did. 

A judgmental person’s first thought is unlikely to be that there are two sides to every story. But for them, they don’t need the other side because they assume, knowingly or not, that others see the world they same as they do.

3. Play the man not the ball.

Judgmental people will often move from judgments about actions, “This action is morally wrong,” to judgments about the person, “This person is morally corrupt.” It can be deceptive because they might not say outright that ‘this person is bad’. But it is clear to anyone listening that that is what they think. However, even if they genuinely do not think ill of the person, their words convey something very different to those listening.

To be fair, it is hard to distinguish between a person and their actions. Jesus did teach that we know a person by their fruit. 

Mat 12:33-34 ESV  “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.  34  You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

The judgmental person is not afraid to express that a person is evil or stupid or corrupt. It might be said to friends or family or even to the TV.  They are, however, unlikely to ever say that to the person’s face. 

Jesus had very harsh thing to say about people. However before He said things about them He said it to them. This is a good rule of life – don’t say anything that about someone if you are not willing to say it in their presence. In fact, this is not just a good idea, Jesus says it will happen whether we like it or not.

Luk 12:2-3 ESV  Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.  3  Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.

4. Assume that others see the world they same as they do

I was talking to a person about abortion. He maintained that any person working in the abortion industry knows, without doubt, they are committing murder. This truth – that killing a baby in the womb is murder – is so obvious that it is impossible to think otherwise.

My response was that I was pretty sure that they did not think they were committing nor assisting murder. Rather, they probably saw the unborn child as an appendage just like any other organ, not as a person. Removing it was no different to removing a kidney or an appendix. But my idea was rejected. This was so obvious they had to believe the same as he believed.

This trait is related to number 2.2 – they come to conclusions based on limited information. It doesn’t take much research to discover that many people in the abortion industry believe they are helping, not hurting people. But it is because of this lack of information that they are able to confidently assume that others think much the same as they do. So, if they know, beyond any doubt, that their actions are wrong, then to continue is evil. We have now come back to point three where the person and not just the action is bad.

Ironically, this plays out in the reverse direction when it comes to, say, animals. Some vegans believe killing animals is akin murder. Of course this would be rejected by the person who enjoys a good steak. He would say it’s absurd to equate killing animals with murder! But he cannot see that his feelings about killing a cow is how many feel about removing a fetus. Even making such a comparison, to him, is absurd.


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