How being misunderstood makes us free

“We are more complicated than we think we are,” said Ziyad Marar starting to talk about his book Judged at an event at the Bloomsbury Institute last night. We are also less individuals and more “socially networked beings” than we recognise. We think of ourselves as individuals, even creatures using reason to traverse the world, but we are wrong. What’s more we live in a “web of judgement”: we are constantly judged, and we care about those judgements. And we judge others, even if we try not to and think we don’t. “Judge not that ye be not judged.” But the judgements, by us and of us, are always partial, always wrong in some way, never complete. There is no “final judgement.”

From the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and others we have learnt (as if we didn’t know) that our judgment is riddled with biases and that homo economicus is a fantasy. We have fast (system one) and slow (system two) thinking. Mostly we use fast, the one riddled with biases, because it’s less effort, but we can work hard with slow thinking to correct our judgements from fast thinking. But, argued Marar, when it comes to social and moral judgements there is no system two–as there is for statistical judgements. I’m not sure about that.

Marar pointed out that we pay much more attention to negative judgements of us than we do to positive judgements. We discount the positive: people, we know, are constantly hypocritical; those judging us positively may lack the courage to tell us what is negative; or they may be “selling” us something, perhaps themselves. This over-rating of the negative over the positive is a machine to drive down our self-esteem, which is probably no bad thing as we are such flawed creatures and need to recognise it–but it can get out of hand.

Although we are judge by everybody, there are “potent audiences” to whose judgements we pay much more attention. This may be our parents, even when dead, bosses, lovers, or those we most admire. WE can’t chose our potent audiences, they chose us.

The title for the evening talk was “The Value of Being Misunderstood,” and Marar came to this in the discussion. The first value is that “we are all in the same boat.” It is human and social to be misunderstood. Secondly, being misunderstood means that we are not “stuck in aspic.” We are misunderstood in multiple ways by multiple people, giving us room to move, breathe, and reconfigure ourselves. Nobody can pin us down, not in an interview, a job application, an obituary, or a biography. Being misunderstood make us free.



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