B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Scrolling bystanders, part 5: The True Judge

This is installment #5 in the “scrolling bystander” series: Introduction (2017); Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4 (2023).

It’s easy enough to comprehend that negative speech is like a bag of feathers in the wind (see Intro). You can never get those feathers back in the bag. But we can throw feathers into the wind even if we never speak lashon hara ourselves. From Part 2:

[quoting CCDC]: “the punishment for accepting lashon hara is greater than the punishment for speaking lashon hara.” And this makes perfect sense. With the focus on “causing pain to your fellow,” internalizing the evil speech is the thing that causes the real pain.

In the story about my spouse that I told in Part 1, the speech itself (“I hear that guy’s a real jerk”) was not the real issue, just a symptom of the default phenomenon we all experience. The real issue is the unconscious processes that our brains perform all day every day. Our default setting primes us to succumb completely to whatever narrative is percolating in our environment, accepting it as fact without thinking critically about it at all.

This means that once you’ve locked in a judgment of someone, everything they say and do is likely to confirm that judgment. This is called “confirmation bias,” and it’s a well-enough-known concept that everybody understands how it works and accepts that it happens generally. But because of other equally powerful biases such as the “fundamental attribution error,” the “availability heuristic,” “curse of knowledge,” and “overconfidence bias,” we systematically underestimate the extent to which it is at play in our own lives.

And because we succumb most easily to fear-driven narratives, even a slightly negative narrative about a person is most likely to stick, and is extraordinarily and unconsciously damaging when we haven’t “done” anything wrong.

It is no answer to demand of ourselves that we think critically about everything at all times. As I say in my coaching practice, that is not humanly possible. e can’t think critically about every piece of information that enters our brain at all times… if we tried to achieve this we would fall asleep. It’s too cognitively taxing.

Because we are intelligent and conscious beings, it is deeply uncomfortable to accept the extent to which we do not control most of what we understand as truth. It may be even more uncomfortable to accept that we cannot ever develop full conscious awareness of even our own truth.

And in recognition of this, Jewish law offers this shortcut: judge others favorably.

Combining this with cognitive bias theory, what this means is that we are directed to attune to “negative judgment” – any negative information is a cue for us to go into “manual mode.” We enter “manual mode” and are required to bend over backwards and do as many mental acrobatics as necessary to (1) refrain from accepting negative information being said about someone else and (2) put a positive spin on someone’s actions in your own mind, including the person’s spreading lashon hara.

While this is all subject to an impossible and circular caveat about Bad People (to be discussed), the takeaway here is this: when we focus only what we verbalize to others, we’re putting a bandaid on the symptom rather than healing the wound. At the root of all of these prohibited surface behaviors is the harm that happens when we internalize narratives about other people.  Words gain traction only because of the judgment they evoke.

We must do everything in our power to override our brain’s automatic processes as needed to resist formulating a negative narrative about a person.

As we say in moments of deepest despair, Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Blessed is HaShem, the true judge. Our tradition recognizes that any judgment humans make is definitionally flawed; becoming intractably attached to our own judgments of others is a form of idol worship.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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