I think we’ve always assumed that the Golden Rule is the perfect edict for regulating behaviour. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It works pretty simply and it’s not – actually – hard to do.
Collectively, mankind has been guilty of some truly horrific acts. You don’t have to look very far back to be reminded of the latest calamitous slip-up. Even right now, the world is still full of terrible injustices.
When we’re trying to highlight injustice or appeal to others’ better nature, invoking the Golden Rule may be the first tool in the arsenal of every seasoned activist.
I would argue that the Golden Rule doesn’t work – not because people don’t follow it – but because people do.
People already treat others how they want to be treated.
Herein lies the problem, and – strangely – the solution. It just requires looking at the “problem” from a different angle.
A hot topic in the news in Jamaica at the time I started writing this piece, was the issue of how guidance counsellors address LGBT youth in schools across the country. The Jamaica Teacher’s Association (JTA) has said that, since buggery is illegal under current Jamaican law, it cannot support calls for guidance counsellors receiving better training to better deal with LGBT youth.
After watching the back and forth from both sides for a few days, that familiar feeling of grief set in – that feeling I’m very used to by now whenever I even passively observe how my countrymen deal with matters even remotely relating to homosexuality. I want to scream sometimes. I want to cry sometimes.
And finally, I want to resort to the age old weapon – the Golden Rule . I want to shout obscenely to anyone who will listen, “What if it were you? What if you wanted help and understanding? What if the person you went to, only made the problem worse? HOW WOULD YOU FEEL?!!!”
It wouldn’t ever make a difference though. Well, the shouting would probably make me feel a *lot* better.
But, apart from that, I’ve learnt that invoking the Golden Rule is highly ineffective, simply because we actually wouldn’t mind being treated in the ways we treat others.
It may sound ridiculous, counterintuitive, or just downright stupid. So, you mean to tell me that people who inflict violence on another person would just be okay with someone doing it to them???
Actually, if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.
It’s not at all far-fetched to believe that violent people wouldn’t mind violence being used on them, or that those who shun others wouldn’t mind being shunned themselves. If you ask someone they may say, “Of course I wouldn’t mind someone beating me up…if I were gay!” But this is actually just a smokescreen…a cover-up. The relevant truth is, they wouldn’t mind someone beating them up. Full stop.
Let’s make it real.
I used to be quite the Bitchy Ms. Bitch-a-lot. (Maybe I still am. Whatever. Not the point.) In my younger days, I had a serious “attitude” and I would pretty much talk to people however I felt, with little to no regard for their feelings. If I needed to be brutally honest, I would be. If I needed to “cuss someone out”, that would go down without the slightest hesitation.
I told myself I only did this to people I wasn’t close to or those I “didn’t care about”. This included strangers, classmates, and sometimes even authority figures like teachers. (I well and truly did not GAF.) And even around those I was close to, I had very little filter. I thought, “Well, this is the truth. Sometimes the truth hurts.”
Because for me, if someone I wasn’t close spoke to me condescendingly or with an attitude, it would never bother me in the slightest. Or, if someone I was close to was brutally honest with me, it might hurt my feelings, but it would be understandable and justifiable.
To me, that was normal. There was absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ – or even if it felt wrong, I always justified my actions by saying either, “It’s the truth” or “The person deserved it.”
It took me some time to realize it wasn’t normal; it was just me acting out how angry I was on the inside.
We are all unhappy, or angry or miserable in some ways on the inside. So when the right person “touches a button”, or the right situation presents itself, we’ll use that as the perfect opportunity to spill that mess out into the world. But we’ll never do it in a way we think is “wrong” – or, at least, unjustifiable.
Seriously, no matter how ridiculous or shocking or outright gross someone’s actions appear to be, to them, they aren’t doing anything wrong!
If you’ve ever tried it, you know that it’s really difficult to convince someone that their actions are wrong. It goes for me, you, and everyone else on the planet. We all have different reference points, and we all have different perspectives, and our opinions on what is right and wrong are varied and always changing.
So really, if we want the Golden Rule to work, we have to work at making people feel better about themselves and wanting better for themselves. We have to work at making people love themselves, treat themselves better, and respect themselves.
That’s why the Golden Rule is wrong.
It shouldn’t say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
It should say, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”
Of course, most people assume that what they would want for themselves is what other people would want as well. And that’s where empathy actually becomes the problem, not the solution.
The Problem With Empathy
There are lots of blog articles, books and videos out there on the topic of empathy. It may seem that all that there is to be said on the topic…has already been said. But – in my mind – all the definitions I’ve ever been told, just don’t quite make perfect sense.
Empathy is supposed to be the ability to “feel what someone else is feeling”, to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” and understand them from their perspective. But I would argue that we never understand others from their perspective; we understand from ours.
You have to have some experience…some reference point, for empathy to have root. Do you think it’s a coincidence that minority groups often struggle together? That Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton vocally supported LGBT rights? That Israel is the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East?
Empathy comes from experience.
Why does reading make people more empathetic? This article explains it: good “fiction taps into the same brain networks as real life experience.” It’s not because you inactively read about how someone else might feel…it’s because you actively experience emotions while reading as if they were happening to you in real life.
Humans, as well as other primates, are naturally empathetic. It’s not something we have to work at or practice. It just happens.
But if you have no experience of a particular feeling, there won’t be anything to draw from, and so there’ll be no empathy. Empathy starts within you. This goes for the full range of the human experience: both good and bad.
If you’ve never felt like you’ve been treated unfairly, and had it greatly impact your life, you won’t really understand why people struggle for equality. If you’ve never felt that violence is always inherently unnecessary, you will justify its usage in particular situations. If you’ve never experienced unconditional love, or effervescent joy, or unapologetic excitement, you won’t be able to recognize it in others.
The good news is that we can always widen our experiences. With time, we can become better at feeling what others, who are very different from us, might feel. We can make ourselves more open to the full spectrum of the human experience – the beautiful and the ugly. We just have to be willing to go there, firstly, inside ourselves.
What do you think? Would you prefer to be treated as you would like, or as someone else would like?
And how empathetic do you think you are? Do you think you can improve? Or maybe tone it down a bit for your own good? Here’s a quiz you can take!