August 21, 2015

The Golden Rule, in advocacy and otherwise

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 12:49 pm by chavisory

The Golden Rule isn’t a uniquely Christian stricture. It occurs in a lot of different faith systems and philosophies, in a lot of similar phrasings and formats.

There’s the Silver Rule (Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you).

There’s the Platinum Rule (Treat others the way they want to be treated).

But I think the golden rule has a corollary I’ve never heard articulated before. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s this:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto someone else.

The immediate context of this is that, in the past few years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve run into a lot of argument that some really nasty, callous, and frankly, counterproductive, modes of engagement regarding issues of social justice are justified based on all kinds of factors that have kind of blown my mind and not in a good way.

But I see these patterns play out in much broader ways, as well.

There is a way in which I think people tend to reenact the things that get done to them, and the ways they get treated. Because, unless they just have zero self-worth, the things that people learn are okay for others to do to them, they’re very likely going to naturally interpret to be alright for them to do to others. Because that’s how “the way you treat people” has been modeled to them.

Who then are they going to inflict that behavior on in turn?

You have no control over that. And it could be someone a good deal more vulnerable than themselves.

Unless someone manages to recognize their own treatment as wrong and explicitly, deliberately, continually decides not to repeat it against other people. Which is seriously hard to do when you have no direct counterexamples of what decent behavior is.

So for instance, a thing I hear a lot is a parent saying that their kid is aggressive to others for no apparent reason—pulling hair, grabbing, biting, hitting, etc.

A thing I have to wonder, particularly regarding disabled kids—Is someone else doing effectively the same things to them? Particularly someone more powerful, in a position of authority, under the guise of legitimacy? Under the guise of therapy or education? Are they in a situation in which their own bodily integrity or autonomy can be violated at will by another person and it’s perfectly allowable? Where they can be touched or have their body controlled without their consent, where teachers or therapists can do all manner of aggressive, invasive, unfair things to get or keep their attention?

Then you’ve got a hard case to make if you’re trying to teach a kid “You have no right to do this to someone else. But other people do have a right to do it to you.”

And really, is that a case you want to be making?

The thing is, it’s not just that the ways we treat other people will be the ways they treat us right back. It’s that the ways we treat others, including—probably especially—children, will be the ways that they go treat someone else entirely.

Here’s a story. Once when I was a kid, we had some friends of my parents over for dinner one night. They had a daughter a little bit younger than me. And we’d been told that she was afraid of big dogs, so our big, friendly yellow lab was shut up in a bedroom while we were all outside.

And at one point, I took it upon myself to show her that dogs weren’t really anything to be scared of, and went and got the dog, put her on her leash, and brought her outside.

Total screaming, crying mayhem ensued, of course. It was a shitty thing to do even if I was trying to be helpful. Why would I even think to do such a thing?

Well, because that’s how everyone around me treated me, day and night. Day in and day out. Things I was afraid of or physically uncomfortable with were things I just needed to be forced into. Or compelled to force myself into. Or berated or shamed or even tricked or double-crossed into—all by people with undeniably good intentions. All by people who were totally convinced they were helping.

Why on earth would I think it wasn’t okay to do the same thing to someone else? When adults did the same thing to me all the time and no one objected, and my objections meant nothing?

And maybe it seems like a leap, but I truly think this has application to the kids of civility and respect that I actually believe are important in advocacy, in debate, in difficult conversations and in the ways we treat people generally, even when they’re in the wrong.

Here is something I see over and over in online arguments. If you just keep an opponent talking for long enough, they will tell you exactly what their issue or mental block is with understanding a concept, or giving up a prejudice, or admitting that something being done to another group of people isn’t fair and shouldn’t be condoned. Quit insulting them and just keep them answering questions about their logic holes, and they will take you right to the bottom of their objection sooner or later.

