Thursday, 24 September 2009

Judgement Day

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to call this piece ‘How we judge’; that was how it first came to me. Then I realised that there was no we about it; it is about how I judge. The WE is always fabulous, giving the illusion that every one of us is part of the collective unconscious, that the particular is, in fact, the universal. I am guilty of this in several discrete ways: I do it with women, Britons, writers. I like to think of myself as a student of human nature, but I have a fatal tendency to clump people into groups. ‘The French,’ I say, blithely, ‘the Italians, the Americans.’ ‘The politicians,’ I declare, without a second thought, ‘the BBC, the intellectuals.’ Often, I say: ‘The Women’. (Women always get a capital letter in my book.) I talk to Sarah down the telephone; I say: we must set The Women free. This is what Backwards is all about, in my mind. Sarah says, calmly: ‘You must never say that out loud, in public.’ All of which is a very long, tangential way of saying: there is no We here. This is all me, much as I might like to extrapolate until my ears fall off.

The thing of it is, I am a nice, ostentatiously educated, middle class liberal. I like to entertain the fantasy that I have no prejudice. I get furious and shouty when I encounter racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, fattism; of course I do, what else would you expect? I spend a lot of my time pondering where bigotry comes from. I am excessively fond of imagining I am immune. And yet, and yet. I am suddenly, acutely conscious of how I make ruthless judgements, often based on thin evidence. This revelation did not come to me from reading Jung, or Kant, or TS Eliot. It was not the product of deep thought. I was watching one of the flashy American TV shows that I secretly like, and a character said: ‘That’s Bach. I love Bach’. He was a supporting character, thinly sketched. The writers had not necessarily made him loveable, or even three dimensional. On top of that, he was a Catholic priest, and as a feminist and an atheist, I should have some doubts about that. But the moment he said he loved Bach, I loved him. It was like coded shorthand, speaking to my deep heart.

But that is crazy, I thought, the moment I got the warm loving feeling. The Nazis loved Wagner. I am perfectly certain that sociopaths and bankers have been moved to tears by a Schubert quintet. It made me think how judgy I am, despite my fantasy that I am quite disinterested. It’s tribal, I think. It’s a lower order of assumption, not quite the irrational idea of putting people into groups because of their gender or skin colour or sexual orientation, but not so many millions of miles away. If someone knows The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, can tell me who Lady Brett Ashley is, has read the diaries of Chips Channon, watched Blue Peter in their youth, shamelessly adores the novels of Nancy Mitford, has Blonde on Blonde in their record collection, I am at once inclined towards them. If they think that the two greatest lines Bowie ever wrote are: ‘As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for your favourite party’, and ‘It was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor’, then I am their friend forever. If a person uses the words ‘human condition’ in casual conversation, I shall want to listen to them until the end of time.

If I am being finally, brutally honest I think that women who are obsessed with shoes are letting the Sisterhood down. I am suspicious of men who indulge in pornography. When someone tells me that they believe in free markets and Milton Friedman I at once have the thought that they might regard the poor as undeserving and single mothers as a blight on society. I have a mild and inexplicable suspicion of double barrelled names and anyone who owns a yappy lapdog and people who buy their clothes from the Boden catalogue. I am very leery of the wildly rich. Any columnist who starts their piece with ‘Why oh Why?’ or ‘Am I alone in thinking?’ is an instant joke to me.

The horrible truth is it turns out that I might have just as many knee jerk reactions as the people I casually mark as ‘prejudiced’. I may keep my notions to myself, and present a lovely liberal exterior to the world, but that’s not good enough. I am going to go away and work on it. I am, for the moment, putting myself in the corner, until I can work out the difference between reasoned opinion and irrational judgement.


  1. Not all prejudices are created equal. And it's perfectly appropriate to seek out kindred spirits, and have a preference for those who share our passions. I am instantly devoted to anyone who read and enjoyed Zulieka Dobson, for instance. I love Schoenburg, but accept it's rather a minority sport. I have been terribly judged and occasionally picked on (as a child) for liking Culture. And was excluded from the main gang at school for being a 'walking dictionary'.
    Prejudices, judgements-hell, life would be dull without them. And if there were none, what would we Eliot/Mitford/Dylan lovers have to fulminate against.
    However, I fully expect to be drummed out of your gang when I confess I'm devoted to shoes.

