It’s All So Black and White

I’ve known for about twenty years what the first line of the novel I’d religiously avoid writing would be:

Which is the greater sin: to judge or not to judge?


It’s really been a central theme for me; a preoccupation that’s part philosophical, part moral, part expression of the divided self as our angels and demons wrestle for control, and part inner monolog perhaps unique to the only-child I am. I’m often my own sounding board, much to the chagrin of those who surround me and are better suited to that role than I.

Should I judge people for that which they do, opening myself up to careful inspection in the process? Do I avoid judgment, lessening the glare of the spotlight on me?

Back and forth. Back and forth.

Part of me thinks our lack of “judgment” and failure to hold anyone accountable is the most cynical kind of supposed largesse. “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins,” as they say, has led us to allow, perpetuate, and implicitly sanction behavior that is patently unacceptable.

Wrong is wrong. If nothing is safely black and white, fifty shades of grey takes on a decidedly different slant.

On the other hand, I find it incredibly easy to forgive kids that have never had (good) parents, workers who’ve scuttled and scraped while investors use their sweat to fuel their Learjets, and so on and so forth. Everyone’s got an excuse and lots of them are incredibly good ones when we actually take the time to listen before bringing the gavel down in our (closed) minds. Many mobsters are kind to strangers. Many religious are not. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

The eye of the beholder.

The eye of the beholder.

The balance never tilts much beyond 51%-49% for me. I feel passionately that both views are right despite their being diametrically opposed.

Schizophrenic or merely human? You judge.

Recently there was an incident in my town where a teenage boy has gotten into some trouble for making homemade explosives in the shed behind his house. I don’t know the particulars, but let’s assume for a minute that this is not a Tsarnaev disciple and large-scale disaster was not narrowly averted*. Let’s assume he’s a boy who heard about something on the bus, looked it up on the internet, and wanted to see if he could make something go boom.

That’s what I’m going to choose to do until presented with facts to the contrary.

Many share this belief. Other folks in town are taking a dimmer view.

He’s a bad kid that must be watched—carefully. He’s a marathon bomber in training, a kook, a danger…

And his parents! The real venom has been reserved for them. They’re complicit. They’re derelict. They’re legally responsible, weirdoes, whackos… and this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg.’

I can’t say any of these views are wrong. I don’t think they’re right, but some of them resonate with me whether I’d like them to or not. In fact, some of those same exact thoughts flashed through my mind as well.

I’ll say this: judging is a lot easier and feels a lot better than not judging.

When I resist judging I initially feel good— my angels have wrestled my demons to the ground.

Then the demons rise off the canvas and wage their methodical two-pronged attack.

“That’s your supposed liberal superiority conning you. You don’t even care about right or wrong. You just want to feel good about yourself— ‘Oh, well. The poor dears just couldn’t help themselves or be expected to do the right thing. Pity.’”

Then the closer is called in.

“You know and I know that where there’s smoke there’s fire. You turning a blind eye is tantamount to kicking the can down the road. As long as this little miscreant doesn’t blow up your stuff it’s someone else’s problem. Edmund Burke said ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. So, roll down the shade and pretend there’s nothing wrong. That’s working out really well. Someone else will clean up the mess you see but lack the courage to clean up.”

It (which is really me) goes on. “*And what if you’re wrong? What if your cavalier approach that boys will be boys and he’s got a good heart and all that mumbo jumbo culminates in him showing up on the bus on the way to school with very bad intent? What then?”

It’s easy to write that. It’s easy to go there. I could go on and on. Most actors report it’s easier to play villains than heroes. I get that. The worst-case scenario is usually so vividly imaginable.

So does that answer the question? Does the fact I have more effortless support for that road than the other mean it’s the right one?

I don’t think so. I think it’s self-soothing like a baby might when it’s upset and rocks in its cradle to try to settle itself down. It’s convenient and necessary, but it’s not necessarily right.

My more rationale mind will point out— correctly but uninspiringly— that pushing people into two lines, right and wrong, black and white, haves and have nots, Red Sox fans and heathens… is neither uncommon nor paying dividends. If every talk radio caller has the answer, why don’t things get better? If “Just Say No” was so self-evident, how can we have a Colorado economy that’s pulling up the flowers for the weed and Vermont (Vermont!) “leading” the nation in heroin use?

“Dilemma” comes from Greek derivation, meaning “two options.” That’s the false dilemma we’re too often faced with. There are lots of options— they’re seemingly limitless, in fact. That’s why this is so hard. There’s so very much grey that everything starts to look alike. It’s disorienting. I think that’s why people often addle themselves with booze and drugs and other vices. Even a world where everything is black can be preferable to interminable grey if you’re desperate enough.

I don’t suffer from that. I’m black. Then white. Then black….

So I’ll walk along Main Street like Steve Martin in All of Me, talking to myself and listing from side to side like a drunk or loon.

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

— William Blake, “The Tiger”

Two heads are better than one. But what do I do when I’ve only got one?

One Comment on “It’s All So Black and White”

  1. Hey! I am on a flight from DFW to Indy. We have to connect live some time in 2014. Your old friend that thoroughly enjoyed being ahead of our time! Kim


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