The Return of Judgment


I remember when everyone was against “judgment.” “This is a judgment-free zone.” Or “Hey, no judgement!” People would say what they couldn’t stand about church and church people was “all the judge-y-ness,” which is a kind of judgment. Prayers of confession were out — too judgmental. “I come to church to feel good about myself!”

But there’s a funny way in which a lot of the stuff we try to deny, repress, or pretend that we have “moved beyond” or are “over all that,” comes back to bite us. After a short go at “judgment free,” being judgmental has made a roaring comeback, thanks to the internet, and especially in the on-line space. Man, has it ever!

So says Mark Edmundson in his book, The Age of Guilt: The Super-Ego in an Online WorldSocial media, points out Edmundson, is a free-for-all for dishing judgment, for shaming other people and in the process, elevating ourselves to the high-ground of the virtuous.

What I found interesting in a review of Edmundson’s book, cited at, is the way being judgmental provides relief from judging ourselves. Working from a Freudian framework, Edmundson explains, as reviewer Mark Roth writes in the Washington Post, that going all judge-y about others in the relatively unaccountable on-line space is a way relieving our own super-ego imposed burdens. Here’s Roth:

“Freud introduced the idea of the superego in the 1920s to describe how one part of our personality judges other parts. The superego is an internalized authority that at once holds us to a standard we are incapable of meeting and punishes us for our deficiencies. When we torture ourselves with self-recrimination or simply feel guilty for not living up to our aspirations, it’s the superego at work.

“The online world offers a way to displace this work by satisfying the desire for judgment with social media outrage. Instead of punishing oneself, one can share one’s judgments and be ‘liked’ for having high, or at least crowd-approved, standards. The internet is ‘the great enforcer of super-ego socialization.’

“Today, there are so many opportunities to get away from nasty self-judgment by judging others. To escape our own feelings of guilt, we attack others, or we douse ourselves with what Freud called ‘palliative measures’ just to feel less. Canceling strangers in highly performative ways, we show ourselves to be not so bad. ‘When you deploy the super-ego in the world, you gain some temporary relief,’ Edmundson writes. ‘You judge and you judge, and for a while it seems that your sins have been forgiven.’”

The key word there may be “temporary.” You go on an on-line tear flinging judgments left and right and feel so much better . . . for a while. We preachers are vulnerable to this. A friend used warn against the sermon he termed “a case of the common scold.” Following such a sermon someone would inevitably come through the after-worship line and say, “You really stepped on their toes today, preacher.” Note: “their toes,” not mine.

Edmundson’s point is that what Freud called the superego will get its due, one way or another. To repeat, “The superego is an internalized authority that at once holds us to a standard we are incapable of meeting and punishes us for our deficiencies. When we torture ourselves with self-recrimination or simply feel guilty for not living up to our aspirations, it’s the superego at work.”

This is what, in Christian-speak, we call “the law.” It may be the “Law” as in all the big “thou shalt nots,” or the littler version that is constantly whispering to us, “never enough,” “not good enough,” “you’ve done it again!”

The gospel answer to this is not “you must try harder,” “do better,” or even, “be better.” It is to accept as inescapable reality that we are highly imperfect beings, a.k.a. “sinners.” But it doesn’t end there. Christ-followers are forgiven sinners. After the prayer of confession comes the absolution, the declaration of pardon, the words of assurance. “Friend, your sin is forgiven. You have been set free. Stand up, go forth as one who knows that Christ has taken the burden of your sin and failure upon himself, that he has borne our sin to the cross and now imputes to us his own righteousness as a free gift.”

In other words, we deal with the superego and its inevitable self-recrimination not by projection, namely judging others and consigning them to outer darkness or at least to being lesser mortals than we ourselves, but by acknowledging our own fuck-ups and failures on our knees at the mercy seat of a loving, gracious Savior.

Church is not the fellowship of the perfect, not even of “the better sort,” but in Francis Spufford’s words in UnApologetic, church is “the international league of the guilty,” who having been shown mercy may, let us pray, be a little more merciful.

This all strikes me as another example of what happens when a generous and orthodox Christianity atrophies in American culture — to be replaced by a fear-based and politicized version. And it provides an explanation to columnist David Brooks’ current question: “How have Americans become so mean?”

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Another case where it’s more productive to think “skillful” / “unskillful” than “good” / “bad”. Skill can be acquired, and skill at acquiring skill can be acquired. People who can live with their unskillfulness but not accept it have a much better chance of acquiring skill.

    The other perspective that would be more productive is if people could separate judgement as in “I do not like it” vs. judgement as “it’s wrong.” My neighbor across the street – do I really look forward to talking to him? Not right now. If I needed to justify this by bringing a case against him, as so many would apparently have to do, then I’d sort of have gone an extra mile to hang an innocent man for not appealing to my own preferences. If I can judge him to be innocent until proven guilty of any offense, yet feel comfortable with the fact that I’m a little tired of his persona, then there’s a lot more room to change my tune tomorrow. I don’t suppose any of this has anything to do with sin proscribed by deities.

  2. The worst of the judgmental aspect of social media is among the young, the children whose relentless bullying of classmates drives other children to suicide.

    Wonder what Freud would have written about devolving human behavior on social media.


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