  2. Lovely, lovely Mrs T, you are so reassuring. Zuleika! Have not read since Oxford, when of course it was a required text (never forget the statues outside the Sheldonian sweating). Perhaps you are right, if we were all impeccably open-minded and non-judgemental, everything would be too vanilla for words.

    In my opinion, a devotion to TS, Nancy and Bob means that you get as many shoes as you want.


  3. Isn't this just a definition of friendship - or, better, as Mrs T puts it - kindred spirits? Anyone who can show a faint glimmering of knowledge of the Left Bank in the silver 1920s, get why I laugh myself sick over G Durrell or India Knight, or share my love of your books or Elizabeth David or Ian Rankin (or indeed TS) earns my eternal devotion.
    And actually isn't it perfectly human to yearn towards someone you have something in common with; when the world is so very full of people who are so utterly different to you, isn't it natural and good and human to want to find - and then celebrate - that which you share?
    And prejudices be damned - occasionally they can be quite enlightening, especially when faced with someone who can't bear F Scott.

  4. Ah Jo, I can feel myself putting the scourge down. I think you might be right. Perhaps I was making a category error. I had a sudden spasm of: you CAN'T go around making assumptions like that and at once took it out on myself in print.

    Thanks to you and Mrs Trefusis I now feel like a normal human being again.

    Am so with you on the magnificent Mrs David. Sometimes I take her books to bed with me and just read them for the sheer pleasure of the thing. I still think that what she did was actually properly revolutionary since she was writing in the time when you had to go and get your olive oil from the CHEMIST. (Never quite sure what pharmaceutical purpose it served; something to do with ears?)

  5. On the Mrs D note (have you read her biog by Artemis Cooper - excellent and a world above the appalling character-destroying programme they did on her a couple of years ago...) I happen to think you fall into the ED camp or the Jane Grigson camp - my own prejudice but not quite surmountable. And on the subject of cook books Nigel's new one is beyond... A tome of a paean to vegetables. Though if you take it up to bed, I suspect you won't be able to lift it back down again. Buy for the pumpkin scone recipe...

  6. Jo - HAVE read Artemis Cooper book. I adored it and could not put it down.

    Now hysterically excited about Nigel's pumpkins.

  7. As I get older I recognise more of my prejudices. Some of them I can discard as being unreasonable, some I think are good hints as to character (men who like pornography for example). The thing I try to do now is to not make instant, closed mind decisions/exclusions based on my judgements.

    There are many cases where it's been worth getting to know someone better in spite of apparent major differences in taste, lifestyle etc.

    It's the young who have to run in cliques, all dressed the same, listening to the same music. Variety is the spice of life.

  8. Hello- I very much enjoy your blog- and your book! I have been lurking a bit but am popping out to say hello.

    I think some little prejudices are okay if they are just little indulgences- you don't really mean them when you think about it and you wouldn't really ever form a judgement about someone you met because of them. Plus things can surprise you, I hate the Notting hell yummy mummy types but have just posted about a coat I love from Boden- and I thought I hated that. Plus I didn't go to Nando's for years thinking it looked dreadful but actully it's rather good!

    No one is a saint though. I still have to fight my hatred of certain things, I really hate nasty feet, it's mean of me but they make me feel funny.

  9. Northmoon - I so agree about learning to tell the difference. Something can be pointless knee jerk, or actually a judicious weighing of evidence. I suppose it is working out where the thin red line lies.

    Rose - a huge welcome. So lovely to have you. So agree about things surprising one. Just as one has decided a certain category of people is filled with fools and knaves, one meets one who refutes every received idea. I am certain there must be several Notting Hill yummy mummies who read Spinoza or adore Ibsen. I bet they do all have beautiful feet though, which will make you happy.

  10. Yes people surprise you- but you know the yummy mummy's might not have beautiful feet, you'd be surprised! I don't have the nicest feet in the world but they are clean- it's those dirty, knarled feet that upset me- you can't help what you were born with but it can be clean. I must say it's generally men who are more guilty on that front.

    Thanks for welcoming me along


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