Musings on Social Judgments

It is widely acknowledged that even people who believe that they are not racist, sometimes demonstrate implicit racism, which is deeply hurtful to those who experience it. One such place where implicit racism is manifest is in social settings where new introductions are being made (such as church or occasions for business networking), where there are abundant opportunities for forging new relationships. But these opportunities are often are undeveloped. The reasons for this are complex, but seem to consist of the following factors: 1) humans have the capacity for a limited number of intimate relationships; 2) we make contact with a much higher number of people than we have capacity to know intimately; 3) as a result we develop the skill of screening our social contacts, that is, assessing what relationships we would like (cautiously) to develop. People limit their relationships to the number of people that they think they can handle.

This screening behavior seems to be largely subconscious, though people sometimes do talk about it. But insofar as this remains a subconscious activity, the reasons that underlie our judgments (in the philosophical sense) remain mysterious. I contend that this is a significant area where racism remains in our society. But racism can be only one facet of this judgment. The answers to the standard questions also go into the judgment: What do you do? Where are you from? How long have you lived here/done this? What brings you here? We all have predispositions for answering the question, “would this person be worth knowing better?”

Two other factors that contribute to our social judgments are beauty and competence. “Uglyism” or “Dumbism” seem to be as problematic as racism, but without the well defined boundary markers. I remember a particular example while in seminary when I was working at Wells Fargo Bank. A good looking and intelligent customer was making a transaction with a coworker who did not match his looks or intelligence. She made a joke to him and he stopped what he was doing, looked her in the eye, and said, “you’re not cute.” It always struck me that this comment could be taken as a double entendre. He explicitly meant “witty” or “funny,” but implicitly meant “attractive.” In other circumstances, this customer was more than willing to joke with my other more attractive coworker.

I hope that these musings may push us to think of the hundreds of little judgments we make every day, and particularly with respect to our personal connections. It is worth asking whether the ease with which we transition in and out of relationships with people is not problematic. Perhaps it would be better to restrict our circles of contact somewhat in order to treat well even those who might otherwise fail our screening process.

Further, there is something to be said about the fact that these little judgments mean so much to us. Entire industries are driven by the urge to pass these judgments (health, surgery, teeth, education, etc.). And when we do not pass these judgments, we often assign reasons for it which soften our culpability: this person is prejudiced or they don’t really know me. Ultimately, we all want to fall under the right verdict. There is something profoundly calming in reflecting on the nature of Christian salvation, which includes both justification (divinely initiated positive verdict) and sanctification (divinely initiated process of renewal). These two elements can provide a powerful antidote to the drive for self-justification in that the first provides a positive verdict in the middle of our personal histories and the second provides hope for transformation.

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