What you don’t know can hurt, too

by Kristin on February 20, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by daisybush

Bear with me while I make an over-generalization about American society: We essentially reward people who are good at hiding the socially unacceptable things they do.

I’m not saying we necessarily approve of behaviors that are considered socially unacceptable. If asked outright, most Americans would say they are firmly opposed to things like extramarital affairs, alcohol abuse, and prostitution. But when it gets down to it, I think we’re more concerned with appearances than with the existence of an actual problem.

We embrace a “what I don’t know won’t hurt me” approach, and an  “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. Those who aren’t cautious enough, or who chose to live their life in the open rather than be artfully sneaky, are raked over the coals.

Not sure you agree? Think of this: Most parents don’t want their teenagers to be having sex. But when it gets down to it, the real fear is pregnancy and STDs. So, as long as there’s no evidence of sex, that’s good enough for the upstanding adults of the community. They’re able to continue on in ignorant blissfulness, pretending it’s not really an issue.

Think about the large number of people who are morally against same-sex relationships. They don’t want gay people in the military, or teaching their children, or worshiping and taking communion in most churches. But if you’re successful in hiding the fact that you’re a homosexual, all is well. Don’t ask, don’t tell. What we don’t know won’t hurt us. If you appear to be “one of us,” by all means, take communion AND teach Sunday School! You can even go to Iraq and die for our country!

What about the person who gambles in some seedy establishment and loses thousands? As long as we don’t have to witness their sad life and hear their sad tale, all is fine. But if you spend the weekend at the Bellagio in Vegas and come home with modest winnings, you’re admirable.

And what about the well-known blogger, who tells an honest, funny tale about a really chaotic morning and four sips of wine she had in the midst of it all? She is seen as shameful. She drank in the morning, and then got in her car and drove to work. Of course, lots of people are abusing alcohol throughout the day, every day, but as long as they don’t drink in front of people at inappropriate times—and especially if they don’t write about it in their blog—they’re fine.

The problem with selective vision and judgment

I think all kinds of people are prone to judging what’s in front of us, as plain as day. It makes sense, after all—we can’t exactly be judgmental about things we don’t even know about.

But we’re really not so naive. We know, deep down inside, that all kinds of things we’d rather not know about are in fact happening. All around us, all the time.

Maybe that’s what we should really be worried about—the negative stuff that goes on every day behind closed doors. Maybe that’s the behavior that really hurts people, and can lead to more deeply rooted abuses that are much more difficult to emerge from.

Maybe those of us walking around in our protected dream worlds would be much better off if we considered the possibility of a big picture, and stopped directing all our anger and fear at the few problems and people we can see.

And maybe this is why, in Matthew 7, Jesus says “Do not judge.” It’s not our job. It’s not what we were created and put into community for. Besides that, we’re obviously really terrible at it.

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  • http://www.lorilynh.typepad.com Lori-Lyn

    This is so true. My relationship with Christianity is complicated, but I can always come here and feel it as love and grace that does not turn away from the difficult social issues, but meets them full on with compassion. Thank you.

  • http://mothershaffer.wordpress.com/ Mothershaffer

    This is exactly why I’m not religious…the level of hypocrisy makes me want to break several commandments.

  • http://www.tjhirst.com/ TJ Hirst

    I agree that as a society we are concerned about appearances and hypocrisy and judgment do exist, on a generalized scale and personal ones. But like most over-generalizations, the reason we don’t see the other side is that those efforts are not usually broadcast. The examples of caring and compassion with all the “the negative stuff that goes on behind closed doors,” happen “behind closed doors.” Pain is private in our culture. When we are in pain or difficulty, we go into protection mode, which means we escape from public view. Again, while it may appear that many are judgmental, if you look at specific people dealing with specific individuals, you may see most people will connect humanly and humanly, no matter what.

  • http://thesmilingduck.wordpress.com/ Kellee Weinhold

    Nicely said. It is my experience that people get angry when they are “forced” to make public their beliefs. It would all be a lot less disruptive, so the logic goes, if people kept their offenses to themselves. In other words, If you are gay but don’t “flaunt” it, the people who quietly go about believing that homosexuality is a sin can continue to do so and no one will have to be made uncomfortable by the whole *icky* topic. (Well, no one but the person being shoved into the shadows that is.) I wonder if we shouldn’t be equally concerned with the judgment going on under the surface.

  • Arathi

    Good, good post, Kristin. I cannot agree more. As long as we cannot see what’s going on who cares what’s really going on? UGH.

