Leslie and her Labrador Learn about Judging & Being Judgemental

Many unsavoury items wash up along the foreshore. I know because my Labrador decided to sample some on a recent trip to the beach. She then proceeded to vomit and excrete them on what turned out to be a long walk home.

The two bags I’d brought didn’t come close to covering it. I flailed my arms a bit and felt bad, but what could I do? I left it. When I finally got the dog home, I filled up a juice container and returned to the scene of the crime to hose the mess down.

Days later a man confronted me as the Labrador walked me briskly past. ‘'You left your dog’s mess on the footpath the other day!’'

‘'I didn’t!’‘ I squealed indignantly over my shoulder while trying vainly to get the dog to heel. ’‘I ran out of bags and had to go –’'

‘'You’re a pig,’‘ he said matter-of-factly. He entered his yard and let the gate slam behind him. ’‘Next time, clean up after your dog!’'

Moral judgment is tricky. We love judging but hate being judged, including for being too judgmental! Moral judgments are like judgments made by courts. Backed by careful reasoning, they are provisional – they can and should be revised in light of error, or where additional evidence comes to light. In contrast, the judgmental are primarily concerned with blame and condemnation, despite being poorly informed by the facts.

Yet despite a shared view that we shouldn’t condemn others without walking a mile in their shoes, media frenzies about Olympian swimmer Leisel Jones' figure and the pregnant Chrissie Swan smoking suggest we often fall short of our ideals.

No surprises there. The primary motivation behind all social behaviour is the yearning to belong. Acceptance from those in our social circle, and the broader society beyond, demands conformity to whatever ideas of moral goodness currently reign. According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, being – and being seen as – morally righteous confers ‘'the sense that we are worthy human beings’‘.

In the Middle Ages up to colonial times, a failure to conform to shared views of what was good and right could land you in the stocks or, if you were a woman, facially fenced in by a torture device called a scold’s bridle. These days, we deploy words to express our scorn, with the traditional media and online social communities the arena for most forms of public humiliation.

Any doubt that humans are social creatures are dispelled by our intense dislike of such public shaming, and the extraordinary efforts we’ll undertake to avoid it. We’ll hold our tongues and conform to rules we don’t like, believe in, or even think make sense to stay out of the firing line. Or, having broken ranks, we’ll go to considerable effort to hide it.

When Chrissie Swan got wind of the photos showing her smoking, her agency joined the bidding war for the photos, dropping out only when the price had soared to $55,000.

We like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals, but the truth is we care deeply what others think. Among the reasons for this is the close and interactive nature of the relationship between our identity and self-esteem and the views held by others of who we are and what we’re worth. This is why the adage that ‘'people live up to our expectations’‘ makes sense.

If our friends, colleagues and neighbours lose respect for us, who will we socialise with? How will we earn a living? Who will gather the newspapers we forgot to cancel while on holiday? Should our spouse and kids come to share such collective disregard, we could wind up abandoned, unloved and alone.

Such consequences, both foreseeable and terrifying, explain why shame remains such an effective form of social control. As Professor Brene Brown explains in her TED talk, shame evokes fear that if we don’t do as we are expected or as we’re told, we will be flung from the social nest. Humans are hard-wired for social connection, Brown argues, and shame evokes the fear of disconnection.

It can also produce excessive conformity. Occasional challenges to prevailing ideas of what’s good and right are both courageous and necessary. If the suffragettes hadn’t braved the ridicule that flowed from their attempts to redefine a good woman as one who wanted to vote, the female half of the Western world would still be second-class citizens.

Which brings me back to the accusations about my failure to take responsibility for my dog. They bothered me – obviously. But what really ground my gears wasn’t that my erstwhile neighbour was so willing to judge despite being ignorant of the full story. What really bugged me was the way his judgment reduced me to the sum of a single act.

For him, every piece of scat I’ve collected, every contribution I’ve made to society by caring for the sick and other non-profit endeavours, was obliterated by my failure in a particular moment to do enough to clean up my dog’s poo. He thought he’d seen enough to know not just who I was but who I always would be, and to cast me from the human race.

Publication history

Power of Shame Rules our Actions   The Saturday Age