I spent most of today at an asylum appeal hearing – my first experience of this process, and something of an education. There are, probably, other situations in which one person is entitled to ask another person more or less any question about his or her life and demand a full and accurate answer, with absolutely no comeback or challenge – but I don’t come across them very often, and on your first time it’s disturbing. I found myself thinking about how odd it was that person A was the one asking the questions and person B the one answering them and person C the one taking notes and about to decide what it all meant; that there were these enormous asymmetries of power in the small room, based on who was sitting in which chair. I tried thought-experiments – what if we all got up and swapped places, so that the asylum appellant was cross-questioning me about the date on which I had visited a certain place three years ago, and the judge became a mere observer?
And I came back to thoughts I’ve had for a while about judging people. For a while I’ve had this idiosyncratic reading of “do not judge, lest you be judged” – that it’s analogous to what you might say to a small child, “don’t cut with that sharp knife, or you’ll cut yourself”. It’s the idea that there’s a moral and spiritual danger inherent in the activity of passing judgement. Judging’s not “a bad thing to do”, it might be a necessary thing to do; but it’s high risk, you don’t do it carelessly; if in doubt, you put the knife down before it cuts back; you don’t cut stuff/judge people just because you can; and incidentally, unlike the child with the knife, you are never going to get to the point where you’re a fully competent judge of your fellow human beings.
Thinking about it today I realised that the knife analogy isn’t bad (maybe it should be the sword of justice). The knife is completely asymmetrical. One person’s at the handle end, the other at the sharp end.
And I suppose those of us who pass judgement as part of our jobs, or [perhaps] habitually as part of our way of responding to people, need occasional sharp reminders that the orientation of the knife, the distribution of the power to judge – the question, in today’s courtroom, of who gets to sit on which chair – is a very temporary, and at most provisionally important, matter. In the long run, it cuts both ways.