The Julie Principle

The combination of Memorial Day reflections on my late father’s character and a letter to relentlessly ethical advice columnist Carolyn Hax leads me to expound on what we will henceforth call the “Julie Principle.”

Hax’s non-religious correspondent wanted to know what she should do about a good but annoyingly Evangelical friend, who would not cease inviting her to attend church, despite knowing that such an activity held no appeal whatsoever. Hax’s answer, which you can read here, touched on many approaches to the problem. To my dad, the answer was simple.

My father had essentially four close friends his whole life: men he met and learned to love as a fatherless child in Depression Era Louisville, Kentucky, forced to move and change schools every few months because his mother would run out of jobs and rent money. They all belonged to the same Boy Scout troop, and though life took all four into different locales and careers, they stayed in close contact throughout their lives. One of them, “Bud,” lived the closest to the Marshalls, so we saw more of him than the others. He was a sociopath. My mother couldn’t stand him, and with good reason. He was a shameless rogue. Lies and manipulation were his calling cards: after he died, it was hardly a surprise—though it was a surprise—when a second wife from Australia showed up, unannounced, at his funeral. Bud  had maintained a second family while supposedly being happily married to the long-suffering wife that we knew.

Long before Bud’s demise, I asked my father, whom I never knew to lie about anything, why he remained friends with a man who was despicable in so many ways. He smiled and launched into a tone-deaf rendition of the opening line of the famous lament (“Can’t help lovin’ dat man o’ mine”) sung by the character Julie in the epic musical “Show Boat”: “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…”  Knowing the song, I first assumed that he was telling me that the answer to my question was the same as Julie’s explanation in the song for why she continued to be loyal to her abusive, untrustworthy lover: she couldn’t help it; that was just the way she was. But that wasn’t his meaning.

He meant that Bud wasn’t going to change. Bud was always like this, and his sociopathic tendencies were as natural to him as flying was to birds and swimming was to fish. “It makes no sense,” he told me, “to keep getting angry at people for who and what they are. You make a decision, that’s all. Do I care enough about this individual, for whatever reason, to be his friend, or don’t I? If I do, I accept the package, wings, gills and all. I knew Bud was like he was when we were kids. He was there for me, along with the others, when I had nothing else, and he has always been loyal to me. I decided he was my friend just as he was, and that I would accept the aspects of his character the I didn’t like. The alternative was having nothing to do with him.”

That’s the Julie Principle. When a characteristic or a behavior pattern appears to be hard-wired into someone, it makes no sense to keep complaining about it. You either resolve to tolerate it ( and accept responsibility for the consequences of doing so), or decide that it is too much to endure, meaning that the relationship has to end. In Hax’s scenario, both friends were fighting the Julie Principle: one wanted a non-religious friend to do a U-turn and find God; the other wanted an Evangelical friend to stop acting like an Evangelical. If the friendship is to endure, both friends have to accept what they cannot change. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…”

The Julie Principle comes in handy in resolving many ethical dilemmas. In making an ethical analysis requiring balancing, the illusion, when it is an illusion, that a major part of the equation can be removed by just a little more advocacy, education or pressure permanently warps the process. We have been debating same-sex marriage here in several threads, and the illusion that gays can change their orientation, that it is a choice rather than part of their essence, is a massive impediment to reaching a rational accord. The Julie Principle applies. Do we want gay Americans to be part, and feel like a part, of the American fabric, or do we want to make what is essential to their being a deal-breaker? We’re the ones with the choice, not them.

I think the Julie Principle makes the choice obvious. It makes the choice obvious in the immigration debate as well. All those illegals are here. They have ties to family, the economy and the community: they aren’t leaving. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…” Does it make sense to keep punishing million of people for what they can’t change, or do we accept them for the good they can do from this point on? Sure, it would be preferable if we hadn’t allowed so many to walk across our boarders, just as it would have been preferable if Bud didn’t lie his way into Harvard College (which he did.) But it’s too late to do anything about that.  Bud gave a lot of money to Harvard.

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…”

The challenge in executing the Julie Principle is how you accept your bird or fish without letting that act corrupt your own values, or stop you from continuing to advocate and fight for them. That’s when reciprocity comes in, or should. Bud knew that my father was an Eagle Scout to the core; he knew that Dad disapproved of a lot of Bud’s conduct, but admired and cherished the fact that he remained his friend. To a limited extent, it may have even made Bud a better person. My father had that effect on people, even hard cases like Bud.

