Actiwisdom: Journey from Judgmentalism

When you’re trying to inspire someone to care about something you’re passionate about, you need to meet them where they are.

I learned this the hard way. I became a Conservatory drop-out three quarters through my freshman year when I found myself in the middle of a rainstorm, sobbing to a friend that I wasn’t doing anything good for the world. Something had to change.

So I decided to live in Greenfire and spent my first year there happily immersed in a cocoon of people who were as passionate about environmental issues as I was.

What I didn’t realize was that bit by bit, I was picking up an attitude that all too many activists fall prey to: The assumption that you are right, everyone else is wrong; and that if you try hard enough to persuade people of this, they will see reason and join the cause at your level of commitment.

By saying this, I do not mean to attack Greenfire. My intention is to point out that this is an attitude that anyone who is extremely passionate about something, especially an activist cause, can fall prey to. When you are immersed in an environment with a high concentration of people like this, it is all too easy for people within that environment to collectively fall prey to this harmful attitude.

That summer, I interned at the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Center. A zealous environmentalist, I was resentfully noticed by my coworkers doing such things as avoiding buying a popsicle because it involved disposable wrapping; subverting orders to print things I did not feel needed to be printed; and writing a long explanation of exactly why human rights activists should also be environmentalists and saving it to the shared drive.

This, understandably, led to tension in the office. At the end of the summer, I was told by a coworker who I deeply respected for the way her Catholic faith drove her conviction in social justice that I was extremely judgmental and needed to have more mercy.


I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to figure out what she meant by that and how it could be put into practice. I’ve pondered the ways I have judged people who didn’t live up to my standards. I’ve traveled abroad and been humbled by the smallness of my own actions. And I’ve wrestled with the question of how to be nonjudgmental while still working towards and achieving change.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer lies somewhere in meeting people at their commitment level and traveling forward from there. Most people do care at least a little bit about most issues, especially on this campus; but not everyone is going to be willing to commit to your cause at the same commitment level as you.

While this can be frustrating when you are extremely passionate about a cause, it’s a reality of life, and becoming frustrated with it is not going to help you move your cause forward. Neither is judging people who aren’t as committed as you.

By judging those whom you perceive to care less than you, you risk causing people who might have supported you, just not as much as you wanted them to, to turn against you in frustration and resentment.

Instead, you need to allow people to support you to the extent with which they are comfortable by taking the time to determine what this extent is, showing your appreciation for their support, and, from this base of common understanding, gently encouraging them to continue or increase their support.

What I think my Catholic co-worker meant when she used the word “mercy” in addition to the word “nonjudgmental” was that it’s not enough to simply not judge people with whom you disagree. You need to reach past nonjudgmentalism into the realm of forgiveness.

Think of it as acknowledging that we all have our own faults, values and opinions, and that while we may disagree with others, we need to respect their right to hold their own values and opinions.

When we simply judge others, we close ourselves off from their potential support. But through reaching past nonjudgmentalism into mercy by respecting other people’s viewpoints and levels of commitment, we open ourselves up to their support and collaboration, helping both our cause and the cause of greater understanding among humanity.