We all judge an actual book by its cover, at least initially. The images, colours and title draw us in. We project qualities upon it which we assume are represented within the book. We then look at the blurb on the back and see if we are attracted enough by the plot to buy it and read it – but it’s the front cover which grabs our attention first. In the publishing industry, whether traditional or indie, book cover design is taken to be of paramount importance, because like it or not, we all do judge books by their covers to a large degree. So from the books in the image above, whether we know the authors are not, we can guess this particular selection are thrillers, adventures, mysteries with some crime and violence – because this is what the flames and fiery reds on blacks and dark browns are telling us, and the softer pastel greys that are used are cold with small figures in empty landscapes for a lonely and mysterious feel. And we accept these conventions for these genres. Just as we accept handsome men and beautiful women in clinching embraces for romances, or stars and hearts and stylised graphics of silhouettes with silver and gold embossing for chic lit or more mainstream women’s fiction, or enigmatic and arty covers for literary fiction. And what we expect as a reader is for the cover to strongly ‘ring true’ for the story. I love reading a book where I can enjoy gazing at the cover periodically, because when it resonates with the plot and the mood of the book, then this can be a pleasure in itself. In the case of novels, the cover is the only actual real image, other than those we form in our mind, which we can respond to. Conversely, I feel cheated and disappointed when the cover doesn’t gel with the inner story for me, when I feel the cover has given me different expectations which haven’t been met, and you can even feel manipulated by this mismatching. Which brings me to the point of this post.
This post isn’t about book covers. The title is being used ironically, cryptically, even paradoxically, and since I woke up with it in my head the other day, I’m sticking with it. It’s based on the metaphorical idiom we all know so well – ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ meaning you shouldn’t judge the worth or value of a person, place, thing, or situation by outward appearance alone. That elderly lady may be wearing the same shabby fraying at the hems raincoat every day, rain or shine, and be a regular frequenter of the local charity shops, but is in reality the owner of the manor down the road who goes to Nice every year for her holidays.
It’s ironic, isn’t’ it? We have this saying telling us the opposite of what we are expected to do as readers when selecting books in a bookshop, or as authors when we are tackling our cover design. And yet we are not supposed to do the same thing in ‘real life’, because it can cause a division, a sense of ‘otherness’, a boxing of people and situations based on us having to decide where we are in relation to ‘them’.
So what I’m really talking about is judging others here, why and how we go about it and how we can better handle it within ourselves. Whenever you go to a workshop or a course that is concerned with any kind of social care, the first thing the group leader gets people to come up with is a ‘working agreement’. This is where people who go to these kinds of events regularly trot out the same requirements that the group should ideally abide by.
One person speaks at a time
Understanding of others needs
Remember to give positive feedback and encouragement as well as constructive comments.
Good housekeeping – stick to break times, end on time, mobiles off
Confidentiality – what is said in the group stays in the group
Give reasons for your opinions
Share or do only what you are comfortable with (this the one where those who don’t like speaking out get off the hook :>))
The list can go on – but often you’ll see – don’t judge others – in there too
And so on to a little real life story:
At the very beginning of a bereavement counselling course, me and my fellows were sitting in a half circle and our tutor was taking us through the working agreement, where we had to call out suggestions. This was being viewed on the sidelines by some of the important heads of department, and this was the first time the tutor had run the course. She was, in retrospect, a little like the character of the pink-suited lady professor, Dolores Umbridge, from the ministry of magic in the Harry Potter films – sweet on the outside, ever so caring, but with some dubious barbs underneath, yet to be revealed.
The lady next to me, I’ll call her Liz, spoke out and suggested ‘non-judgemental’ – to be added to the growing list on the flip chart that the tutor was compiling in front of her panel of peers. There was a halt in the action from the tutor, who I’ll call Rose.
Pen poised in hand, Rose stared at Liz and said ‘What do you mean by that?’
Struggle to speak from Liz. All eyes on Liz. Liz began to try to explain…’Well, just that we shouldn’t judge anyone, you know, make assumptions…that kind of thing.’
‘I can’t possibly add that!’ said Liz, wide-eyed with shock.
Silence again, with all eyes directed to Liz, because Rose was still staring at her.
I couldn’t stand this anymore, so I tried to clarify what Rose’s thinking might be, so that Liz would no longer be the focus of attention as she was getting visibly red and upset. I said to Rose, ‘Do you mean, are you getting at the fact that we can’t not judge anyone? That we judge anyway? That it is impossible not to judge? Is that what you mean?’ I asked Rose.
Guess who became the centre of attention then!
Somehow it was eventually acknowledged that this was the case, after Rose had stared at me too, but she didn’t explain her reasoning properly, which she really should have done. It was as if black was being called white somehow in her reasoning. And not one of the heads of department intervened to take the visceral tension in the room away.
