The world’s major religions all include some version of the Golden Rule – treat others the way you would like to be treated – and it has become a conventional wisdom that this is the standard for fairness. The problem is that its not a very good one!
When we treat people the way we want to be treated we are assuming they want what we want, which means we are assuming they are the same as us. What if they aren’t? Would it not be better to ask people how they want to be treated and then treat them that way, whether or not it would be our preference?
If we like jazz does that mean everyone does? How about spicy food? Silence? Snow? Stephen Colbert? Clearly, tastes, priorities and sensitivities vary. It is egotistical, and ethnocentric, to assume that our view is the common view. I mean, my wife watched the Grey Cup, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t experience it quite the way I did.
I once met a woman in Finland who was preparing engineers going to Viet Nam to get along in that culture. She told me it was easy to teach someone about the food, dress and behavioural differences in another culture. What was hard was to get people not to think of those differences as quirky, and perhaps a bit abnormal. The difficulty, she said, was not getting those engineers to realize that they were entering a different culture, but to get them to realize that they had a culture themselves and that what they were encountering in Viet Nam was not a strange way of doing things but a different way of doing things. The hard part was to get them to realize that their own food, dress and behavioural preferences were idiosyncratic rather than the norm; that it made more sense to see the Finnish way as the oddity. Running straight from the sauna into the snow and calling it fun just isn’t normal for most folks.
Our tendency to see the familiar as normal means that the unfamiliar must be abnormal, perhaps even deviant. Its not far from that inclination to being uncomfortable, condescending or fearful around people who are different from ourselves and that’s hardly a way to enter an equitable communion.
If we truly want to treat other people as equals, we have to start by getting outside ourselves and trying to see them in their own terms rather than ours. Then we will be better able to respond to them as equals, to learn from them and, perhaps, to better understand ourselves.