And the frequency with which it turns out that they feel they’re being held to a double standard is pretty stunning—that they feel that something is being demanded of them that isn’t being asked of other people around them, or of another group of people towards whom they’re being asked to change their behavior or thinking. If they’re getting told that it’s not cool to treat other people in the same way that it’s always been acceptable for them to be treated (or still is), and they may have come to terms with that treatment in order to preserve their self-worth, or in order not to believe that someone they care about has hurt them, or because they are justifiably proud of their own accomplishments in the face of unfairness or deprivation…if they’ve had it inculcated that this treatment is acceptable towards them, they’re not just suddenly going to believe that it’s not acceptable towards somebody else.

Changing those beliefs can take a lot of self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Telling someone that they’re unworthy of those things because of their demographic membership isn’t going to get you far, and it probably shouldn’t. It doesn’t shore up empathy for stigmatized or marginalized people just to be told that you deserve that bad treatment instead.

The point is that no one deserves it.

What I see so many of these arguments boil down to is, “But this exactly is how someone else treated people like me and it was okay then, so why is it not now for me to hold someone else to the same standard?”

Because, of course, it was never okay in the first place. It wasn’t okay when someone else did it to them, either. The golden rule, and its silent corollary, have the power to unravel these double standards. It’s not okay for you to treat people in certain ways, and it’s not okay for others to treat you badly, either.

If you’re trying to make an argument that “It’s not okay for you to treat others this way, but it is for me to treat you this way….”

People don’t tend to buy that, for very good reasons, unless they already have terrible self-worth or have been driven really far towards seeing themselves as un-people. (And that should not be what we’re aiming to accomplish.)

Which is one reason why it’s not true that the only serious harm you can do is down a power gradient on some singular axis of privilege. Privilege is practically never one-dimensional. People who are in fact vulnerable in some way that you’ve failed to see or consider are not likely to take well to assertions that their being attacked or insulted is justified on the basis of their disproportionate power. And I really don’t think they’re obligated to.

So whether you’re arguing that it’s okay to call someone an asshole or a piece of trash,

That it’s okay to force someone into a fearful situation,

To control their body, to assert your entitlement to their attention or compliance,

To insult or dehumanize someone. To tell them to go die. To decide that some group of people is okay to be prejudiced against. To mock their identity group for existing,

Based on their opinions even when they’re wrong and offensive, their skin color, their background, their disability, their sex or gender or sexuality, their privilege or your perception thereof…

Don’t be surprised when they internalize the message that the same behavior towards someone else is also acceptable.

And yes, there are people who can’t distinguish criticism of their positions from attacks on their personhood. Just because those people are going to get their panties in a twist whether you’re nice or not, does not make it meaningless how you have actually treated them as people. That some people will make those accusations practically no matter what, does not obligate you to make them true.

It’s not about sheltering the feelings of oppressors, or not challenging members of privileged groups in their perspective and assumptions. It’s not even just about the damage you can inflict on a single person’s soul. It’s that you reinforce messages about how it’s okay to treat people, by how you treat people.

If the treatment of someone else that you’re justifying will force them into choosing between believing “It is okay to treat other people this way” or “I’m not really a person, at least not one who matters for anything” or “I deserve this because of some categorical generalization about a group that I belong to,” that’s a justification I would seriously question in any context.

We shouldn’t be constructing different hierarchies of who it’s okay to do shit to. We should be undermining values systems that say that anyone is acceptable to do shit to.

Whatever you’re thinking about inflicting on another person, consider:

Would I find it acceptable for someone else to treat me this way? Would I want this person to go treat someone else this way, if I have no say in who that might be? No? Then maybe you shouldn’t be running calculations to try to figure out if it’s okay to treat anyone that way. Maybe, probably, it’s just not.

Just changing the direction in which insults, abuse, and dehumanization flow isn’t going to change shit. Stopping it is.

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4 Comments »

  1. I *love* this concept. Love love love love it. Thanks for writing this. 🙂

  2. Carolyn Cook said,

    Oh my goodness, you have articulated this brilliantly. Thank you, thank you!!

  3. When people argue the Golden Rule to justify their behaviour, I always wonder how they learned that interpretation of it. Cause I was taught that for other people to be nice to me, I had to be nice to them first. Of course, this meant that I didn’t do so well with authority growing up… which I guess explains why I never learned this. But I totally see this going on.

  4. […] Chavisory on the golden rule of advocacy […]


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