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Why are we afraid to judge?

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Published on Dec 2, 2014

Keynote Debate from the Battle of Ideas 2014.

BuzzFeed’s new books editor recently declared he would not be publishing negative reviews, asking ‘Why waste breath talking smack about something?’. This questioning of the traditional role of critics comes in the context of a challenge to professionals from amateur bloggers. In a digital culture in which anyone can publish reviews and everyone’s opinions must be respected, the professional critic’s right to ‘talk smack’ with any authority seems particularly suspect; gushing like a teenage fan is presumably OK. Is this a liberating democratisation, or do we risk reducing critical clarity to a competing cacophony of unexamined enthusiasms and prejudices?

Beyond the cultural sphere, too, judgement is routinely disavowed by those in power: even Pope Francis raised eyebrows by asking ‘Who am I to judge?’ when it came to the moral status of gay Christians. Meanwhile, universities take extraordinary efforts in their selection and marking procedures to avoid accusations of discrimination - even academic - while teachers are wary of criticising pupils lest they damage their self-esteem. Some celebrate our contemporary unwillingness to stand in judgement on each other as being a way of ensuring we all get along and no one is excluded. It certainly contrasts with the judgemental attitudes associated with an older generation, now condemned as too damned sure of itself.

Nevertheless, today’s non-judgementalism can lead to a lack of certainty about where we stand on difficult moral, cultural or political issues. One response is to replace subjective judgements with supposedly ‘objective’ ones, preferably with the authority of science. For example, the debate about abortion increasingly hinges on scientific evidence about fetal viability, or effects on women’s mental health, but are such debates any more than moral arguments in disguise, lacking the clarity of honest debate? Another trend is to avoid difficult arguments altogether, especially in public. Non-judgementalism can mean an unwillingness to convince others of what you believe, even a refusal to take any strong position yourself.

If everyone’s judgements are equally valid, how might we avoid what cultural critic Richard Hoggart described as ‘a world of monstrous and swirling indifferentiation’? How can we refine our own judgement without a wider culture of criticism? Isn’t a society that is afraid to make critical judgements one that surrenders to paralysis and puerility? Do we need to become less afraid of standing in judgement on the world and each other? Or will that only lead to conflict over things that maybe don’t really matter as much as we imagine? How then might we strike a balance between the rush to judge and a flight from judgement?

SPEAKERS

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Paul Morley
music journalist; author, The North (and almost everything in it)

Dr Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
philosopher and novelist; author, Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away; visiting professor of philosophy, New College of the Humanities

John Waters
Irish newspaper columnist; author, Jiving at the Crossroads and Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot

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