By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Perils of Instant Judgment

The Instant Judgment Culture

In the Gospel, we are told not to condemn others and to remember that the degree of scrutiny that we apply to others will be applied to us. Given that warning straight from the mouth of the master, it is amazing how so many jump to quick judgments--even about the Pope when he carries out a very biblical and highly defensible act, like the washing of the feet of juvenile prisoners, both male and female. That is just one recent but glaring example. You can find many more examples of instant judgment that bears no fruit (just turn on talk radio or the internet equivalents, whether secular or religious). In talk radio, you also have to take into account that the more instant the judgment, the faster the cash flow.

Gospel wisdom is not something that floats down from the air, something not rooted in the soil of this life. The wisdom of not judging too quickly is the wisdom of humility: we do not know everything, we cannot know everything--so let issues percolate, let them simmer, ponder them. Why so much hurry to react to the lastest thing on the news? The survival and well-being of the world do not depend on our instant reactions. We are not the saviors of anything. Follow the rhythm of that old Latin word: paulatim, gradually, little by little.

After pondering, you may find that it may actually be better to say, of all things, nothing at all. And, after pondering, you may find out that you might say something more nuanced, more intelligent, something more comprehensive and more comprehending of the entire situation.

Instant judgment is not a gift of the Holy Spirit. Instant judgment is the folly of deceptive certitude and of an exaggerated sense of the importance of our own opinions. And remember that some of the most certain are among the most insecure. Situations develop over time. So should our judgments, especially when made in the public arena.


The Ad Modum Argument

Now, some might say: "Well, I know my arguments are correct. I have known all about this issue and have dealt with it for years. You are just making an ad hominem argument that is irrelevant to my logical point." 

My criticism of instant judgments is not ad hominem at all. My observation is an ad modum argument: pointing out that the mode or manner of argumentation is too sure of itself because it is too quick and so fails to take into account all of the relevant circumstances surrounding an issue. An ad modum argument is highly relevant in all discussions because it points to the causes of weakness in an unpersuasive conclusion: hastily made assumptions and insufficiently examined, over-simplistic, arbitrarily narrow premises. The way (modum) one argues is highly relevant to any discussion--in contrast to a genuinely ad hominem point (such as, "you have freckles").


A Thoughtful Alternative: An Example

What mode or manner of argument allows us to avoid the silliness of instant judgments that are all too common in the "fast" media (radio, TV, and internet)? I suggest a wide inductive approach: observe and gather alot of information first. Then digest the information before deciding. In contrast, most fruitless instant analysis labors under the illusion of a purely deductive approach: these are the two or three things I have to know, I know them, here is the only conclusion possible. Yes, if you narrow the scope of what you consider, you will get a quick and snappy conclusion--but do not be surprised if you lose many others in the process and fail to be persuasive, even if those others cannot exactly articulate what is missing in your analysis. They will still sense that something important has been overlooked.

For example, not a few Catholics love to fight about liturgical rules. The incident of the recent papal foot-washing is a good example. What inductive approach would apply to this issue? Look at the text of the rubric or liturgical rule. Look at it as if you had never seen it before: notice what someone with a different view of the matter would notice. Aquinas left us a great legacy of giving the best possible exposition to an opposing view. In my old textbook on symbolic logic, this approach is called--even by secularists--the principle of charity to be applied in interpreting any argument. You give the other side the best you can give for its view. Sometimes, you may, as a result, adopt the other view. So what? After all, the issue is not winning or saving face or sticking to our past answers but rather getting closer to the truth.

Continuing our liturgical example, then you ask: what is the purpose of the rule? Does the rule itself tell us? At this point, in the foot-washing example, it would be useful to go back and read the chapter in the Gospel of John where the foot-washing takes place. What is the purpose and meaning of Jesus' action?

After taking time to absorb all of the above, then consider whether canon law is of help in this matter or whether it is a matter for liturgical analysis only. Can we find principles in canon law that can help us to fruitfully analyze the Pope's action? When I followed this process, I thought of the canon law principle of custom--whereby a custom can in some special circumstances overturn an explicit rule. The idea of custom overturning a written rule tells us alot about the Church as a community: the practice of the community is considered to be very important. That idea should not be surprising since canon law itself originates in the first place with the customs and practices of Christians. Remember the old saying: how we pray reflects what we believe ("lex orandi, lex credendi": the rule of praying is the rule of believing). Thus, at the root of a true Catholic analysis there is a profound regard for what the community concretely and actually practices on the ground.

If all of the above steps had been followed by many, the papal foot-washing would have been a teaching moment for all of us, not another occasion for empty polemics. Cast out the net and take in the information. Then, ponder. Then, speak publicly. We will all make mistakes, even specialists. The key is to continue to be open to new information and to continue to think. As the Gospel tells us in many ways, cast your nets widely in order to make a great catch.

(Image in public domain)