Judge not lest ye be judged. It’s an aphorism as old as time, humming a song as old as rhyme. Yet negative judgements of others flow to the surface of our mind as natural as ducks taking to water. Avoiding toxic thoughts of superiority isn’t merely a matter of consciously and calmly pressing some mental refresh button in a given time and at a given place. Often, we fall into the clutches of vicious condescension at a moment’s notice and without even realizing it.
Just the other day a local and reputable janitorial service van passed me as I was taking my afternoon constitutional stroll to my rural route mailbox. Must be 3:30, I thought, the van being about as well-calibrated as are my scholarly jaunts down the slope to collect my snail mail. And, sure enough it was 3:30 on the nose. Isn’t it great when things are punctual?
Pausing to read the markings on the side of the van I noted one calligraphed phrase in particular: “Fully Licenced” it read. And wham-o, unbeknownst to the executive faculties in my egg noodle (egghead?) brain, I thought to myself “Son of a Juniper, how can they be licensed and spell the word license wrong!? What is going on in this world?!” It’d be like misspelling the name of your hometown when one’s hometown is Kitimat. I’ve seen that happen. Or like the local community college installing receptacles for recyclables complete with a sign indicating “recycleables”. I’ve seen that too and last I checked the misspelled sign was approaching its one-decade mark uncorrected. It is what it is. And was.
But what is being correct, really? Acting with appropriate dignity, with metaphoric curtsy or bow and with nicely pleated trou? Grammar Nazis can be incorrigible, insufferable, and downright anal. And often they can be wrong or only partly right. Lo and behold, upon returning to my desk and opening my Canadian English dictionary, I learned that in Canada ‘licenced’ is the correct spelling with ‘licensed’ primarily used in the US. So I’d been hornswoggled by my own judgmental nature. And possibly by more than a couple elementary school teachers in Langley who were fond of saying that, seeing as how we were only a few clicks from the 49th Parallel compared to thousands of miles from Mother England, we could, in the rare instance of spelling disagreements, use whichever spelling (colour vs color) that caught our fancy. Who says school has to feel like a straitjacket! Maybe they did it to give us a sense of liberation or maybe as a favour to that very Canadian trait of politeness, if not permissibility. Or perhaps all of the above will suffice.
The Ego Has Landed
So, I’d succumbed to one of the nastier afflictions of being educated: judging others for their shortcomings in literacy. At least I felt humbler upon correcting my own wrongness. But where does this all originate, this need to be right in the face of scanty evidence that being correct will affect one’s existence at a primal or heartfelt level. Ram Dass, that recently-departed counter-culture theorist and saintly figure of hippie enlightenment, famously said “I’d rather be happy than right.” (Ram Dass, 106). (The fact that the Zen book bearing this quotation was published in Charlottesvile, of recent race riot fame, is an anal detail meriting scrutiny but beyond the scope of this article). We want to beware, as AU students, that, as the tide comes in on our education and we bathe in the virtue of knowledge hard won, we best retain a humble demeanor in the face of all that we don’t know or understand. Likewise we may realize that many questions are unanswerable in terms of dichotomous finalities. If we need a cautionary tail, the internet is full of netizens nipping at one another’s cyber-rumps for no reason save that they each feel that they must prove their righteousness and superiority. Ego trumps engagement all too often.
When thoughts of superiority bubble to the surface of our minds, we may become adept at recognizing them and rewarding their kinder, more tolerant, cousins. But where do these judgmental and cantankerous elements of our psyche originate? Let’s humour ourselves for a moment. Ol’ Sigmund Freud, concerned as he was with the sexual nature of our psychological condition as human animals (based on dogmas of scientism not out of place in a Bill Nye episode or an Anthony Dawkins diatribe), concluded that, thanks to evolution, we are each of us mammals first and foremost. So, with that philosophy in mind, Freud concluded that traits such as conscientiousness (such as obsessive concern with “the performance of petty duties” and obstinacy (which “may amount to defiance, with which irascibility and vindictiveness may easily be associated”) add up to, well, a person being a bit anal. And what can be more anal than being a grammar Nazi and spelling stickler?
Sure there is a time and place, namely our academic studies, to mind our p’s and q’s, but when this mentality seeps into our daily realms then it’s as though, for Freud, we’ve become accustomed to, er, holding on for too long to our #2s.
Before we blow this idea off as so much hot air let’s give Freud a hearing. He claimed of adults tending toward an anal type that as “ infants they seem to have been among those who refuse to empty the bowels when placed on the chamber, because they derive incidental pleasure from the act of defecation they assert that even in later years they have found a pleasure in holding back their stools.” (Freud 8). Clinging to the need to be right in the face of the calming effects of being happy, and relieved of the white-knuckle need for control, certainly fits the character of a person who wishes to be nitpicky about details. But as my encounter with the dictionary attests, even simple things like spelling can be relative to geographical and cultural discourse. Rarely is being right really being right anyway!
Finally, there is the possibility that judging others is more about being or forming an authoritative consensus than about any universal or transcendental righteousness that will absolve ourselves from the viscidities of an ever-flowing reality. The Swiss sociologist Georg Simmel, in writing about the patterns of fashion and adherence to its fascistic codes, said that “the principle of adherence to a given formula, of being and of acting like others, is irreconcilably opposed to striving to advance to ever new and individual forms of life” (Simmel G, 1904).
While there’ no doubting the pragmatism of spelling signage correctly, which the janitorial van had done in fine Canadian fashion, we would also be best served to focus ourselves on our own self-improvement. After all, no one ever wrote a scholarly essay by being an expert at Scrabble! It’s with all this in mind that I happily turn off the autocorrect on my cell phone, the better for randomized spellings and neologisms to emerge. If there’s one thing AU can teach us, regardless of our discipline, it’s that our license to learn is about becoming open-minded to the polysemic chorus of the world all around us.