The Golden Rule is a valuable ethics tool. No question about it. Its best feature is that it compels an ethical point of view, causing us to think about the impact of one’s conduct on others. This simple shift of perspective—that’s the other virtue of the Golden Rule: it’s simple; a child can understand it—-distances us from the powerful ethics alarms-muffling effects of non-ethical considerations, which are primarily our subjective wants and needs, and forces us to look past them to more ethical objectives.
The Golden Rule is not, however, a panacea, or even the most useful ethical system. It doesn’t work in complex systems , or when multiple inter-related interests are involved, or when chaos looms. You can’t run a successful business, organization or nation using only the Golden Rule; you can’t have a coherent legal system, or the rule of law, or a banking system. Yet there are a lot of people, many of them with advanced degrees, best-selling books and millions of followers, who continue to practice Golden Rule malpractice and preach that it will solve all society’s ills, despite the fact that the most cursory examination of history and human nature makes it blindingly clear that much as we would wish it otherwise, this just isn’t true. Some of these people are well-meaning, good-hearted chumps. Some are insane. Many are fanatics. Some of them are con-artists. All of them are dangerous.
The latter was illustrated when the fifth-graders in Lincoln, Nebraska’s Zeman Elementary School received flyers on how to deal with bullying. (To get the side issues this blog deals with periodically out of the way at the outset, the incompetent and naive advice the flyer contained is one of an endless number of examples of how the education establishment is inadequately trained, staffed and regulated to be trusted with the welfare of young children, and how any parent who blithely entrusts their offspring to public schools without monitoring them closely is irresponsible, because teachers and school administrators cannot be trusted to exercise good judgment.) The flyer contained none “rules” for bullied children to apply after and during bullying episodes. The flyer was disavowed after the Lincoln, Nebraska school system’s Facebook page melted from the abuse poured on it by shocked and disgusted parents, and so far, at least, nobody has transcribed all of what is barely readable on this photo of it, and I don’t see or type well enough to do it myself:
Here is a partial version, however, and it is sufficient to illustrate the problem. (My horrified reactions are in bold):
1. Refuse to get mad. Anger is a feeling we have toward our enemies, not our buddies… (And remember, people who punch you in the face and call you ugly are your buddies!)
2. Treat the person being mean as if they are trying to help you. No matter how insulting or mean they might sound, be grateful and thankful that they really care about you…( You know, like the racist thugs holding the fire hoses really cared about the civil rights protesters in Selma!)
3. Do not be afraid. Fear is something we feel toward enemies, not buddies… (Good to know! Silly me, I always thought fear was something we felt toward people and things that we had good reason to believe would put us on a respirator.)
4. Do not verbally defend yourself. We defend ourselves from enemies, so we are treating the other person as an enemy, not a friend. (Friends help each other. Punch yourself in the face, too!)
5. Do not attack. We attack enemies, not friends. If I attack you back, I am treating you like an enemy, so the bully will in turn treat you as an enemy… (OK…wait, WHAT? The bully attacks me because he’s my friend, then you attack me (WHO ARE YOU???) , and because of that the bully treats me as an enemy? And if he attacked me while he was being my friend, shouldn’t he be nice to me when he’s my enemy? What the hell is going on here???)
6. If someone physically hurts you, just show you are hurt; do not get angry. If someone hurts you, you want them to feel sorry and apologize. (Good luck with that.)
7. Do not tell on bullies. The number one reason bullies hate their victims is because the victims tell on them. (Huh. Interesting. Then why do bullies attack their victims before they tell on them? And if they are really attacking me to show they are my friends, don’t I want them to hate me, so they’ll leave me alone?)
8. Don’t be a sore loser. No one likes a sore loser. Would you like to play with someone who gets all upset when they lose? (Sorry, I can’t type when I’m laughing….this is too ridiculous. Actually, given a choice, I’d rather not play the “Let’s punch Jack in the groin” game at all, thanks.)
9. Learn to laugh at yourself and not get “hooked” by put-downs. Make a joke out of it or agree with the put-down. (Or, you can save time and just indenture yourself to the bully as a slave.)
I’m trying to choose the worst rule, and I’m stumped. With the exception of #9, which can be effective if a child is a nascent stand-up comic (and indeed, many comedians and comics are created by developing such defense mechanisms as children…many of them are also emotional basket cases for the rest of their lives.), they are all equally terrible. The rules defy too many principles of ethics, common sense and logic to take in. The duty to report misconduct? No, this is wrong. Self-defense? Wrong. Self-respect? Courage? Self-reliance? Wrong. Insisting on responsibility, fairness, respect, and accountability? That’s no way to go through life, kid!
The kind of adult that such advice is likely to create will be submissive, vulnerable, a perpetual victim, a bad citizen, parent, employee and friend. Also perpetually bruised, filled with rage, and perhaps a hermit. Or dead.
This wishy-washy, magical thinking, Care Bears life advice appears to have come from a certifiably batty website called Bullies2Buddies, the creation of a sincere, credentialed, certified, educated, dangerous psychologist named Israel Kalman, who you see above. He is welcome to his theories, of course, but he is not welcome to the harm they do when passed along to children who have to deal with real life conflicts, not abstractions. Kalman appears to exist in some parallel universe where good triumphs over evil with no assertive resistance or action whatsoever. He is certain that the solution to every problem is to turn the other cheek, smile, and play along, because most people are good, and everything will work out. His philosophy, in fact, sounds like it was devised by Anne Frank….before she was killed, of course. He is also John Lennon, Neville Chamberlain, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, the Berrigans, Barack Obama, Barney the Dinosaur and my grandmother, all wrapped up in a neat package of homilies and nostrums—“All you need is love, love…Love is all you need!” that has won him a frightening number of consulting contracts.
Bullies2Buddies may be the most unethical website I have ever seen, worse than Chimpmania, worse than the wide range of misleading, cynical, culture-rotting or manipulative websites that Ethics Alarms has critiqued,worse than any of the horrible pages I exposed on the old Ethics Scoreboard. Almost all of those, in various ways, signaled their true nature; they didn’t engender trust by expounding in sincere and authoritative tones about the power of love and friendship. There are few things more unethical, ignorant, irresponsible or dangerous than advocating the universal application of the Golden Rule.
Pointer: Alexander Cheezem