Golden-Rule Redux: A Better Approach to Building Empathy

Golden-Rule Redux: A Better Approach to Building Empathy April 27, 2020

Dan Meyers,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. I’ve been reluctant to write here because of a situation I know will inform my writing — and not necessarily for the better. For the last few weeks, I have been trying to find a pathway to apply for a second visa here in Colombia — which is no easy feat amid lockdown, with the government closing migration services until May 30, well past the expiration date of my first visa. A new, online tool was created specifically for foreigners in Colombia a few weeks ago — not for extensions, or renewals, but for full, from-scratch visa applications — but I haven’t been able to apply yet because… every other day for the past two weeks, I’ve been receiving new delay notices from my employer, with respect to their side of the paperwork.

So, it’s been a strange experience, a bit like moving through a haze. My clients have been asking more of me than ever, my pay was slashed weeks ago due to COVID, and now I have under a month remaining before my cédula (ID) expires, in a country currently using those IDs to determine whether or not you’re permitted to be on the street. All kinds of worst-case scenarios have been flitting through my head: Will I lose my path to residency? Will I be compelled to leave? Will I be able to get back to my life here if I’m thrown out? And concurrently, a frustrated: Why on Earth is there such a delay? Doesn’t the employer suffer, too, massively, if I can’t legally work here anymore?

But here’s why I didn’t want to write about any of this: The logical extension of these fears is to talk about other people living with legal-status precarity — all the time, for years; not just these piddling few weeks of tension I’m undergoing. I should be talking about environmental refugeeism, right? And the displaced persons hit hardest by COVID? And the fate of vital immigration pathways even after the worst of this pandemic?

And yet, I strongly feel that humanism is not best served by only taking up a major issue when it relates to something that’s happening to you. Let’s call that approach, instead, the Dick Cheney School of Empathy-Building: when you spend a lifetime in a political camp against, say, LGBTQ+ rights, and then learn your daughter’s lesbian, which suddenly changes everything.

Now, I’ve been pro-immigration, pro-globalist-rights for a very long time.

But I still don’t want to reinforce storytelling forms that rely on this sort of narcissistic “It happened to me, and it could happen to you, so you should care that it happens to them!” approach to better social ethics.

So let’s talk a bit, instead, about what different ways of reaching empathy might entail.

The Golden Rule, and Its Failings

The problem with our narrative approach to empathy goes right back to the beginning of the Golden Rule, which we commonly know as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We first see forms of it in Leviticus, and the Northern Canon of Buddha, and the Confucian Analects, and the Jainist Sutras, and the Tao Te Ching, and then most famously in the New Testament, ascribed to Christ.

I’ve written here before on how insufficient the Golden Rule is in practice, essentially because it only works if you can first imagine worlds outside your own cosmology. A Southern Evangelical missionary, for instance, might consider proselytizing ad nauseum to others as a perfect extension of the Golden Rule — because he would tell himself, “Goodness! If I didn’t know the path to salvation I would surely hope someone else would be kind enough to make sure I did, and that I understood its stakes!”

I’ve posed, as an alternative, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” It’s not perfect either, but it better embodies something critically absent from the original: namely, the idea that one must first reach outside of oneself and one’s own understanding of goodness before one can act with empathy toward a neighbour.

This is something we struggle with for obvious reasons: You have your subject-position in the cosmos, and I have mine. How can we ever hope to extend beyond ourselves and fully position ourselves in another’s point of view?

We can’t: not fully, at least.

But the work of challenging automatic reactions to given situations is absolutely within our scope. We can recognize when something feels fundamentally true to us, and practise holding that inner conviction in tension with contradictory positions of other human beings.

This is not the same, either, as giving up our beliefs and embracing a moral landscape in which all subject-positions become equally valid as a path to better societal ethics. We may very well be “in the right” compared to others in our purview. But how comfortable are we, really, with our own points of view, if the mere existence of other points of view has us in a panic, lashing out for discursive dominance?

Golden Rule Redux: “Do Unto Others…”

This leads to another problem in Golden-Rule discourse: an absence of clarity with respect to actionable items. When someone is undergoing, say, a medical crisis right in front of us, it’s easy to see the necessity of the Golden Rule. Less obvious is when our definitions of “crisis” change. Yes, those definitions definitely change when one person has been primed to believe that a stranger on the street might be in the throes of a spiritual crisis because they have the look of a heathen about them. But they also change when, say, the sheer number of homeless we see every day is in the dozens, or hundreds; what we would have done on an individual level might not be the correct response when the situation comes to involve our one action and a collective “they” in need.

