On the rush to judgment, and modern dance

The last two months have seen a couple of scandals fairly close to my own field.  Over the same span, I’ve been asked five or six times what I think of the behaviour of Person X, who has apparently Done Something Bad, or who has apparently Failed to Do Something Good.  There’s nothing unusual about my experience here: anyone in any field (in science or beyond) will see equivalent scandals and be asked the same questions.  And as a species, we love to judge – often, to judge hastily.*  (We’ve invented social media, it seems, in part as a tool to make shallow and hasty judgment very shallow, very hasty, and very, very efficient.)

Each time I read a condemnation of Person X for Doing Thing Y, or for Not Doing Thing Z, I remember a modern dance performance I saw two dozen years ago. It’s long enough ago that I can’t remember (or find) the work’s title or creator – but the work itself I’ll remember forever. (Which, given my complete lack of interest in dance of any form, whether doing or watching, should tell you something.)  Let’s see if I can describe it.

When the curtain opened, in one corner there was a large blank canvas on an easel, and a single dancer beginning to paint on it.  As she painted, other dancers – singly or in pairs – would enter from one side, dance for a few moments, then disappear into the wings.  It wasn’t that these dancers would begin and complete a sequence of moves and then leave – instead, they would enter abruptly already in a twirl or a bow or whatever, and leave the stage just as abruptly, in the middle of a sequence that hadn’t come to any obvious conclusion.  This didn’t make sense to me, so I found myself watching the only really continued thread: the solo dancer painting.  It wasn’t obvious what she was painting, but as she added more strokes I started thinking that soon I’d be able to tell.  More dancers entered, and left, and I thought I could almost tell what the painting on the easel was going to be – and then, a swell of music and the curtain closed.**

Reading that over, it all sounds a little sophomoric.  In performance, it wasn’t – for example, the dancer’s painting was finely choreographed so that you believed you would soon know what it was, but you never quite did. That can’t have been easy.

So why has this stuck with me, and why am I bringing it up now?  Because the piece carried a simple but important meaning for me: we never know the entirety of anyone else’s story. Each dancer who entered and left the stage made that point, but the dancer painting tempted me to think there was one story I’d know. The curtain closing broke that expectation.  We’re often tempted like that: tempted to think we understand someone else’s story.  We never do.

I remember this performance every time I see judgment, or am tempted to pronounce it. I see Person X having Done Bad Thing Y, but not why they did it or what else they’ve done less publicly.  I see Person X having Not Done Good Thing Z, but I don’t see what might have stopped them or what other positive actions they took away from the public eye.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t bad actors in the world – of course there are!  It’s just that identifying and judging them with certainty is difficult given that I don’t know anyone’s full story but my own.  Would knowing the full story change my judgment, in any given situation?  It might not.  But it might; that’s what it means not to know.

Now, I set this up with reference to huge scandals and conspicuous bad behaviour, but it applies just as much at a more pedestrian scale.  I was at the grocery story the other night and the cashier was remarkably surly.  I could have called her on it (and I’m embarrassed to say that it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d made that choice).  But I thought about the dance, realized there was surely something I didn’t know, and thanked her anyway.  Has a student missed a deadline?  Dean or Chair neglected to congratulate you on your latest paper?  Reviewer been unnecessarily snarky?  Think about the dance.

And if anyone recognizes the dance piece from my description, could you let me know?  It’s been nagging at me for a long, long time.

© Stephen Heard  February 18, 2020

Image: Not the particular dance in question.  Complexions Contemporary Ballet © Steven Pisano CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com


*^To be very clear: nothing in this post should be construed as endorsing bad behaviour when it exists.

**^Actually, I’m not confident in my memory about the music, and I may have other details wrong. It’s been two dozen years!  But I’m confident of the big picture.  Well, not the big picture on the easel –that’s sort of the point.

18 thoughts on “On the rush to judgment, and modern dance

  1. Meghan Duffy

    This is wonderful! Thank you for writing it. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many situations are complicated, but how they can seem simple if you only have part of the story (which is almost always the case!) I’ve also been thinking about our cultural tendency — definitely amplified on social media — to categorize people as Good or Bad, when really people are doing all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons and we rarely know the whole story.

