judging someone we don’t know

27 03 2010

I wasn’t planning to write any more about the Tiger Woods “scandal”, and I’m not going to write on the issue directly but use it as an example leading to a related point.  Okay?  (I don’t know why I’m asking — I’m going to write anyway.   I suppose you could stop reading, but you might miss something good.)

I came across a quote by Bill Simmons, an ESPN.com writer, about the media circus revolving around Tiger Woods, which sets up my point:

“We are voyeurs when it comes to our favorite athletes. They thrill us, keep us guessing, keep us on our toes, keep us watching. During the average golf tournament, cameras capture every reaction and emotion from the closest of angles — triumph, anguish, fury, frustration, panic, you name it — which deceives us into thinking we know these guys better than we do. How many times did you hear someone say “Can you believe Tiger did that?” over these past two weeks? Like we knew him. And we didn’t.” ~ Bill Simmons, 12/2009

That was said over two months ago, and yet the media hoopla continues.   Recently SportsCenter there was a poll about whether everyone believed his apology and whether they forgive him for what he did.   Why do the fans have to forgive him?  (I won’t rant on that again — you can read my previous post to go there.)

Notice how Bill Simmons said we didn’t know Tiger Woods, yet we were so shocked and outraged at his behavior.  We really didn’t know him.  And we still don’t really know him . Just as we jumped to conclusions / judgments on his moral character before all this, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions or judgments now.  Sure, we know more now, but there’s also all that we “knew” before (and some of it was true), and we should also consider that one aspect of character doesn’t necessarily make someone overall good or bad.  By the world’s standards, we can be both good and bad, and we probably all are.

Here’s what I’m really wanting to get to in this article.  Why are we so intent on putting people in a box?  We had made all these judgments on Tiger Woods, on what a great guy he was, and we didn’t even know him.  And it’s not just him — this happens to everyone: celebrities, athletes, and even “everyday people”.   I’ve seen this happen a lot — if someone makes good grades in school, they must be a nerd and not be very sociable or “cool”; or if someone is a great athlete then they’re not very smart; or if someone is a musician then they can’t be an athlete also; or if someone is a Republican / conservative then they don’t understand economics; or if someone is a Democrat / liberal then they don’t have morals; etc.

Why are we so intent on grouping people into boxes?  It’s because it’s easy.  We don’t have to think as much, as we can assume we know more than we really do.   Here’s how another blogger explained it:

Isn’t it comforting to fit people into little boxes and categories, so that you can stop caring about what happens to them? I’m as guilty as anyone. … There’s no shortage of little boxes to put people in, either. Marxists think there are financial classes. Feminists think there are sexual classes. Blacks think there are racial classes. I think there are classes of … politics. It’s the human way of dealing with millions of people, with meeting hundreds of people every day. You can’t get to know every one individually. … We just toss them in boxes. This one’s a feminist. That one’s a leftist. That one’s a conservative. That one’s a skinhead. This one’s a single mother. That one’s a divorced father. And for every box we have a list of ready-made qualities we ascribe to it. Self-absorbed. Angry. Annoying. Petty. Self-righteous. Dogmatic. Immature. Cold. Heartless. Vicious. Greedy. Victim. Oppressor. Throughout all of this we forget the one great truth: that there are no boxes. That all there really is are individuals. But, as I said, and as the conversation illustrates, nobody is immune from bigotry and prejudice, not even those, like the left-wing revolutionaries at the next table, who claim to hate bigotry and prejudice. ~ Buster B

Can you see how harmful it is to put people in boxes?   We misinterpret people, because we our interpretation of all they say and do is based on what we think we know about them (and also based on who we are).  If we get a wrong first impression of someone, then when they do anything that resembles your judgment, it’s considered evidence, so you keep thinking that way.  Also, how we are influences how we see others.  If we are greedy and/or can’t manage money, then when we hear someone asking for money (like a preacher), we may assume they want to use it for themselves, even if that’s not true at all.  (I’ve seen that happen.)

I’ve been put in boxes many times, and it gets old.  People have often been surprised that I like a certain style of music, that I can play in a tennis league (and even win it occasionally), that I don’t get offended easily, etc.   I’ve seen people alter their actions around me because they thought that I get offended easily.   (They told me this later.)  Yet I don’t offend easily — it’s something I strive for.  But why did they think this?  Why were they so surprised at how I am?

I suspect we do this more than we realize it, and we probably don’t realize how it can hurt people and hinder relationships.  I’ve heard it said that prejudging people makes us less compassionate.   I think it makes us less open to people and more oblivious to reality.   It can also make us prejudiced. (One definition of prejudice is “a preconceived preference or idea.”)   We may think we won’t like someone based on a few impressions, because we’ve already “figured out” how they are.

This is just something to think about.   If you catch yourself figuring someone is a certain way, ask yourself if you really know that for sure or if it’s just a “hunch” (which could be a preconceived stereotype).   It would make our relationships better if we took things at face value more often and gave people the benefit of the doubt…

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