    A

  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    You wrote what I’ve been thinking and big props for having the guts to criticize trunk. i was just thinking last night – how can i read kristin and zoe – and trunk. seems like one doesn’t belong in the mix. i didn’t comment on her wine sipping b/c she was obviously trying to provoke comments and increase traffic. i hate it when bloggers do that. it’s like they’re using a formula. i’ve been toying with putting a subtitle on my blog for March – “Snark Free Zone.” It’s gotten really old…

    this post presents thoughts i’ve been keeping bottled up. men can beat their wives or women, their children, but you can maintain your position on the church board – as long as your bad deeds do not become rampantly public. it’s sick.

  • http://www.intersectedblog.com Jamie

    Kristin -

    Were you criticizing Trunk? It was my impression that you were giving her praise for being honest and not hiding in the shadows about her own struggles (or her desire to gulp down some wine in the morning! Woo!).

  • http://www.intersectedblog.com Jamie

    jenx67 –
    i didn’t comment on her wine sipping b/c she was obviously trying to provoke comments and increase traffic. i hate it when bloggers do that.

    Wait – isn’t that judgmental? Didn’t you just prove what Kristin’s entire post was about?

  • http://modite.com/blog Rebecca

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about why blogging so powerful, because it makes it so much easier not to act like we’re all perfect. I’ve always likened blogs to your home. You are who you are at home, and in real life, perhaps you wouldn’t invite the whole world in, but blogging does just that :)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Lori-Lyn, approaching “difficult issues” with “love and grace” is probably the best way to sum up my whole purpose here. The fact that you see Halfway to Normal as a place where that happens is extremely gratifying. Thanks for letting me know.

    Mothershaffer, I completely know where you’re coming from, regarding the hypocrisy. That’s exactly what gets me all worked up and drives me to write a post like this. It’s also what drives me to try to look beyond all of the failed humans who call themselves followers of Jesus, and actually look at what Jesus said and did. Recently on Twitter, someone said they saw a bumper sticker that said: “I want Jesus to come back…and say ‘That’s not what I mean.’” I love that. I think most of us are getting it SO wrong.

    TJHirst, I honestly hope what you’re saying is true, about all the caring that goes on behind closed doors. I do know it happens a lot through the church I go to, but in general, I still think there is so much that people keep hidden, in secret, that will never be addressed. That hurts us all. (Somehow, though, I can just tell you’re the kind of person who does lots of caring behind closed doors. We need more of you.)

    Kellee, yes, it’s this “shoving people into the shadows” issue that really worries me, along with a general desire to avoid “icky” topics, as you put it. I’d like to hear more about what you mean by this: “I wonder if we shouldn’t be equally concerned with the judgment going on under the surface.”

    Arathi, thanks for the affirmation. :) It’s good to know there are also many people like you in the world, who would rather not exist in a naive bubble.

    jenx67, sorry, I think I was a bit unclear about the Penelope Trunk blog part. I was actually more disturbed by the many critical comments on her post than I was by her having a few sips of wine before work. I’m not saying I recommend that as a great solution to a stressful morning, but it made me think about all the people who sneak drinks all the time. As long as they sneak, they won’t be ostracized. That seems messed up. But what you said about men who beat their wives and maintain their position on the church board? You’re exactly right. It’s sick. And it’s that kind of thing that gets me all worked up. :)

    Jaime, yes, I think you read it right. As I said in my comment on Penelope’s post, I think those who were judging her were probably more upset that she blogged about her four sips of wine than they were about her having the wine. That, as you know, is what sparked this whole post (along with things that have happened in my own life, but those are stories for another time).

    Rebecca, what a great way to think about blogging! I think when someone approaches their blog like home, as you put it, it really shines through and makes people want to get comfortable, themselves, and spend some time there. This is especially true for “personal blogs.” On the other hand, a blog can be a perfect facade. It’s easy to cover up or avoid what’s real, depending on the topics you write about, and what you decide to share or leave out. It’s easy to paint a portrait of yourself as the person you’d like to be rather than the person you are. I think most readers see through that, though, don’t you?

  • http://www.lifewithoutpants.com Matt Cheuvront

    Kristin -

    This is an extremely well thought out discussion, and I deal with a lot of the things you brought to light on a daily basis (won’t go into detail here). But the bottom line, and the way in which you conclude this post, is it’s not our job to be the judge and the jury of the world, and as you said, we (as a society) are not very good at it.

    Mothershaffer, you hit the nail right on the head with your comment. The level of hypocrisy in religion (primarily looking at Christianity here) is insane. Not only is it one of the only religions that segregates themselves entirely from non-believers, it is also one of the only religions that will do (whatever it takes) to convert followers. My relationship with God and my own personal faith takes ideas from many different backgrounds, I think there is a lot of good in a lot of different practices, and I believe religion should be a much more personal and introverted one-one-one experience with God.

