I feel so judged

There was a time—even I remember it—when someone who was really good at something, was admired for it.  Or “respected;” it depends to a certain extent on what it was.  I don’t think we are entirely out of that era—not quite—but a severe challenge to it is being pushed forward and I offer as exhibit one,Jennifer Wiener’s column in the New York Times today.  The headline, for which, as I understand things, Ms Wiener is not responsible, is perhaps the worst face that can be put on this challenge.  It is this: “I feel personally judged by J. Lo’s body.”

Ms. Wiener is 50-ish, she says in the column, and she is looking at the 50-ish body of JLo1Jennifer Lopez, most of which, to judge from the picture, was on display during the halftime show at the Superbowl, and “feeling judged.”  I suspect that Ms. Wiener’s column was written tongue-in-cheek and that the demographic she had in mind when she wrote it found it either hilarious or comforting.  I really don’t have any problem with the column or with Ms. Wiener, but I would like to make this argument the poster child for a truly serious grievance that I do have.

This grievance has several parts. [1]  The first is the “feel” in “feel judged.”  There is no answer to how Ms. Weiner feels.  No one is identified as the one who is judging her, not even herself.  And this isn’t “judged” in some evenhanded manner. [2]  This is a “condemned” kind of “judge.”  This is “found to be inadequate.”  To help us understand why Ms. Weiner feels that way, it would be a great help to know who she thinks is judging her.  The headline doesn’t say and the column doesn’t say clearly.

I think I will still say that “judged” is the second part even though I dealt with them both at the same time in the paragraph above.  I didn’t know I was going to do that

The third element is “ J. Lo’s body”  A naive reading of the headline could imagine that “J. Lo’s body” is the answer to the second question, i.e. it is J. Lo’s body that is doing the judging.  Nobody thinks that.  What Ms. Weiner means, and what everyone reading her understands her to mean, is that J. Lo’s body is the basis, the criterion, on which Ms. Weiner’s body is being judged.  And again, by “judged,” she means, “found to be inadequate and worth of derogation.”

J Lo 2I want to move to a more general point about our attitudes toward excellence, but J. Lo’s body provides such a specific and concrete instance that I want to stay with it as little more.  What would happen, for instance, if Ms. Weiner’s lament were categorized as jealousy?  Jealousy is a bad thing, everyone agrees, and so Ms. Weiner “ought not” be making a home for it in her heart and she should do better.  There is no criticism of Ms. Weiner in “I feel judged.”  She is not “being jealous”—something she does—but rather is “being judged,” which is something someone else is doing.  Just who is doing it, we are not told, but the almost automatic retreat to the passive voice is a technique we will see again.

Part of Ms. Weiner’s critique could, I believe, be called sexist. [3]  She says, “

The answer, I think, is to watch these types of performances like a man.  Women watch a 15-minute show featuring elite entertainers and, in some cases, end up feeling bad about ourselves. Men, meanwhile, watch a three-hour game, played by elite athletes with single-digit body fat, and most won’t feel a single twinge of self-doubt, or miss a single chip from the nacho platter.

The “sexist” criticism involves assigning “men” to one style of watching and “women” to another and then arguing that the way men do it is better.  At least it is better in terms of the subject of this column, which appears to be “self blame.”  But she could, I think, have given men a little better reaction than not feeling “a twinge of self-doubt.”  What about simple whole-hearted celebration? [4]  “Not feeling self-blame” is the very very lowest edge of the spectrum of appreciation.

But the sexism aside, the real premise underlying Ms. Weiner’s critique is, “I ought to be able to do that.”  I look at J. Lo’s body and I think I should be ashamed of not having a body like hers.  Or maybe I think others are judging me harshly for not having a body like hers.  Or, worst of all, I feel others are condemning me and I agree with them.

Just a minute now

Let me come at this from a different angle.  My friend, Connie, and I are members of a working group.  Recently, we have been alternating in producing the minutes of the group’s meetings.  She is really good.  She not only gets it all right, but she uses the need to have an accurate record of the group’s decisions to remind the group that no clear decision has yet been made.  The level of skill she shows has the effect of asking the group an important question: “Is that it?  Is that what I should write down as an action taken?  Is that the person you have agreed is responsible to do this job by that date?”  She is, briefly, very good.

So…should I “feel judged” by Connie’s level of performance?  Would that be different from Ms. Wiener’s “feeling judged by J. Lo’s body?”  I think a good response for me is to make myself Connie’s apprentice and move in the direction of getting as good at it as she is.  I know I am not going to get there.  She has been a master of these techniques for years, but I could get better.

