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Judged by Ziyad Marar

Alexander Hooke judges a book about being judged.

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
The Animals, 1965

To be called ‘judgmental’ is not a compliment. It connotes tones of superiority or self-righteousness. And we’re first asked to ‘suspend judgment’ before a friend or colleague confides a big secret such as an extra-marital affair or a crime committed. This request conveys that the other person wants us to first learn about and understand what is happening. The request also betrays some ambivalence, in that, while we ask others to withhold judgment in hearing our confessions, we often seek the approval and esteem of others for our accomplishments. We college teachers also assign grades, write letters of recommendation, and vote on a colleague’s promotion. Judgment is part of human life. This poses an existential dilemma. To borrow from Sartre’s ‘We are condemned to be free’, we can infer from Marar that we are condemned to judge and be judged.

In his most recent book, Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood (2017), Ziyad Marar describes how complicated the endeavor of judging is when intertwined with the human demand to understand. This complication is not to be taken lightly. Judging others without trying to understand them often makes us sound like zealots and fanatics. On the other hand, to understand others without any effort to judge risks acquiescence or tolerance of deeds deserving condemnation.

Marar contends that such tension can be found everywhere. From literature, movies, poetry, research of social psychologists, his daughters’ anecdotes, we learn of a rather paradoxical relation between judging and understanding others as well as ourselves.

His analysis begins with a tentative definition of judgment as the social and moral “evaluations of character or action, including the appearance and status, of another person especially around their competence or motivation” (p.3).

Judgment has always been fundamental to human society. The digital age has simply extended and intensified its application. Social media, from Facebook to Twitter, also provide opportunities for endless, often uninformed, slanders and insults. Marar cites an episode from the TV program Black Mirror where individuals keep score of one another’s worth. To fall below 2.0 threatens exile or outcast status.

In Chapter One, ‘The social minefield’, Marar surveys judgment’s contrary forces. Incorporating the research of psychologists, evolutionists, and renowned sociologists such as Erving Goffman, Marar depicts everyday life as full of tense moments in which we negotiate approval and disapproval of one another. Central to this analysis is a philosophical contention about the self. Contrary to views that there is a core or essential self that functions like a pilot, Marar adopts the idea of a dramaturgical self (p.40): the various masks we don in our everyday lives are like roles or layers of reactions that mediate our relations with others.

This makes us focus on establishing what Chapter Two calls the right kind of reputation. Marar proposes that humans should be named Homo credens rather than Homo sapiens as we are so driven by securing one another’s favorable views and understanding. Quoting W.H. Auden’s terse lyric, “Private faces in public places/Are wiser and nicer/Than public faces in private places”, Marar supports the view that reputation is humanity’s top social priority. Yet observers of humanity, including social psychologists, readily attest how this focus on reputation paradoxically elicits some of the most devious and hypocritical aspects of our species.

A major challenge is that we often seek to establish contrary reputations at the same time. The boss or parent, for example, wishes to show toughness and discipline while also wanting to be seen as warm and caring. This delicate balance is best embodied by heroic figures in literature and movies. Alas, in mundane human life, finding this balance requires constant negotiation, which accounts for the importance of gossip. Citing the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Marar notes gossip’s harmful and ugly aspects; yet it also can be quite functional, as it serves to provide a check on those whose reputations otherwise have only fake credentials.

The social minefield becomes even more explosive when we realize that most of us are unreliable judges. Chapter Three outlines the many unconscious biases, preconceptions, and unwarranted pressures that underlie assessing and understanding another’s emotions, thoughts, or intentions. We profess to admire objectivity and scientific neutrality when understanding the world; but with human affairs, writes Marar, “Unreliable judgements run through us like a stick of rock. We have prejudices and reputations to protect, alliances to forge.” (p.149).

These pressures provide the impetus to Chapter Four, ‘Breaking free’, where Sartre’s unforgettable quip that ‘Hell is other people’ looms in the background. Who would not want to be liberated from the minefield of relentless judgment? Marar sketches moments in movies and poetry where this freedom is dramatized to illuminate our own hopes to escape others’ judgment. Alas, he notes, this is an impossible dream. In a sixteen page account of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000), Marar highlights fictional portrayals of the yearning for freedom from judgment that nevertheless are overwhelmed by the desire to obtain the approval of others.

Chapter Five, ‘The Last Judgment’, closes the book with an extended account of the earlier idea that our true self is ‘not a pearl inside’ but more like an ‘ongoing performance’ that contains a fluid mixture of thoughts, emotions, memories and perceptions. What holds the mixture together is an ‘ego trick’ which involves convincing others, as well as ourselves, of the illusion that there is an inner self that keeps everything together, that our words are consistent with our deeds, that our senses of past/present/future are coherent, that the intangible aspects of ourselves mesh with the tangible. The dynamics of this trick are best found in fictional accounts rather than actual human encounters, which is why the concluding pages include scenes from poets, Shakespeare, George Eliot, and the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In any event, not only can others never fully understand you, concludes Marar, “Not even you fully understand you” (p.227).

gavel and block

Notwithstanding numerous eloquent passages, this work has several shortcomings. It misleads the reader who does not have background in logic: Marar uses a Venn Diagram to depict the tension and balance of competing forces of authority and compassion (pp.92-95). But a Venn Diagram depicts overlapping categories, not competing forces. Second, there is a problem of empirical support. Marar offers claims that are backed only by reference to fiction. For instance he cites movie mobster Joe Pesci as evidence of the violence in human life in relation to judgments and understanding (p.131). But readers might prefer real-life case studies. This problem is compounded in Marar’s more daring claims. Distinguishing ‘shared knowledge’ from ‘common knowledge’ (pp.45-47), he cites the story about the emperor not knowing he’s naked while everyone else does. This leads to the assertion, “This is why dictators so often divide and conquer.” With such a bold hypothesis a reader would appreciate a real life example or two. Instead, Marar turns to a movie, When Harry Met Sally, where Harry inquires about the possibility to compliment a woman’s physical charms without erotic intentions. Such a cute scene hardly reflects the dangers of dictators.

This reliance on fiction in literature, television, movies, is explained in the final pages. Marar, influenced by Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian (1927), embraces atheism. Yet in justifying his turn to literature, he says, “To read fictional characters with their foibles and roles is to drift into a God’s eye view of them.” (p.211). How does an atheist know what God’s eye comprehends? Marar adds that “we can learn from literature… a way to be more provisional in our judgements. To recognize contradictions, and to see, for example, how love and hate are operated by the same glands…” (p.216). For me this is unconvincing. To judge and understand others as if they are operated by their glands might work in fiction. I doubt this approach will help with the human beings you and I actually encounter.

© Alexander E. Hooke 2018

Alexander E. Hooke teaches philosophy at Stevenson University, USA. He is author of Philosophy Sketches: 700 Words at a Time and co-editor of The Twilight Zone and Philosophy.

Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood, by Ziyad Marar, Bloomsbury, 2018, 208 pages, £18.99 hb, ISBN: 1474298338

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