    Not trying to get off on a tangent here, but those thoughts were going through my head. Really took what you had to say in to heart. Just stumbled across your fine blog here (thanks Jamie) – I encourage you to check out mine as well – us bloggers gotta’ stick together! (http://www.lifewithoutpants.com).

  • Pingback: i’m being irrational. stop me. | intersected

  • http://thesmilingduck.wordpress.com/ Kellee Weinhold

    Kristin,
    I guess I am considering flipping the argument a bit on its head: What if the reason some people want “bad” things kept quiet (Don’t ask don’t tell) is not that they don’t want to deny they exist, but they don’t want to be “forced” to tell their own truths. In other words, don’t let me see that you have a drinking problem or that you gamble because then I will be forced to actually make public my hidden judgments about you and right and wrong, and I prefer to appear nice and accepting. Until it’s time to vote, that is.

  • http://akhila.wordpress.com Akhila

    This is a great post. I think its very true that as long as you keep your “shameful” behaviors on the DL, it’s considered fine. But I don’t think it’s that way in America only. It’s a little less that way in Europe perhaps but it’s that way ALL OVER THE WORLD. Every country has its own “shameful” behaviors. Perhaps in some places in Europe it’s more shameful to smoke or to be Republican and so on. In other, more conservative, countries in the ME, Asia, Africa and so on there are even more disparities about what’s considered wrong. To be honest, America is one of the more liberal societies out there, and people are forced to hide even more in the more conservative regions of the world.

  • http://themoderngal.blogspot.com The Modern Gal

    You are ABSOLUTELY right. It’s all about keeping up with appearances. I’ve been so drawn to the bloggers like Penelope or Heather Armstrong who are so honest about themselves in spite of social mores because it’s a good reminder that we’re all human.

    And you’re also right that it’s not our place to judge. And it’s amazing what kind of friendships you can forge and things you can learn when you’re open and non-judgmental.

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    This touched so many spots in my psyche. I was victim of nasty rumors at a job; accused of an affair with the boss. The irony? He and his wife are still good friends of mine. The accusers? No longer part of my life.
    Teen sex is a very real concern. I’m a little more liberal than most, and I made sure my daughter had a good relationship with her doctor without me as a go-between. I like to think we had (and still have) an open relationship, but in case she was uncomfortable at all, I wanted her to be able to get the truth about birth control from a reputable source.
    Does that make me a bad mom? I hope not.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Matt, I’m glad you found my blog and liked what you read. As I mentioned, I completely agree that the level of hypocrisy among those who call themselves “Christian” is a huge problem. I also agree with your point that Christians tend to separate themselves too much from non-believers—this is a social pattern that my husband and I actively work to avoid, by regularly interacting with all kinds of people. I’m not sure these problems are exclusive to Christians, though. Other religions seem to struggle with these same issues, but in different ways. I would love to hear what others think about Christians “doing whatever it takes to convert followers.” While this seems true of some Christian denominations and sects, it’s also very uncharacteristic of others (not to mention that it seems to be very prevalent in religions other than Christianity, as well). Whew! Sorry for the lengthy response. Thanks for getting in on the discussion. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on your blog, too!

    Kellee, thanks for the follow up. I bet there’s a lot of what you describe going on, too. When I got a divorce, it seemed like a lot of people looked down on me for it, as if we hadn’t tried hard enough to work through our problems (four years of counseling wasn’t enough effort, apparently). But it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps my divorce threw many of their marriages and choices into question, and *that’s* what they were uncomfortable with. I can’t be sure, of course, but it crossed my mind, and I think that’s the sort of thing you’re getting at.

    Akhila, welcome to Halfway to Normal! I’m really grateful for your perspective. I admit, I’m often too quick to pin a lot of negative things to “American culture,” when the truth is, I don’t have much first-hand experience with cultures in other parts of the world, particularly outside of Europe. I really need these reminders from people like you. Thanks.

    Modern Gal, I love what you wrote: “it’s amazing what kind of friendships you can forge and things you can learn when you’re open and non-judgmental.” It’s one thing to think of what we should or shouldn’t do, simply because it’s right or wrong (in this case, we shouldn’t judge because it’s wrong); it’s another to be open to all we have to gain when we make that choice. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Daisy, it sounds like you’re doing the best possible thing, as a mother—being informative, open and approachable, but also giving your daughter other options, in terms of people she can go to for information and help. By the way, I’ve been mulling over a follow up to my “Politics, religion & sex” post, with more thoughts on how we should be talking to our kids about sex. Stay tuned! Your experienced input is valued.