    Thanks for writing this! And I wish I could see that dance!

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks! And on the issue of categorizing people as Good or Bad – this comes up in my new book (yes, I know, any excuse to mention it) where I talk about species named for Bad People. Once you decide people are either Good or Bad, then you start ignoring things about them in an attempt to keep them in the Good category, until a sudden regime shift when you start ignoring other things to keep them inthe Bad category. People just don’t work like that!

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  2. Brando

    Sorry, this is the Internet. You’re not allowed to view people as complex emotional beings here.

    You’re only allowed to categorize people as Good or Evil. And if you’ve ever misspoken or made any misstep at all, that means you’re Evil. I hope this helps.

    No, but seriously, I think there’s something actually “wrong” with people who hold that point of view. Obviously I have no data, but I suspect that these are the same people who fall into one of three categories:
    (1) self-loathing and outwardly projecting;
    (2) never taking any responsibility for their own mistakes (therefore, they’re always “in the right” and they constantly feel justified in criticizing others);
    (3) completely indifferent to other human beings on the Internet (because they’re just “virtual people”) and therefore willing to make offensive remarks and accusations without hesitation. Things that they would never say to someone face-to-face. And if you can get a few extra Twitter followers out of the exchange, all the better.

    In addition, I suspect that a lot of these “critics” have heavy ideological goggles on that cause them to read and interpret things in the worst possible light. Or, if not, that they have no qualms intentionally misconstruing what someone has said to make them appear in the worst possible light. Again, especially if it benefits them personally.

    Humanity had a brief period of civil discourse, but now I think we’ve gone back to the Middle Ages, when barbs like this were common among scholars:
    “The stains of your sacrilegious speech will not be cleansed by means of words, but with fire, from which I hope you will not escape.”

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  3. Jeff Houlahan

    While I agree with much of what’s been said – the flip side is that judgement and subsequent social pressure to behave plays a pretty large role in maintaining a civil society. How should we balance these thing? That is, in what way, should knowing that we don’t have the whole story, moderate or change our response to bad behavior? Let’s bring that closer to home – how should it change our response to scientific fraud?

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  4. Jeremy Fox

    Stephen, I agree with this and would even go further. It’s not just that we should be slow to judge people because we lack information about them. It’s also that we don’t have any way to integrate the information that we have. As someone (I forget who, sorry) put it in a piece about Richard Feynman: people aren’t resultant vectors. You can’t sum, say, the “scientific contributions” vector and the “personal life” vector and get an “overall evaluation of this person” vector. People do lots of *incommensurate* stuff. The bad stuff doesn’t somehow erase the good stuff, and the good stuff doesn’t somehow erase the bad stuff. So I agree with other commenters here that we need to recover the lost art of being of (at least) two minds about people.

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    1. Jeremy Fox

      p.s.: in extreme cases even I would say that that you can come to an overall evaluation of someone. The most obvious example: Hitler was bad overall! In my previous comment I was thinking of the more garden variety cases I suspect you were thinking of when you wrote your post, Stephen.

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Yeah, I came down the same way in my book (which covers the beetle, and another species, named for Hitler. My desire for nuance is itelf nuanced, if you will… (Not that Hitler-was-bad is much of a brave position!)

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      2. Juan Antonio CARRETERO

        Thank you Steve for this nice piece and to Jeremy for putting the reference to Richard Feynman so a ‘square’ engineer like me can more clearly understand.

        To add some sort of corollary to the ‘nerdy’ analogy…

        Most of us only see a lower-dimensional projection of the complex and anisotropic highly-dimensional space of a person’s story.

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    2. Andrew Krause

      This is an excellent point. People aren’t resultant vectors likely generalizes as well to not viewing individuals *as only* their accomplishments. It’s great that Feynman did so much for physics, for music etc, but in some sense he was not just a sum of these accomplishments.

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      1. Marco Mello

        I’m sure you’ll love it. It’s a system for listening to people without judging them, in order to build constructive communication. It also helps express your own ideas and feelings in the most efficient way. Take a look at this website: https://nonviolentcommunication.com. Or simply start with Rosenberg’s awesome book: https://ler.amazon.com.br/kp/embed?asin=B014OISVU4&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_J3UvEbHWPBPDJ.

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