The Aardvark Blog
Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged
Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged
This morning I was reading the papers and fulminating about various articles. The dreadful case of a fifteen year old boy tackled to the ground by private security guards in a branch of Superdrug for the crime of being sarcastic to them. The appalling number of suicides, mental breakdowns and heart attacks associated with the current Ofsted regime. Then in yesterday's paper there was the ongoing saga of the referee's decision (since reversed) to send off the England full-back in a tight game, thereby rendering the result of the match all but inevitable.
In all of these cases mistakes of judgement would appear to have been made, and in my mind I judge those responsible harshly, wanting them themselves to be forced to resign or be suspended, or be subject to Stalinist retraining.
But here is the thing. In all of these circumstances people have made decisions that they thought were right - sometimes in the case of the referee - with very little time to make that decision. My instant and often indignant judgement of their actions is no more likely to be correct than theirs. Whilst it seems clear that in certain aspects of its operation Ofsted is having a negative impact, does that mean that individual inspectors are necessarily at fault? If they are given a rubric and told to apply it, how much responsibility for the consequences is it fair to place on an individual's head?
A few days ago we had a three star Google rating in which the customer complained that the building was cold and described our cake and drinks as 'not bad'. Needless to say I immediately started to worry about it, giving it ten times the attention that I have given to any of the many five star ratings that we have had. Don't they know, I said to Ethel the amount of effort we put into finding the products we use? That the teas are from the award winning Clare Trumper, that the coffees are selected for us by Masterroast. That the cakes are all hand made locally. Grumph Grumph, I went, pouring obloquy upon the head of this anonymous customer. They had made a judgement on us and then I had made a judgement on them. But ultimately both of us were just expressing an opinion.
Then there are the ratings one receives from the online platforms on which we sell books. Prepared by whirling servers situated around the world these judgements of Solomon are handed out without any human involvement at all. We can receive letters of approbation (rarer) or more likely of complaint (often for strange crimes - one platform sent a strongly worded letter that assumed that some of our books contained a chemical that the EU had banned for use in teeth whitening). Numbers are crunched and ratings made and the humans are made to feel like minor characters in a drama by Kafka or Orwell.
We live in an ever more complicated world in which we cry out more and more for simple clear ratings. Robert Parker made a very successful career out of moving to a points based system for evaluating wine, rather than the more descriptive method that had been used by an earlier generation of wine writers. Ofsted rate schools using one of four categories from Outstanding to Inadequate. Schools then use these descriptions in publicity materials. But is any school ever truly outstanding in everything it does?
If a restaurant gets a Michelin star its fortunes are transformed overnight. Wherever it is located, people will travel to it and throw money at its owners. Similarly if a restaurant loses a star it is virtually bankrupted with the same rapidity. In earlier times before I became a bookseller I was lucky enough to dine in numerous Michelin starred restaurants, from Paul Heathcote's restaurant in Lancashire to the legendary Lucas Carton in Paris. None of those meals would make it into my top ten best meals. A meal with my late business partner Edward in P D's Wood House Dalkey, when the scallops were so divine that I had to stop for a second just to pinch myself. A meal in New York at Dawat the restaurant owned by Madhur Jaffrey. A lunch in a paris Bistro on the Place de Vosges where I had the most divine rabbit in white wine and mustard sauce. My first time eating Flemish Stew in a small local restaurant in Bruges. Not everything in a restaurant has to be stupendous, to ensure an amazing meal. Just one truly revelatory dish or bottle of wine can transform the everyday into the truly memorable.
So what is to be done with our modern addiction to judging and the damage that it causes?
Well firstly - and this is good advice for almost every situation in life - try to be kind. in the Observer article one inspector reports that he broke protocol by telling a teacher that their minor error would have no impact on the overall inspection report. Be kind. The much maligned head of Ofsted is not I suspect a bad person, just someone trapped with her colleagues in a bad system. If we all shout for her head will anything change, or will another talented person just pick up the poisoned chalice and be destroyed in their turn? The same is true of the current head of the Metropolitan Police. Be Kind.
And for those of us outside the organisations looking in and passing our own judgements I offer another suggestion. Stop expecting that complicated processes can really be adequately evaluated by simple metrics or single word descriptions. Your Robert Parker 93 point claret is really unlikely to be much better than your Robert Parker 90 point claret. Differences in how you are feeling, temperature, the food you are eating with the wine, how well that particular bottle has been stored throughout its life, are all going to have more impact than any real or perceived qualitative differences in the bottles themselves. Be Kind, embrace nuance and have some sympathy for those who are given the job of making impossible judgement calls.
And to our politicians I offer another piece of advice. Stop looking for wedges, banana skins and culture wars. The public will reward politicians who offer to work together to find solutions to complicated problems. Be the change - the solution not the prosecution.
Published by Aardvark Books Ltd on (modified )
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