Recently we received a letter from a 15-year-old I'll call Rebecca, asking, very simply, "Is Miley Cyrus bad or good?"
It's a natural question. We humans love to categorize things. We love lists filled with the "best" and "worst." We tell our pets they're "bad" when they piddle on the rug, tell our toddlers they're "good" when they eat their strained carrots. We're compelled, it seems, to pass judgment on actions, events, people.
We're told that judging folks has gone out of fashion. We're supposed to be living in a kinder, gentler, less judgmental time: My ideals and beliefs aren't better or worse than yours, we're told, just different. "Hey, it's great if that thing works for you," we're apt to say, "but don't tell me how to run my life. Don't get up in my business. Don't judge me!"
Here's the honest truth, though: For all the tolerance we supposedly show, we judge one another more frequently and more harshly than ever.
We post demeaning comments on YouTube or Facebook. We call radio shows, lambasting politicians or banks or businesses. We scream about BP's malfeasance, snicker as Lindsay Lohan skulks off to jail and write lengthy diatribes on why Google or Apple or Perez Hilton or McDonald's Happy Meals portend societal devolution. Tolerance? Hardly. We live in an age of outrage and apology, where each secret and slight is posted on Huffington and mocked on Fark, where every person who makes the slightest misstep is beaten and kicked for the pleasure of the 24-hour news cycle.
We're all up in each other's business now. We can't seem to help ourselves. And few people today have been judged as frequently or as rigorously as Miss Miley Cyrus.
"Can't Be Tamed"
Pairing the terms Miley, Cyrus and shocking will get you close to 500,000 hits on Google. Trade shocking in for "bad role model," and you still get 50,000. The blog StyleCaster named Cyrus one of the "10 Worst Celebrity Role Models," and JSYK, AOL's tween and teen blog, dubbed her the "worst celebrity influence of 2009" (as determined by a poll of its readers).
And that was before she sprouted wings and started wearing lingerie onstage.
Plugged In has documented journalistic screeds lambasting Cyrus. And we've written more than a few words about the girl ourselves. None, however, have come close to what's filling the blogosphere. Underneath TMZ's post of Cyrus' infamous lap-dance video, you find the following:
"It's just amazing how backwoods people with no looks, no real talent, and no good breeding (white trash) can become billionaires."
"Miley will be pregnant … again, in two years … this time she will not abort. She will name the child Billy Bob, John Boy, Square Pants are you freakin' Cyrus."
"Ladies and gentleman … I'm proud to introduce … the new … the improved … Lindsay Lohan 2.0!"
These comments were culled from only the first of 112 pages. It's a veritable stoning held in the court of public opinion. And the tone of the posts went downhill from there as the pages scroll by.
We can all, of course, agree that those shots are pretty nasty. Does it then follow that casting any sort of judgment is judgmental? Anyone who's spent a smidgen of time in the Bible knows that judgment is, quite literally, heaven sent. The words judge, judgment and their variants are used more than 170 times in Scripture. God judges folks all the time—sometimes using other humans as His instruments—and often His judgment feels very judgmental indeed. So, clearly, God can judge. And really, who better?
But therein lies the problem with us mere mortals judging others.
"It is God who justifies," reads Romans 8:33-34. "Who is he that condemns?" While the Bible talks at length about God's perfect judgment, it cautions us about judging—as any moral convictions we'd pass along would be, by definition, imperfect. The only person I should truly feel free to judge, according to 1 Corinthians 11:31-32, is myself.
The story of Jesus protecting an adulteress from stoning is perhaps the best—certainly the most familiar—illustration of this principle in action. "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her," He tells the woman's lynch mob. The men tuck their tails and slink away, and Jesus tells the woman she's free to go, leaving her with the exhortation to stop sinning.
"Don't Walk Away"
So is Miley Cyrus bad? Sure she is. And so am I. And so are you. She, I and you are also wonderful and gifted. Do we all make mistakes? Are dinosaurs dead? Just because I disagree with your decisions and won't buy your products doesn't mean I like you any less.
Here's the thing: No life, however well lived, is free from stain. And no stain, no matter how deep its hue, is beyond cleansing. None of us are heroes or villains, overall. We have our moments of both, but for the most part, we're just … us. Each day, we're given a chance to make up for what we did wrong the day before.
But that's still not the whole picture. While we tend to associate judgment with verdicts and punishments and justice being served, judgment has another definition—one much closer to the word discernment than anything having to do with bailiffs and gavels and the court of public opinion. So while we judge Cyrus' status of being "bad" or "good" at our own peril, we can—and should—judge whether she's a particularly "bad" or "good" influence on us and our families.
With the first form of judgment, we point our index finger at the object of our wrath and shake it vigorously. "Shame!" we say. "Shame!" In the second, the onus falls on us. Whether Cyrus should gussy herself up in predator wings and fishnet stockings is somewhat beside the point. The question becomes how much impact we allow her to have. "It's not about you," we say. "It's about us." And that, frankly, feels far less … judgmental.
It's also more effective. Because as we change ourselves, we change those around us. And eventually we change the world.
"Wake Up America"
We can't get away from making judgments (using the classical definition of the word) entirely. Call it sin or call it human nature, we're driven to it. As a critical reviewer, part of my job is to talk about the culture around us—and, in so doing, I can sound pretty judgmental. And let's not be coy: It always hurts us when we see someone in the culture—someone who, once upon a time, was having a reasonably positive impact on our kids—make decisions we disagree with. That can slip out into our conversations … and my writing.
I hope that, most often, my judgments land on the content, rather than the person: "Wow, this movie has a lot of violence," instead of, "Wow, Quentin Tarantino must be certifiably deranged to include this much violence in his movie." He may be deranged … or maybe just misguided … or maybe he has a wonderful intent behind it all that I can't see. That's a judgment call best left to Someone much better equipped to judge than I.
Content is, meanwhile, simply a recitation of evidence. "This film contains this and this and this." It's not so much about pointing fingers as counting on them—allowing you to judge (that is, discern) what's appropriate.
Does that answer your question, Rebecca?