A Better Way to Judge Someone's Character

A photo of a grid of television screens, each with one hand pointing in a different direction.
Photo by Samantha Gades.

Like most people, I have folks in my life who I love while deeply disagreeing with them on core issues like politics or religion. Sometimes, that means there are subject matters I simply avoid with them and other times it means that I know we'll have a spirited debate every time we see each other.

Around the time Trump got elected, however, I noticed a lot of people putting out the call that it is everyone's responsibility to disown anyone in their family with the "wrong" politics. Suddenly, shunning became mainstream for progressives.

For obvious reasons, I was not on board. I won't say that I will never cut someone out of my life, but it's going to take a heck of a lot more active damage than someone who has the wrong political views.

Fast forward to relatively-recent life when I came across a Facebook post from Vanessa Rochelle Lewis that articulates this issue perfectly.

Ms. Lewis is one of these people I find intimidatingly cool, who has combined her politics with her artistic and professional identities, pushing boundaries and actively making a better world.

You can read her whole post over on Facebook, but here are some highlights (emphasis mine):

"I'm becoming more and more clear that part of being in intersectional spaces also means being open to connections with people who don't have the same radical education, language, and even politics as me...

For a long time, I thought that authentic care meant being invested in certain politics and constantly educating yourself, but I'm realizing that this is actually exclusive and gatekeeping for a lot of people who genuinely do care about other folks and who want to do there very best to be loving and compassionate people. I'm understanding that people can be really kind, really try their best to love and respect every one, and know not one iota of queer, qtpoc, transformative, restorative justice rhetoric. And other people can know all the rhetoric and be SO judgmental, so critical, so exclusive, so shallow, and so mean to people."

This part reminds me of the truly life-altering realization I had when, as a young and devout Christian, I saw that there were lots of people who were Christians, knew all the right words and rituals, and yet were genuinely terrible people.

Meanwhile, there were lots of people who not only weren't Christian, but were decidedly anti-religion, yet they were living with more love, joy, peace, goodness, and generosity than most Christians I knew.

Turned out, the label someone put on themselves was not a predictor of what kind of person they were.

Lewis goes on to list her new rubric for judging a person's character, and it is EXACTLY what we need:

"Instead, I'm looking to see:
- How people treat other people in the moment?
- How open they are to connecting with a diversity of people?
- How they talk about people when they aren't around?
- If they move with curiosity or judgement?
- Are they open to lovingly connecting with people different from them (as opposed to saying who they ally or are in solidarity with)?
- Are they generous with their resources, heart, time, and intention?
- Do they have compassion and grace for failure, mistakes, confusion, and missteps?
- Do they attempt to correct their failures, mistakes, confusions, and missteps - even if they are clumsy.
- Can they practice direct and non-violent communication?
- Can they be responsible for their emotional processes or are they constantly looking for someone to be at fault?"

Just like those anti-religious folks who were enacting Jesus' teachings better than some church leaders, there are those who, for whatever reason, aren't interested in getting into political activist spaces and yet live through this lens.

Heck, I have very close relationships with some classic conservative white men who will say things that, at first hit, come across as problematic or just plain prejudiced. However, more than once I have found that, if I dig deeper, it becomes clear that their hearts are actually in the right place and even that they are actively living my progressive values better than I am.

What a concept: someone can say or even believe the wrong things while doing the right things.

Language matters and labels matter. But actions matter more.

(PS: Can someone please develop a dating app that filters for the qualities listed above? I'll be one of your early testers!)

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