The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Judgment Days: Taking Responsibility or Taking Offense

“We help foster civility by being compassionate in our judgments.”

Terrance D. Olson | September 2, 2014
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A judge's gavel sits alone on a table. It represents the need for us to take responsibility for our actions and accept the consequences of what we have done and said.



Being “non-judgmental” is often recommended as essential for a pluralistic society to become cohesive. “Taking offense” is regarded as understandable, if not inescapable, and even as a worthy response to offensive behavior. Yet, to take offense is to judge that another’s behavior is unjust, discriminatory, rude, immoral or even criminal. The truth is that it is impossible to refrain from making judgments. Even the recommendation to be non-judgmental is itself a judgmental statement. However, while making judgments cannot be avoided, the quality of the judgments we do make can be assessed. That quality is not to be found merely in our words, but in the quality of our hearts—in the quality of how we see ourselves and others.

Taking offense at something may say at least as much about our attitude toward another

Consider the possibility that our judgments can be of two distinct qualities: condemnatory or compassionate. Those who counsel us to be non-judgmental probably mean that we should treat each other compassionately, where we continue to value another’s individual worth even when they have behaved badly or made choices that are destructive of their own or others’ well-being. To call for compassion in our judgments, then, is to suggest that there is a better way of being in relationship with others than one in which we are simply condemnatory of the worth of those others. C. Terry Warner, for example, has noted that the meaning of behavior is deeper than the behavior itself. The meaning of an act or a word is tied to our attitudes, our motives, and the quality of our relationship with another person. These meanings spring from whether we are being compassionate in our approach to life, or bitter, resentful and hostile about any destructive event or attitude we are faced with. Our taking offense at something may say at least as much about our attitude toward another as it does about the behavior we are insisting we are offended by. Perhaps most of the time we take offense, we are actually condemning others rather than seeing them compassionately. This kind of taking offense shifts responsibility for our attitudes and actions to others. While taking offense in this way, we are no longer taking responsibility for what we ourselves say or do.

When we make condemnatory judgments about others, we always insist our feelings are justifiable. But, what is our evidence? It is the behavior of the other that provokes our condemnation. We think that if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t think or feel about them the way we do. Alternatively, when we make compassionate judgments, the people engaged in destructive attitudes or behavior still matter to us—are still real to us—and we do not make them into despicable, irredeemable cardboard characters which justify our hostile attitudes toward them.

Consider opposing athletic teams and their supporters on opposite sides of the playing field. How, for example, do the parents of the players on “Soccer Team A” view those on “Soccer Team B?” The emotional yells and taunting words towards the other team suggest that each considers those on the other side of the field as the “enemy” (not in a friendly way), and not merely as the opposition in a competitive game. Perhaps it is fortunate at the end of such events that the opposing fans do not intersect with each other upon departure.

We can even disagree compassionately without having to demonize or dehumanize others

Once I attended a high school soccer game to watch my son play. Shortly after the game began, it started to rain, but the game continued. Parents from both teams poured into a single covered area in the stands on one side of the field. As parents from “Team A” greeted the parents of “Team B,” the dynamic of being a fan changed. Parents on “Team A” began to learn which son belonged to the respective parents of “Team B” and vice versa. At one point, when one of the players committed a foul, the parent of the boy who was fouled, said, “Hey, that isn't fair!” The parent of the boy who committed the foul offered in return: “He knows better than to play that way.” Suddenly, these two fathers looked at each other and laughed at their congruent assessment of the act. The opposing parents were no longer the “enemy,” but people who had in common that their boys played soccer—albeit on opposing teams. They were making compassionate judgments about less-than-ideal behavior. In compassionate judgment, we do not suspend our judgment that other people are valuable. Nor do we have to agree on the meaning of what we are seeing. But we can even disagree compassionately, without having to demonize or dehumanize others.

Some would say that this example is hardly as momentous or significant as when more is at stake than a final score. Fair enough. But in matters more egregious, we need not lose our humanity. It really is possible to seek justice rather than revenge; to sorrow for loss rather than embrace bitterness. A civil society will not be experienced when we are being condemningly judgmental. We help foster civility by being compassionate in our judgments.