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April 29, 2013

On Passing Judgement

My favourite response to my “Stick Rage” post at Bunch Family was the person who wrote, “Save it for your personal blog, Kerry Clare. Clearly, you’re about judgement and singling people out, not bringing families together.” I laughed. “Clearly, you’re about judgement…” Man, I thought, you don’t even know. Because I am all about judgement. Really. This is why some people find me amusing to converse with, and I don’t know that I’m so singular in this characteristic because the people I like to converse with are pretty “judgy” as well. In the best way, of course, by which I mean that they are funny, don’t suffer fools gladly, have ideas and opinions and no qualms about expressing them.

This may be why I’ll never make it as a parenting blogger. “The world is so judgemental already. Let’s stop judging. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and actions.” This was a comment on a recent post at the blog Playground Confidential, and when I read it, I thought (and judged), “How positively uninteresting it must be to go about the world with that perspective.” I am troubled by this idea that women in particular must amass whilst cooing soft noises of mutual support and approval, because who actually does this? (Speaking of parenting blogs, I am also troubled by the sheer number of people who pass their lives by littering the the internet with sponsored blog posts about how much their domestic lives are assisted by Hamburger Helper, but that’s a judgement for another day.) Sure, everyone is indeed entitled to their opinions and actions (but no! even this isn’t true!) but therefore aren’t I perfectly entitled to find you an asshole, or an idiot? I’m even entitled to say as much. And you’re more than welcome to judge right back, but please don’t do so on the basis of me being judgemental because it’s an awfully terribly tiresome feedback loop and I don’t even care.

What bothers me the most about this whole “Let’s stop judging” approach is its dishonesty. It is a rare person who ever really pulls this off, and the rest of us are just whispering judgements to our friends behind your back. I’m not sure this is necessarily kinder than making pronouncements aloud. Now of course, to judge and to be vicious are not necessarily the same thing and the distinction between the two is important. But it’s a eye of the beholder thing, really, and haven’t we talked about this in terms of book reviewing a hundred thousand times? I’ve tried to work around this as a book reviewer by not reading or reviewing books I know I’m programmed to respond to with judgement instead of an open mind. It’s not worth my time, and neither the world’s to pollute it with my vitriol (this post and the one about stick families, of course, excluded. And can you tell that I am nine months pregnant? I have never been such a judger-naut! Or used so many italics!).

So this is the reason that I haven’t read Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska, though certainly it’s a book I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. As someone who has made a thing of writing honestly about motherhood and expressing the truth of my own difficult experiences with its early days, certainly I’m intrigued by Bydlowska’s project and by my own ambivalent response to it. And I was also intrigued by Sarah Hampson’s interview with Bydlowska, which dared to pose difficult questions and not just those that had been approved by Bydlowsk’s publicist. The interview was interesting, which is more than you can say about the interviews with her that have appeared elsewhere with their polite questions and predictable answers. I’m not even sure that it was journalistically troubling, because good interviewers are always very much a character in the story they’re telling. The problem, I suppose, would be if Hampson had been dishonest with Bydlowska in their conversation, had hoodwinked her somehow, but it shouldn’t be a problem that Hampson was honest in how she responded to the book. This book for which Bydlowska’s own honesty and bravery have been so celebrated; why is another writer meant to just shut up and be polite?

I similarly appreciated Lisan Jutras’ review of the book in The Globe on Saturday. I didn’t find the review to be judgemental, but found instead that Jutras approached the book (as well as her response to it) with questions instead of conclusions (and herein is the distinction between a critical review and a cruel one, I think), that she broadened the conversation, which is precisely what a book review is meant to do. (More italics. I can’t stop). She questions this reflexive response of terming female memoirists as “brave”, she questions her own fascination with Bydlowska’s story and her discomfort with this.

“I’m torn about this book,” is something that somebody wrote to me the other day, and I’m having trouble discerning how any reader could not be. It is a troubling, fascinating book that is worthwhile for the questions it raises, I think, and I find it odd that we would judge anybody for asking them. To ask those questions is not to be lacking in compassion, but it’s to be curious about a book, about the world. (I also think the whole, “But the reviewer doesn’t even mention the prose style” is a little disingenuous. Drunk Mom is not about its prose, or at least its marketers don’t think it is, so I think we can be forgiven for not playing along with that game. Very few of us stare at car accidents for aesthetic reasons. I also recognize that this book is meant to be intended to help and support those suffering from addiction, but then what are we meant to do with it, those of us who aren’t undergoing such struggles? Other than not read it. A book has to exist on its own terms and be more than a life preserver.)

Bydlowska is in no way unique for being a woman who has been publicly rebuked for her mothering skills. Just yesterday, I read the fantastic essay “The Meaning of White” by Emily Urquhart about her experience as a mother whose child was born with albinism, and I was aghast by the rage expressed in the comments: apparently Urquhart is hijacking her daughter’s story, is ableist, is making something out of nothing, is a white supremacist. There is something troubling about this mass jumping on the hate-train that almost makes me want to rethink my so-called judgy life, but then I’ve gone and judged already–we already know that internet commenters are morons anyway and are really none of anyone’s concern, not mine, nor Emily Urquhart’s, or Jowita Bydlowska’s either.

My point is that when you tell your story, people are allowed not to like it. And when that story is you, judgement is going to come into play when people don’t like it, even if you do something shrewd like decide your book is an “autobiographical novel”. “The main character in this book is a such a kind of person and what is the author’s intention in representing herself this way” is a legitimate line of thinking to pursue for a reader/critic, [albeit not a great basis for critical assessment] but we’re all avoiding that conversation for fear of being impolite. We’re avoiding so many conversations for the sake of politeness, actually, and I’m not sure our books are any better for it. I’d far rather read an honest review that posed provocative questions than one that sang the praises of bravery as a singular reason for any book to be.

4 thoughts on “On Passing Judgement”

  1. Giulia says:

    Hi there!
    I can say from my point of view of a foreigner living in Canada, that the fear of being impolite is a typical Canadian trait. I feel your pain on a daily basis, and I don’t even write, review and all that – just living with it, day in day out, is exhausting to me. Had I been Canadian, I would have even tried to tame my words above, as in “I have notices a slight tendency in many layers of Cdn population to be polite to higher levels compared to other cultures, but then again, who am I to say”. Instead, no. Canadians are paralyzed by the fear of being impolite – here, I said it, and I’m passing judgment, and I make no apology for it 🙂 ciao Kerry. Giulia

  2. Rebecca says:

    Yes, exactly right on all counts. Not only do I make judgments, I also expect others to judge me, my words, opinions and certainly whatever it was I wore to t-ball practice last week.

  3. Alex says:

    I judge this to be an awesome post.

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