Ms. Weiner imagines a different response.  It manages to reject, without ever saying so, the “feeling judged” experience and accepts the “that’s not me” standard.

Still, I’d been picturing 50 as the year when I’d be done. I’d quit dying my hair and donate my high heels; I’d greet the occasional chin hair with a Buddhist master’s zen and treat my body like a place I could exist without apology…

Two solutions

So, with the single exception of the wistful construction, “I have been picturing…” I see this as Ms. Weiner’s solution to her jealousy.  The solution she has actually chosen.  Having a body she doesn’t feel she needs to apologize for will require letting go of the standard that judges her for not being one of the sexiest women alive—that’s really a standard she wants to affirm?  Really?—and adopting instead standards that allow her to be who she really aspires to be.

That means that my solution—trying to learn how Connie manages to be so good—and Jennifer’s solution, which is relaxing into a life that is guided by standards she really respects, not standards she thinks someone else might hold her to.  Those are two good solutions, I think.  Mine is “I could learn to do that” and hers is “I don’t have to do that anymore.”  Good for me.  Good for Jennifer Wiener.

Excellence

And now that we have approached this issue in a small and trivial way, let’s take on the 1000 pound gorilla in the room, which is “excellence.”  Excellence is an achievement-related word.   It comes from the Latin verb excellere “surpass, be superior; to rise, be eminent.”  The attack against it often uses the word “exclusive.”  Skipping over the prefix ex-, meaning “out,” we see another Latin verb, this time claudere “to close, shut.” [5]

Note that excelling is something you do.  It is something to which you may legitimatelyJ Lo 3 aspire.  It presupposes agency, the sense of “doing-ness” which characterizes us at our best.  Note also that being excluded—notice the passive voice again—is something someone else does.  It may be fair or unfair, but it is not something I do.  And even if there are things I should do about that process by which I am excluded, that passive verb does not direct me toward it.  That verb doesn’t even say I really ought to be included, although it allows us to imply that.  There is no sense in this ad that the masters are “excluding you” or anyone else.

So, to touch briefly on my own field, American government, let’s imagine the excellence of the Founders as merely exclusiveness.  That is, in fact, where we are going as a culture, so let’s take that standard and put it back in the 1780s.  The design of a new government balanced between a central government and several constituent governments?  Oh yeah.  The separation of the three branches with interlocking and mutually inhibiting grants of rights? [6]  Love it.  The notion that there is a supreme law of the land, not just the power exercised by the the politician best placed to control events?  Love it now more than ever.  These guys were really good!

Or should we say, rather, that I feel really bad that I would not have been allowed to be part of that group?  Should I define them by how “unrepresentative” they are?  [7] Should I look at their gifts and at their hard work and see only that others were excluded?

That, I think is where American culture is going.  I hope we stop and reconsider.  The present challenge to excellence is mean-spirited and small, I think.  And it’s lazy, too.  Condemning “exclusiveness,” rather than praising “excellence” requires someone else to do something.  Stop excluding me.  Emphasizing excellence requires me to do something.  I need to get better.

So…passive resentment or active emulation.  Hmm.

[1]  Here is one of the truly great things about writing a blog.  As I wrote that sentence, I realized that I didn’t know yet what those “several parts” were.  I have a large seething boiling hitherto inarticulate protest against the attitudes that Ms. Weiner is either representing or lampooning (I’m not really sure which) but I haven’t taken the opportunity to understand all that resentment in terms of its constituent parts and their functions.  Here’s my chance.

[2]  The goat I presented at the competition was judged best in the show.

[3]  Of course, it isn’t sexist of she is lampooning these attitudes in her column.  I am taking them at face value because it provides me a beachhead for my counterattack on the war on excellence.

[4]  For instance, I was a basketball player.  When I see good college players do things it never occurred to me to try, I am impressed is a distant not-fully-engaged way.  But when I see them do things I tried to do, myself, and to do them flawlessly, I feel a fully engaged celebration of what they can do.  I could, I suppose, if I put my mind to it, feel judged by their excellence, but I don’t and I don’t think I should.

[5]  Not that the etymologies of these words determines their meaning, but here, as often, we find a persuasive metaphor in the root.

[6]  So the executive branch has some judicial powers and some legislative powers; the legislative branch has some executive and some judicial powers, and so on.

[7]  Also true.  We are talking here about what is to be emphasized.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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