On Judging Idiots and Being the Idiot

On Judging Idiots and Being the Idiot November 28, 2022

Fredrik Backman nails the human condition.

I have this recurring thought every time I pick up one of the Swedish author’s novels: A Man Called OveMy Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s SorryBritt-Marie Was Here, and currently Anxious People, where Backman writes in the opening pages:

So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.

Because there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days. You’re supposed to have a job, and somewhere to live, and a family, and you’re supposed to pay taxes and have clean underwear and remember the password to your damn Wi-Fi. Some of us never manage to get the chaos under control, so our lives simply carry on, the world spinning through space at two million miles an hour while we bounce about on its surface like so many lost socks. Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of; the moment we relax, they drift off and fall in love and get broken, all in the wink of an eye. We’re not in control. So we learn to pretend, all the time, about our jobs and our marriages and our children and everything else. We pretend we’re normal, that we’re reasonably well educated, that we understand ‘amortization levels’ and ‘inflation rates.’ That we know how sex works. In truth, we know as much about sex as we do about USB leads, and it always takes us four tries to get those little buggers in. (Wrong way round, wrong way round, wrong way round, there! In!) We pretend to be good parents when all we really do is provide our kids with food and clothing and tell them off when they put chewing gum they find on the ground in their mouths. We tried keeping tropical fish once and they all died. And we really don’t know more about children than tropical fish, so the responsibility frightens the life out of us each morning. We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.

Aside from eloquently relatable generalities like this, what really makes Backman’s novels masterclasses in empathy is his knack for creating characters that appear eminently dislikable – and then making you love them. Backman’s protagonists are frequently judged, and more often than not they dish out plenty of judgments of their own. And yet inevitably, the development of their back stories and inner struggles becomes a fleshing-out of the famous quote attributed to the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

This was in the back of my mind as I made the day’s drive home from my Thanksgiving vacation with a borrowed copy of Anxious People in my suitcase. Being generally a destination-oriented driver, only stopping in cases of true necessity, I made it a good five hours before having to stop for gas and a restroom. Before leaving the rest stop, I plugged my phone into my car charger, waiting until the last possible moment to resume a full sitting position. Just before I could pull out, I was jolted by a loud knocking on my rear windshield. I immediately wondered if someone was alerting me to a missing gas cap or something similarly amiss. I then looked up to find a middle-aged couple informing me that they had wanted to park in the neighboring spot – which in fact they had just done – while I had been sitting there with my door open, “completely oblivious.”

A bit taken aback to realize that what I’d thought was a friendly offer of helpful information was in fact merely a scolding, I stammered an apology and prepared to leave. Before I closed my door again the woman asked me, “Are you staying or getting out?” Thinking she was asking whether I was leaving the parking space, I replied, “I’m getting out.” But when I fastened my seatbelt and turned the ignition, she was once again indignant: “Oh, so you’re not getting out of your car!” I tried again to stammer out an explanation of the misunderstanding, then left with a shrug and returned to the highway to lick my wounds – though not before pulling over in response to a suddenly urgent impulse to double check that I had indeed remembered to put the gas cap back on (I had), feeling very much like a character in a Fredrik Backman novel.

I wondered if that couple was now getting in their car and commiserating about the idiot who had unwittingly blocked their parking space. I resented my own sensitivity to criticism. I felt a conscience-prick of awareness of my own habitual judgment calls. But – I hastened to justify myself – I judge people differently based on the amount of context I have, which is why I find it easier to judge most harshly the people I know best (family, close friends, and yes, myself), and easier to give the benefit of the doubt to those whose stories I know less of.

My mind jumped to a time I was on vacation with some extended family, and we crossed paths with a small party of people pulling along a dog that was defecating in the crosswalk. One of my aunts wagged a finger and said in a slightly sing-songy voice, “You need to clean up after him!” A reasonable enough response to their behavior, but what bothered me was how she declared with absolute conviction, when talking about it later on, “Some people are just idiots.” I vaguely recall pushing back on that statement, although I’m not entirely sure now how much of that pushback was spoken aloud and how much was merely in my head. In any case, it struck me as being profoundly unfair to make such a broad, categorical judgment of people’s entire existence based on a single moment of their lives, and one that was probably not their best. (And if, to the contrary, it happened that the worst moment of those people’s lives was failing to pick up their dog’s poop, then they were doing a lot better than most of us.)

But what of my self-defensive instinct to judge my judgers? Even as the thought of writing about the incident began to form in my mind, I could see that it contained a seed of vindictiveness: “That idiot you went out of your way to give a lecture to is a writer, and a pretty darn intelligent one at that. And she will go home and skewer you.”

But I’ve already been too candid for this to be much of a vindictive post.

I do hope, in the unlikely event that the people in question end up reading this, that I’ve caused them to rethink their judgment. But a reflection like this must also become a sort of examination of conscience. Are my own judgments really so uniquely fair, so evidence-based, so kept in perspective as I like to think?

In reality, I know next to nothing of those people’s stories, just as they know next to nothing of mine. I don’t actually know whether they called me an idiot or gave any further thought to the interaction at all. Yes, it’s entirely possible that they possess the same degree of confidence in their own utter lack of idiocy that they appeared to have in that moment (or at least confidence that, whatever their mistakes, they would never do something so thoughtless as to sit in a car with the door open, oblivious to someone waiting to park in the next space). It’s also entirely possible, given the timing and location, that they had been driving as long as I had or longer, in which case anyone would be understandably annoyed at being made to wait any longer than necessary to get up off their tired bottoms.

I’m not suggesting that anyone attempt to refrain from all judgment of other people’s behavior, which I don’t believe would be advisable even if it were possible. Even so, it’s important to remember that nobody is reducible to a single moment. Even if I don’t follow this principle as perfectly as I’d like, I believe that the distinction between specific behaviors and overall character is a helpful one. People may appear in all of our lives as anonymous idiots, but that is never all someone is. And sometimes – no matter who we are or how much we may have it all together, inevitably our turn will come – sometimes, someone’s anonymous idiots are us.


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