Judges ought to be the most esteemed people in society, but what happens when everyone is a (self-appointed) judge?
On of the foundations of a well functioning democracy is the notion of an independent judiciary that cannot be influenced by other branches of government. This independence ensures that people trust that the legal process will result in fair decisions.
Lawyers work their way up through the ranks, and the most senior and respected of their field are chosen to be judges. Judicial decision are carefully deliberated, and presented with pages upon pages of support. For these reasons, the decisions of judges are widely respected, even when we may disagree with them. The justice system was recently on display during the trials and appeals of convicted paedophile George Pell, as rulings were live streamed. One of the better opinion pieces (in my view) explained just how difficult a task judges have. Justice Weinberg’s dissenting view was analysed to death, but not questioned. Such is the quality of our judges and the esteem in which they are held. We trust them.
Contrast this to the other “judicial branch” that has rapidly developed and spread throughout the world – trial by (social) media. In that very public court, judges are self-appointed (and take the role of both accuser and jury, ably assisted by mobs of “followers”), decisions are live streamed and reached as quickly as possible based on a paucity of information. The accused have no right of reply or to challenge their accusers in any reasonable forum. It is just about the polar opposite to the justice system we have, and is truly a blight on society.
The Torah has some very clear views on the role of judgement:
- “Judge all people with the benefit of the doubt” (Pirkei Avot 1:6)
- “Do not judge not your fellow person until you have reached their place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4)
- “Do not judge alone, because there is only one lone judge (God)” (Pirkei Avot 4:8)
The Torah demands that we make positive assumptions about others, and that we understand how difficult it is to judge another when we can never truly walk in their shoes.
Ultimately, there is only one true judge – God – being the only one who can truly see all aspects of a given situation. Many commandments in the Torah end with the phrase “I am the Lord, your God” when they are matters where intent is a crucial factor, because only God and us knows our true intent (and I’m not always sure about us).
This week’s Torah reading, Shoftim (judges), spells out the rules for a well-functioning judiciary: that judges be righteous experts appointed to the role, that they not show bias nor take bribes of any kind. Only after this foundation is laid, does the Torah state those famous words “tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “You should strive for supreme justice”, because the foundation for just outcomes is a well-functioning judiciary.
But if we put all our trust in the justice system, what of whistleblowing and the (public) exposing of offenders and organisational cover-ups? It is self-evident that it does have a role. However, it’s important to consider how it differs from (and can work with) the judicial process. While whistleblowing seeks to expose misdeeds, judgement of alleged offenders only happens when the misdeeds are duly prosecuted and concluded. Whistleblowing is not due process, and leaves observers in the awkward position of wanting to pass judgement, usually only on half a story. As the Yiddish adage says, “Don’t show a fool a half-completed job”.
What makes judges effective is that we trust them, and that they avoid conflict of interest, so they have earned the right to be heard. On the other hand, social media advocates may be deeply conflicted, and use their loud voices to amplify and rile others up, often leading a crowd of useful idiots who are even more conflicted and rely on half-truths to pursue their own agendas. While just outcomes may ultimately result, the interim collateral damage caused can be irreparable.
It comes down to one simple thing: the responsible use of power. Judges have this power, and we trust that they use it responsibly. Social media advocates also have the power that their platforms afford them, so we ought to question whether they are using it responsibly, and hold advocates to account for the use of their power.
Judging is the most difficult thing in the world. God does it. Judges do it. The rest of us ought to be very careful about how we go about judging others.