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If I'm OK and You're OK, Are There Any Bad Guys?

Depending on whom you ask, nonjudgmentalism is the root of moral chaos or a treasured American virtue.

January 27, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

C. W. Meisterfeld doesn't want to sound judgmental, but, he says, people are like dogs. Now, if Vince Lombardi or Martha Stewart had posited this, it might be a condemnation. But the observation comes from the "Dog Whisperer," and he's not judging; he's just stating how things are. There's no good or bad here.

The longtime Petaluma dog trainer believes that neither men nor beasts can be their best--or even well behaved--if they are constantly being judged. And since humans are the ones doing the judging, the trick is to get them to shut it off. Wait a minute. Is this really the "right" way to introduce a story about nonjudgmentalism? Maybe it should (oh, no, "should" is a judging word!) have started with the simple question: What is nonjudgmentalism?

In fact, "Blah, blah, blah, nonjudgmentalism" may have been just fine too. Who's to judge?

As "isms" go, "nonjudgmentalism" hasn't been around very long, probably less than a decade, say linguists. It's not even in many dictionaries. And yet within this short span, the word has penetrated the culture. Everyone from the Birkenstock crowd to Brooks Bros. types regularly invokes the principles of nonjudgmentalism for the sake of tapping inner healing powers or improving the bottom line.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Hamilton College--A Jan. 27 Southern California Living story about judging others mistakenly reported that one-fifth of students in professor Robert Simon's classes at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., were unwilling to morally condemn the Holocaust. Although about a fifth of Simon's students professed to be "nonjudgmental," only a small fraction of them said they would not condemn the Holocaust.

"It really can mean the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful business," said Hedria Lunken, a New York business consultant who has worked with Fortune 500 companies. "If someone is judging all the time, believe me, you're going to get employees who shut up and just sit at their desks and do nothing."

As it spread, nonjudgmentalism--the practice of and belief in suspending judgment of others for the betterment of self and society--has inspired, comforted, confused and angered Americans as few other "isms" have. It has commanded praise for everything from transforming business problems into "opportunities" to promoting a more diverse, tolerant and multicultural society. To supporters, the concept has great personal rewards as well. Stress reduction, a release from fear-based living and a deeper connection to humanity await those who can put aside their judgments.

Few may believe this as heartily as Jon Schreiber, director of the Breema Center just outside Berkeley, which promotes health and wellness through stretch, movement and other body work. The center believes being nonjudgmental--an act that mind and body must pursue simultaneously--is essential for existing in the moment, a state that fosters emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

"When you are nonjudgmental, you totally accept the other person exactly as they are," said Schreiber, who offers a workshop called "The Nonjudgmental Treatment," which through touch and relaxation techniques promises to give balance to a person. "Most people have never experienced even a moment of that because they are too closed off and fearful of being judged."

Still, nothing raises the hackles of some people faster than nonjudgmentalism. To them, it symbolizes the threadbare moral condition of the nation and threatens to rob citizens of their ability to make clear ethical distinctions--a skill of fundamental importance to a tolerant democratic society.

Nonjudgmentalism is a bugaboo of sorts for modern times. In recent weeks it has been blamed for the traitorous behavior of an American Taliban soldier and, in part, the Enron scandal.

"As a society, we seem increasingly incapable of sitting in judgment of each other," wrote Robert Bartley in a Wall Street Journal article about Enron. "What kind of behavior can an 'I'm OK, you're OK' society expect from its professionals or business leaders?"

Nonjudgmentalism is largely a postmodern twist on an old philosophical struggle that seeks to balance justice and compassion. The debate over the two forces reaches back to the world's most revered religious and historical figures, which helps explain some of today's widespread acceptance--and confusion--over the concept.

In Western culture, Jesus issued the most famous admonition regarding judgment some 2,000 years ago: "Judge not, that you be not judged." Most Americans, whether Christian or not, can quote this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' use of the word stood in stark contrast to its role in the Old Testament, in which judgments often presaged a harsh punishment from God.

On its face, the passage from the Book of Matthew sounds like a straightforward injunction against judging others--an interpretation that is more in line with some present-day views. (Russian author Leo Tolstoy favored abolishing judgment and criminal systems altogether.) But according to biblical scholars, ending all judgments was not what Jesus meant. What most don't know or forget is that two verses later, Jesus added: "And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?"

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