Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In Defense of Being Judgy

Ever comment on someone doing something absurd and have the person you’re with sniff that they don’t believe in saying anything bad about anybody?


As Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, said, “If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

We are an exquisitely social species. When we coordinated a hunt to bring down some huge animal with sticks and rocks, when, as mothers with helpless infants, we worked out a group babysitting/gathering schedule, we honed our social abilities, including being astute judges of each other. Gossiping may have been the reason why we developed language.

Primatologists devote their lives to mapping the complex web of social interactions our closest relatives weave, but chimpanzees and bonobos can’t hold a candle to what we can do. We can live in huge groups – in cities, in countries – without (usually) killing each other. We develop complex systems of trade and trust.

Gossip has a bad reputation because it can be used maliciously to keep people in line, to punish and compete. Exhibit A: teenaged girls.

That isn’t what I’m talking about.

I have always talked to my kids, from a young age, about the people around them, including adults. (“You’re right; your teacher IS being a jerk.”) First, to pretend otherwise would be really crazy-making for the child. Second, being a good judge of character (i.e., recognizing when someone is being an ass) is a useful skill. Young humans have to learn to deal with such asses and the first, and most important, step in that process is recognizing what you’re dealing with.

Don’t talk about people?

How else are we going to figure them out?


  1. My daughter has taught her kids that calling someone "stupid" was wrong. I find that very hard to adhere to when I'm with the grandkids. There ARE stupid people around us, all the time. The guy in the pickup truck who ran the red light at the intersection the other day, almost taking me out in my little Rav4. The old fart who yelled at our Zumba teacher that the music was too loud, rather than asking politely to turn it down a notch. My mother always told me to "be nice" but all that did was leave me with no skills for dealing with stupid people. I was a dental hygienist for twenty years and had to smile and deal with them (not to mention get close to them and work in their mouths) because it was a job requirement. Not anymore! I'm glad you're giving your kids "asshole detection skills". Wish I'd had that.

    Okay, rant over. Ahh, that felt good. :)

    1. Yeah, I understand both sides. I too taught my kids that calling someone stupid is bad, but what I had in mind, and what your daughter might have had in mind, is someone struggling to understand something, in class, say, and someone else running over to call them stupid. Not helpful.

      But the people you mentioned? Yeah, but I don't think of them as "stupid." I use other words. Not usually "asshole" in the car because, I don't know if you've ever noticed, but "asshole" is very lip-readable. (Try it.) But "shithead" is good, also "piece of shit."

      Funny story. Just happened. My son was in class (in his somewhat strict Catholic school) when someone said "crap." The teacher said not to use curse words. Of course, the wise acres pointed out that "crap" comes from the name of the inventor of the toilet, Thomas Crapper, which is true. "How," they wanted to know, "are they supposed to know what's a curse word?" "If it's not a word your family uses around each other, you shouldn't be using it in school," she said. My son chimed in: "Obviously, you have never driven with my mother," he said. Thanks a lot, kid. :)