“I’ve learned not to judge other people.” In the debate on marriage equality, many former opponents have softened their opinions with this all-too-common phrase. While a little progress and diplomacy in any debate is better than none, this should hardly be considered an acceptable assessment of same-sex marriage. Because whenever we say, “I don’t judge,” we’re implying that we think there is something morally ambiguous to judge about the situation.
We say “I don’t judge” when we observe pain or dishonesty and are hard pressed to think of a way it could have been prevented. We say it when we observe someone lose control and we know that everyone loses control sometimes. We say it when at least two sides are sparring and both have made major mistakes. It’s dishonest to pretend that we don’t have opinions about the decisions and actions we witness, because we all do. But ultimately saying, “I don’t judge” means my opinion is incomplete because I can’t say for sure what I would do in that situation. And when the act in question falls short of intentionally cruel behavior, it is often the appropriate thing to say.
It’s appropriate when we hear about a neighbor’s divorce (“I don’t know the details of the marriage, so I can’t judge”), when we hear that someone took a job that compromised their morals (“I can’t say what I would do if I were that strapped for cash”), when we see people with parenting methods that differ from our own (“That child isn’t my child, and I don’t know what I would do if she were”). We say it not to ignore the harm it may have wrought, but in order to remain humble, to avoid hypocrisy, and to remember that different circumstances prevent the human experience from being truly universal.
But we do not and should not say it regarding lifestyles that raise no moral questions. We don’t say, “She’s dating a foreigner, but I don’t judge,” or “They adopted a child, but I don’t judge.” If anyone said of my partner, “He married a woman with dwarfism, but I don’t judge,” that person would be implying there is something shameful or irresponsible about me and my condition.
A little over a hundred years ago, doctors were saying just that. A Virginia medical manual in 1878 advocated criminalizing marriages between average-sized men and women with dwarfism, insisting that such an act was on par with “murder.”
Modern readers hopefully find nothing morally ambiguous about two consenting adults falling in love and deciding to commit to one another. Regarding interracial or same-sex or international or medically “mixed” marriages, the only people who should invite our judgment are those who impugn these relationships with the statement, “I don’t judge.” It’s an oxymoron, not unlike a “Please” slathered sarcasm. And it would be swell to see it less and less in political discussions on civil rights.