On judging other people

When is it not my business? And when does it become my business?

I’ve been thinking a lot about judging lately.1

It started when a writer I follow on Instagram posted that after a recent contest win she received an email from a stranger warning her of the danger of associating her name with the contest host, rumored to have “done something inappropriate in the past, involving some young women.” It was unclear to me if my writer acquaintance knew about the accusations when she entered the contest or only when the stranger emailed her.

The writer went on to say that that nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, and it’s best to assume that everyone is doing his or her best. She said she was in no position to judge or condemn him and that whether or not he is punished for his alleged wrongdoings was between him and the justice system, between him and the young women, and between him and God, as “I have no place in that matter.”

It’s that last statement that really got me thinking. When is judging someone else not my business? And when does it become my business?

Years ago I was working with a life coach for writers who had me do an exercise she called Tolerations. I was supposed to brainstorm for 15 minutes a list of all the things I felt I was “tolerating” in my life. Anything that was bugging me was fair game—large, small, petty, or grave. Some of the things I wrote down were:

  • my favorite pair of jeans has a rip in the butt

  • my brain is scattered thinking about the fires (I could see flames from the May’14 Poinsettia Fire from the parking lot of the grocery store where I shop)

  • my daughter (then in high school) had a whole day off from school (because of the fires) and did not use her time wisely to catch up on homework but instead watched stuff on her iPad

  • lady in my hula class who bounces

The next part of the exercise was to give each item a code. QF meant it was a quick fix that could be taken care of in 15 minutes. ST meant I could tackle the problem by breaking it down into steps. ACC meant accept and move on. But my favorite was NMB — Not My Business. NMB was basically a subset of accept and move on because it was about somebody else’s behavior that you can’t control anyway.

The “lady who bounces” in my hula class? Not My Business. How my daughter spent her time on a day when the entire school was sent home because there were visible flames only miles from our house? Really also Not My Business. In retrospect, watching stuff on her iPad sounds like an excellent coping strategy for an extremely stressful day and I can’t believe I expected her to do homework.

There are many, many things that fall under the Not My Business category that I used to be a lot more judgmental about, especially when it comes to other women. When I was a new mother and trying so hard to reassure myself that I was Doing It Right, I judged my fellow moms on whether or not they breastfed (and how long), how they got their baby to sleep at night, how soon they potty trained, how soon (or whether) they had another baby, and on, and on, and on.

How a woman chooses to raise her children (and whether or not she has them), what she chooses to eat, wear, put on her face, or spend her time or money on is really Not My Business. How much she weighs and what she looks like are definitely Not My Business, nor anybody else’s. This bears repeating because holding any or all of these things up for public judgment has been used as a way of controlling women’s sexuality for far too long, but that’s mostly another discussion for another time. And yes, guys, I know you are judged too, but I am speaking from my own experience.

But is there a point at which someone else’s behavior does become my business? If so, when?

After thinking about this a lot over the past weeks, I believe the shift happens at the moment when I learn about someone with more power causing harm to someone with less power, or putting them unnecessarily at risk2. But it only becomes my business to the extent that I now need to decide what I am going to do.

That’s where the bravery comes in. Because what I do in any given situation depends on a whole lot of variables including my values, my sphere of influence, my sense of safety, my energy, my priorities, the risk of any potential actions, the consequences of not acting, and probably a whole lot of other factors I’m not even thinking about yet.

And then I have to live with my decision.

I can live with my decision to never watch another Woody Allen movie again as the appropriate level of response to learning of Dylan Farrow’s accusations. One of my values is to generally believe women when they say they have been assaulted. I don’t want to give Allen any more of my money or risk being perceived as endorsing him in any way, so this is my response. The risk to me is low, but so are the consequences to him because of my limited sphere of influence. It would be another thing if I were a Hollywood actress, which is why some have hemmed and hawed about working with him.

If I had different energy levels and priorities I might decide to increase my sphere of influence by trying to convince others to boycott his movies or not work with him. I might decide that I couldn’t do less than that and live with myself. Or if I had another value that was higher priority, I might decide that digging into the story further before making up my mind is what I need to do.

The point is that the clearer I am about all these factors, the more I stay in my own business, where I actually have agency. So why is it so hard to do?

It’s easier to judge someone else rather than look inward. I got irritated at the “lady who bounces” in my hula class because I knew my own form was not perfect. I judged my daughter’s use of her time because my own use of time is often not aligned with what I say I want to do. And I judged other moms on just about everything because I felt so insecure about my own decisions that I couldn’t just relax and trust my own instincts.

Putting myself in someone else’s business is a great distraction, but since I have pretty much zero control over what other people do, it doesn’t accomplish much. Plus it’s exhausting and makes me feel bad.

Working through all these thoughts has been more than an academic exercise. In the funny way the universe has of doing things, I learned recently that the very platform I am using to write to you today has been accused of subsidizing anti-trans writers. As soon as I learned about that, I had to make some decisions, because being an ally to marginalized communities, including the trans community, is a high priority for me. But since I’m not charging for subscriptions, Substack isn’t making any money off of me. For now, I’ve decided I don’t have the energy to put into researching and possibly migrating to a comparable service. However, I’m going to get more information and reevaluate within six months. It’s the best I can do right now.

Which brings me back to my writer acquaintance. She accompanied her post with a picture of her holding up her contest win notification, so it was clear she had made her decision and it was one she was happy living with. I don’t know if it’s the one I would have come up with, but since she’s not me, it doesn’t matter. In the end, I’ve decided to not judge her for not judging.

So what do you think? Do you find it easy or hard to stay in your own business? And how do you decide when, or if, it’s appropriate to judge someone else’s behavior? Drop a comment below. All respectful discussion is welcome. Not subscribed yet? How about now?

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What I’m reading

I just finished The Incredible Shrinking Woman, by Athena Dixon. This slim memoir-in-essays explores themes of belonging and taking up space through the lens of being fat, Black, and Midwestern. Dixon takes us to AOL chat rooms, a pitch-dark game of hide-and-seek on a college playing field, and a disorienting visit to a museum exhibit on the Middle Passage, among other places, as she navigates family, failed relationships, bad sex, rebound sex, depression, and the redeeming qualities of a new pair of underwear.

Small-town Black Midwesterners, like me, exist somewhere between the Bible Belt and the ghetto. Hours from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, oft times we are nothing more than rest stops and way stations on the road to somewhere new.

Lastly, if you got something out of this newsletter, please share Be Your Own Hero with someone who could use a reminder that all it takes is one small moment to be brave.

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1

This post is not in response to the Derek Chauvin verdict in the murder of George Floyd. I’d been thinking about this topic for several weeks in a completely unrelated context and just happened to finish drafting this the day the verdict came in. However, the timing does make for an interesting juxtaposition.

2

This is where things like getting vaccinated for COVID-19 come in for me. If it were just a matter of personal choice I’d say don’t get the vaccine if you don’t want to and there are no other factors at play. But that puts people who aren’t able to get vaccinated—who have less power in that situation—more at risk for getting the disease.