Well, we all moved on and so did the course. We split up into different practice groups where we had to practice bereavement counselling on each other and make lots of notes. We all met up after these sessions to look at a range of bereavement issues with Rose. I was not in the same practice group as Liz, so I didn’t know how she was faring at first. But all through the course there was a tension brewing between me and Liz on the one hand , and Rose on the other. And more generally, the people in the group became very careful about what they said openly, because if Rose didn’t agree with their verbal offerings, she tried to probe them in a piercing manner, that made them uncomfortable and then guarded. Liz and I began to suspect that Rose was far from sweet underneath, that the sugary smiles could backfire, and indeed they began to backfire on us with our respective interactions with Rose , where Rose seemed to think that Liz and I were out to make her life as tutor of the course difficult, which was in no way true – we simply wanted to learn and pass. Without going into the details, Rose made it hard for me and Liz to actually finish the course, let alone enjoy it. There was unfairness from her based on judging Liz and I by appearances. I managed to change her mind about me at the end when my written assignment passed with flying colours, because by this time I knew it was about ticking aims and outcome boxes. All of a sudden I saw acceptance in her and she even gave me a hug, as if I’d learned her valuable lessons. It was mind bending to say the least. All I had to do was redo the practical ( I asked too many questions, and interestingly enough, I discovered Liz did too ;>)). Most of the others had passed the practical, but had to redo the assignment, right at the very end of the course, and had to email it to Rose about a week later, Liz included. How’s that for an happy ending to a course?
Now Rose had been in a position of power and trust. She was the only tutor, the only person who could pass everyone, and because of this she caused a good deal of inner conflict and tension. Everyone wanted to pass for a variety of reasons, but the key thing was that most people wanted to volunteer as a bereavement counsellor. So everyone ended up having to jump through the hoops she set out and play her game, to love her way of presenting and the creative ideas she brought to the table. Not the kind of situation you want on a bereavement course at all, where people were feeling pretty vulnerable as they had to focus on their own bereavement experiences. But what happened in the end was that the tutor judged me. She judged Liz. To the point where we both had to have separate one to one conversations with her to air our issues/difficulties with her, where she held all the cards. I should also point out that most of us had to pay for this course, and it was a considerable sum. So it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience that damaged both Liz’s and my own self confidence for a time. The irony was that in Rose’s judging us from the beginning as ‘trouble’, she clearly demonstrated that it was indeed fitting that ‘non-judgmental’ certainly not be added to the working agreement.
So why do we judge by appearances?
In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris explains that our ancient ancestors had to judge to stay alive. ‘Is that dark shape a boulder or a bear? Is this fruit safe to eat, or poisonous? Is that person in the distance, friend or foe? If our ancestors made the wrong judgment they might end up paying with their lives. So over thousands of years our minds became very quick at judging, at sizing up people and situations as a matter of personal safety… so we judge by appearances to decide where we fit in relation to that person or situation, whether that person is a threat to us in some way, whether that person is ‘other’. Whether they are ‘us’ or ‘them’. And in judging ourselves we can try to decide whether we fit in or not? Are we an outsider or an insider? Are we falling short in our own estimation, or aggrandising ourselves like narcissists do? Harris argues that we can’t not judge, it’s in our biological nature, but we can develop the habit of awareness. Be aware of when we are judging and turn to the facts or to finding out the facts instead. Be guided by the facts. (So the lady in the tatty coat may well be hard up in her own estimation, but nevertheless may be very generous to her family. She may do many charitable deeds and believe in supporting local charity shops. A distant relative may pay for her trips to Nice, because she is great company.) Harris also says that self esteem is vulnerable to self manipulations and conditions so we should stick to our personal values and acting in line with them instead.
In his book, The Road Less Travelled and Beyond, Scott Peck points out that the labelling of people and things always has hidden disabilities. ‘For one, it diminishes and depletes their depth’…that many assumptions drawn from labelling, keep life at the level of superficiality. We neglect to question our assumptions and conclusions. It’s true that sometimes we have to make quick judgments for out own security, but more often we use labelling through judging to make assumptions and unjustly discriminate against others, or to make excuses for ourselves, we infer broader qualities upon a person or situation without the information necessary to support our conclusions. And sometimes the consequences can be destructive not only to others but to ourselves too.
So what can we do about it?
A more helpful and spiritual stance can be derived from Buddhist philosophy. If we can practice non judgment (or at least quell or challenge it through self awareness) then it can help our spiritual progress and that of others. Used along with non-attachment and acceptance we can free ourselves up and live in a more enlightened way.
This article, entitled ‘Practising Non-Judgment’, addresses this:
‘The judgements we make can be directed outwards, at other people, but also inwards. This can result in feelings of anger, defensiveness, aggression and also shame and guilt. When we are acting from a place of judgement, i.e. in anger or shame, you can say that we “embody” anger, or we “embody” judgement. We all know from personal experience that when we act from such a place other people’s reactions to us also become skewed. We may trigger in others similar feelings of anger, judgement or shame.’
‘The simple ( or not so simple!) practice of non-judgement has the power to transform the way you see the world. The process of becoming self-aware enough to consider where we judge is the first step.’
“The moment you recognise that you are or have “judged” is the moment you bring awareness to it: it is now in your conscious mind, it has crossed over from the sub-conscious, to the conscious. Your perspective has changed, you might perceive yourself as standing aside from the one who judges, more in your centre. You are “witnessing” your judgement and the subsequent reactions. And you now have a conscious choice over your next actions: do you persist with judgement (sometimes that is necessary) or do you react calmly, with compassion and openness to the other’s viewpoint, or to your own situation. ” (Gertrud Keazor)
And finally a couple of quotes which fit for book covers and life:
“Be curious, not judgmental” (Walt Whitman).
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (Shakespeare)
(pic from pixabay)