  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    Jamie – Do you read Trunk? If so, then you would completely understand my comment. Trunk, who I happen to really enjoy reading for many reasons – periodically uses shock-jock tactics. My comment on this blog was not a moral evaulation of her, but rather, a keen observation of public relations tactics she uses to drive traffic to her blog. Sorry if I did not communicate accurately what I was trying to say. I’ve left comments about this on Trunk’s blog – out right asking her if she was just trying to shock and provoke people.

    There is no way Trunk drove drunk to work. NO WAY. If she did, calling her to task would be as much a public safety issue as moral issue. But, she colors outside the lines. She’s a brilliant blogger. She knows what will rattle people. She treads where few will go. This is why she makes $100,000 of her blog and I make nothing off mine. Ha! My point was – how can I follow bloggers like Kristin and Zoe who present their authentic selves to the world and provide genuine dialogue and also follow Trunk – who seems to offer up what will sell. But, who can blame her? She has two kids to raise and all of who work are selling something – even if it is just time.

    I hope all this make sense. My point was intended to be about Trunk’s consistent provocation – not about her sipping wine in the morning.

  • http://www.larkinsplace.com Larkinsmom

    I LOVE this post! 2 points – I blogged in the beginning of my journey as a way to redirect those who would gossip and inflate my grief. Not hiding my pain. Not hiding my daughter and the bad but sharing all of it – bleeding all over them as I like to say. Wanna see my grief – here it is.

    2nd – when Mr Ex cheated I ran into so many people who shrugged their shoulders and said “oh well he’s always been nice to me and that was a long time ago” —- AS IF that some how some way negated the pain this persons behavior had inflicted upon my life. They didn’t see it, they didn’t feel it so it must not be real huh??

    Love you!!

  • http://www.ejly.net ejly

    I think judgment is called for, and I don’t understand the bible verse as you cite and how it applies to this example. Consider instead an example of someone judging the evidence and acting upon it: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100829394 I read that and I don’t see someone turning away and justifying their non-involvement by saying that the bible says do not judge.

    Personally, I try to live non-judgmentally but perhaps more judgment is indeed called for in many cases.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jenx67, thanks for following up. I can see what you’re saying. (And I can see why I’ll probably never make a living off of my blog! :)

    Larkinsmom, sharing your own story with the rest of us, as it relates to this issue of not hiding our struggles and pain, really helps bring the whole point home. That’s what a community should be about: Sharing and embracing one another’s pain rather than ignoring and attempting to downplay or negate it. Thanks for doing that, and for being so honest, here and on your own really wonderful blog!

    ejly, yes, I heard that commentary when it was first aired. It’s a really painful story and important lesson. I’m not sure, though, how it’s an example to consider “instead” of the examples I shared. It seems to fit right in. Child abuse is happening, whether we see evidence of it or not, and as a society we have a responsibility to try to uncover even the abuse that’s happening “behind closed doors.” Were you referencing the need to “judge” the boy’s abusive parents? If so, not judging someone is a separate issue from advocating for human rights, safety, and justice. Jesus was very much about all of those things. I think I’m misunderstanding you, though. Can you explain more what you mean by “I think judgment is called for?”

    In general, I realize the “Do not judge” Bible verse was maybe kind of a surprise ending. Here’s what I meant, and how it relates to what I was writing about. Jesus is telling people not to judge, because we all have problems of our own, and we can’t rank or value sin and say “your sins are a 9, but mine are only a 2, so I’m going to focus my energy on what you’re doing wrong, not what I should be working on.” We’re “bad” at being judges because we never have all the information or the right perspective. A Christian might judge someone for openly being homosexual, while not judging someone who sits on the church council and is having an affair in secret—simply because it’s kept hidden! Meanwhile, that very person might be consistently verbally abusive to his wife and kids, but doesn’t think it’s a “big deal.” (Again, refraining from this kind of judgment does NOT excuse us from advocating for and protecting people in need. These are separate issues, and I don’t think Jesus’ use of the word “judge” here can be applied to justice issues.)

  • http://www.ejly.net ejly

    I doubt the doctor is a perfect being, and probably has issues of her own to attend to. Yet she took the time to judge – to look at the missed well-care appointments – and to take action. So in spite of our personal failings, which each person should be working on, sometimes there is a calling to judge others and act upon what you know. So maybe it is our job to judge one another; and be conscious that in doing so, we expose ourselves for judgment too.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    ejly, thanks for taking the time to follow up. I completely get what you’re saying. I think there are just two (or more!) different ways to think about “judging” or being “judgmental.” In situations of advocacy, like you describe, I think we are definitely called to judge others and act upon what we know. Jesus did it all the time, especially when “the least of these” (the poor, young, old, sick, and otherwise undervalued outsiders) were being taken advantage of, abused or neglected by people who had some power over them.