This is part of why I find writing about a situation only when personally affected by it to be sub-optimal for empathy-building: because I am choosing a site of action that is oriented, ultimately, around my needs and my experiences. I haven’t, in the process, grown one whit toward being able to see the value of lives and crises outside my own direct experience of what is vital, what is good, and what is urgent.

Do I have the ability to sit, for instance, with problems outside my own, and to see them, too, as sites of critical moral action? Not just legal-status precarity, that is, but also hunger; and death rates from curable disease; and genocide? Can I hold in my purview not just my own problems with, say, being a feminized and queer person, but also the suffering of men estranged from support systems that would be more conducive to healing from their own traumas; and of mothers (a subject-position I will never hold) terrified of getting pregnant again due to pre-existing health conditions, in states that will always value the fetus over their own lives?

If I only take up political causes that I can relate to from my personal experience, I may well be doing “good” in the world, by engaging in actions that will improve other lives… but in the process, I am also supporting a culture in which this self-oriented starting point is the status quo for how we build and speak of empathy. A culture, that is, which still pits ego against ego in the collective fight for a better world: My advocacy campaign versus other advocacy campaigns. My subject-position versus yours.

“…as They Would Have You Do Unto Them”

This is why my change to the Golden Rule — while still not fixing the problem of limitations to our duty of care for others at cost to our own well-being — feels like a step, at least, in the right direction. What it asks of us is not that we give up personal beliefs and convictions, but simply learn to inhabit the world a little less egocentrically, especially when we dare to speak of empathy.

How might this work in practice? I have a couple suggestions, but I’d also be quite hypocritical if I didn’t also encourage you, from your own subject-positions, to pose some of your own in the comments. This isn’t about locking into definitive conclusions; it’s about naturalizing introspection in the work of empathy-building, too.

So, to begin:

1. Treat “Listening” as a Primary Site of Moral Action

“Do” in the Golden Rule suggests physical activity, but one of the first and most important activities for better humanistic practice is data-collection, which is where the “listening” part comes in. We need intel before we can make informed decisions to advance better social policy. Also, when trying to practise greater self-assurance in our beliefs, sometimes the most important first step is simply not to articulate them. Practise, instead, sitting with that churning heat of inner conviction when someone shares a different perspective, and practise being able to sustain that inner conviction without needing to fling it at someone who holds a different point of view.

Ask yourself, too, how difficult it is to sit quietly with those convictions. What does that difficulty tell you about when you feel most confident in your own point of view? Does it need to be wielded against others in the real world to exist comfortably within you?

2. Look for Your Gaps

We all have sites of concerted moral action, as well as sites of daily, unthinking action. We kvetch about certain issues most pertinent to us and our immediate communities. We focus, too, on certain parts of the news and social-media discourse. These are selections (if not always ones we’re aware that we’re making) to grow our sympathies in specific directions. Do they lead to moral atrophy in others?

Extending ourselves, humanistically, might involve something as simple as clicking on a different news tab, and apprising ourselves of matters going on simultaneously in other parts of the world. Or it might involve identifying ourselves — say, in my case, as a white, queer, feminized, unmarried, childless, atheist immigrant-from-Canada-to-Colombia writer and educator — and then looking to see what kinds of concerns exist among communities with different identity matrices.

And again, ask yourself as you do so: How comfortable are you sitting with the concerns of people in different subject-positions? (Especially the ones most diametrically opposite to your own.) How strong is your urge to counter their articulated issues with rejoinders from your own experience of the world? Do you need your issue to be seen as the most pressing in a given domain for it to retain its sense of importance to you? Do you instinctively feel, on some level, that there is only so much value to human struggle to go around?

If “yes” to those last two questions especially, is this an approach to advocacy you want to maintain? Why? Are there alternatives that would allow you to fight for better public policy and generally improved social ethics, without always being threatened by other issues in the cultural spotlight? Are there people pursuing those alternative approaches already; and if so, how might you go about leaning into them and their communities?

The Take-Away

We shouldn’t castigate ourselves for doing what comes naturally for subjective beings: for so often shaping the practice of empathy-building, that is, around our own subject-positions and experiences in the cosmos. Many times, too, we simply didn’t realize a problem existed until we faced it ourselves, right?

But therein lies the gap we as humanists should seek to bridge, because once we recognize the existence of that gap, we should be looking to see what others might also exist in our moral calculus. We can do a lot of good, for sure, just by focussing on those issues that stem from personal brushes with injustice… but in so doing, we have to remember that we’re reinforcing a form of social advocacy that takes such egocentric beginnings to justice-seeking as its status quo.

Just imagine how much more good we could be doing, collectively, if we could stretch our capacity for empathy a little more.

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