I think I’ve mentioned it a few times on this blog, but I think it bears repeating, so I’m going to do so now: I believe that all people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got every single day. Before you go “but Jenna, there are rapists and murderers and terrorists out there, how can you be so naive?”, I’ll append that statement with a modifier: Sometimes, what they’ve got sucks and ruins things for themselves and everyone around them. I actually believe that everyone is existing to the best of their ability at the time from moment to moment– Even the people who have raped, even the people who have killed, even the people who have terrorized– the decisions they make when they decide to do those things are decisions that they feel will be in some way helpful to them at the time, they are acting in a way that they think will bring them some form of safety or security or love. We, looking at them outside of themselves, see them as “evil” or “fucked up” or whatnot, and we tell ourselves and each other that we would act differently in their shoes, but I honestly don’t believe you can guarantee that you wouldn’t do the same thing if you grew up in exactly the same circumstances as that person.
Even siblings, who you might point at and go “well, this one ended up ok and this other one didn’t, that one must have been a bad seed”, interact with different people, have different life experience, have different combinations of genetics, etc. So, even if they’re identical twins who grew up in an abusive household, who went to the same school/classes and knew the same people, and one murders someone and the other becomes a priest, I think you could look back in their lives and find places where they had radically different treatment, where they did or didn’t make certain friends or mentors who did/didn’t provide stability, where they were or were not supported… and it’s possible that those differences contributed mightily to one turning out “good” and the other turning out “bad”. I can’t say that either of them weren’t acting to the best of their ability at the time when they made the choices they did. That’s the thing– it’s THEIR ability, not ours.
Because our world view is colored by our experiences, we can never truly put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, which means that our judgment is colored by our lives– makes sense, no? Sure, if we were put in their place we’d make different choices, but that’s because we are who we are, having experienced what we have– They’re not acting to the best of OUR ability. But they ARE acting to theirs, and doing what they can with what they know to do what’s right for them at the time. Too often people look at problematic behavior and think “oh, if they just did this then it would all be fine”.
The problem with this narrow view is that privilege is stopping them from understanding the finer points of the reasoning behind the behavior, and how to address those. For example, if you’re a 40 year old suburban white guy, you might not want to write an article telling poor inner city black kids how they can get out of poverty, because you’ll miss a lot of points and piss a lot of people off. Because you just don’t know what these other people are going through, and when you decide that everything can be reduced to a simplistic judgment that makes you feel better about otherising them, it’s probably not actually helping.
I realize the irony of writing an article about “the dangers in simplifying arguments and judging others” by making a simple argument and passing a judgment, and I’m laughing a bit to myself as I write this and hoping that you see that I’m talking from my own ever-developing perspective, and that this rings true for me right now, but it may not ring true for the person I am in a day, much less 10 years from now. I think my blog’s name rings pretty true again– I’ve got no idea, alright? Believe me if you want to, or stop reading if you don’t… I’m an unreliable narrator, because I’m an imperfect human and I think and revise stuff ALL THE TIME. But if you do decide to keep reading, bear with me, as I develop this argument against judging people… And if you start to believe what I believe, then you may also look around and think that the criminal justice system is fucking insane.