The Julie Principle lies at the center of tolerance in its most productive sense. It also will keep you from going crazy. It is no accident that the Alcohol Anonymous Serenity Prayer begins,

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Addendum: It was not the impetus for the post, but the Julie Principle has another benefit: it relieves one of the perceived obligation of listening to those who say “Everyone deserves a second chance,” a refrain now being heard in New York in reference to Anthony Weiner. If you gave Bud a second chance to screw you, he’d screw you. The same is true of Marion Barry, Bill Clinton, and Iran. Once you have determined that the Julie Principle applies, it is futile, not to mention idiotic, to say, “Hey! Let’s see if the fish will fly this time!”

22 thoughts on “The Julie Principle

    • I never asked my father if he would hesitate to report Bud if he knew about one of his nefariousness schemes. I am confident that his answer would have been “Of course.”

        • What would you have done? Dad was friends with the emotionally abused wife. She was practicing the Julie Principle too, just like Julie. It was a choice. She was hardly deluded about what her husband was like. She had three strong sons with him…he wasn’t around most of the time. He took care of her. If my Dad had exited their lives in protest, what is it that he would have accomplished? Bud wouldn’t have changed, and they both would have lost 25% of their close friends. Surely you have friends who have serious and unfixable character flaws. My job is to try to keep those flaws from infecting as many as possible, not to hector friends who are not going to chance.

          • I became very good friends with my alcoholic, super bright, super charming teaching golf pro. I had to quit going out drinking with him because the only two times I ever missed work because I was too hung over were both after going out with him. He was terrible to his girlfriends, sometimes in front of my wife and me. He would never change. He had serious problems. Ultimately, I concluded I just couldn’t hang out with him any more because doing so seemed to be giving him my approval, which he seemed to be seeking.

            With this, as with so many things, I just think it’s a little, or a lot, more nuanced than you think it is, Jack.

            I remember telling another lawyer one of the reasons I’d quit practicing law was I was a worrier and I spent too much time worrying that I’d screwed up a deal and it would come back, out of the blue, to bite me. He was stunned and said, in all seriousness,”I’ve never even considered the possibility I’ve ever been wrong!”

            • And what about pedophiles? Are we supposed to say, “The pedophiles will always be with us?” (Evidently the Catholic Church’s Heirarchy’s application of the Julie Rule.) You’re saying human’s are incapable of improvement? Unlike “progressives” on MSNBC, I’m not saying the human race and society are perfectable [as soon as we get rid of conservatives], but is such a hands-off approach as the Julie Rule really helpful? When does it apply and when is it just a little pill to get you through the day?

              • And didn’t all the Clintonistas apply the Julie Rule? “Oh, Bill’s just a sociopath, and a menace to women, but he’s bright, he went to Yale, you know. He’s a liberal Democrat, and he’s my meal ticket. So, hey, who am I to call him on any of his peccadillos? That’s just Bill being Bill.” You’ll say this doesn’t apply because the Julie Rule has nothing to do with condoning illegal conduct. Maybe so. I just think it’s a way of thinking that can quickly lead to people saying, “Oh, the rules don’t apply to priest pedophiles or the Bill Clintons of the world.”

                • Well, they applied it wrong, if they applied it. Remember, the alternative way of practicing the Julie Principle is to decide that this person is untrustworthy and despicable, and I’m not having anything to do with him. The point is that you’re not going to change him. The point is, don’t waste time arguing about and bitching about what is a constant. Make a choice.

                  The context of the post was friendship. With Presidents, there is no legitimate choice to tolerate dishonesty and trustworthiness, no upside of doing so, and no justification for doing so. Obama is NOT going to become a competent leader. If he was my friend, I wouldn’t let that get in the way, but he’s not my friend.

                  • Good. But I bet a lot of enablers of the powerful gleefully mis-apply “The Julie Principle” whenever they’re called on their enabling.

                    • But misapplying it is also not applying it. The issue is deciding what you can tolerate, and balancing good with bad, just as utilitarian ethics do with results. It’s not easy (did I say it was easy) and it’s not without risks. My father would have no more hired his friend than he would have hired Joe McCarthy.

        • Since the Julie Principle involves dealing with those who are who they are and are not likely to change, it’s doubtful that Mr. Marshall saying something to his friend, Bud, about the damage he was causing to his family would have changed a thing…beyond possibly harming the friendship.

  1. I don’t think that Marshall is saying that you should be friends with everybody including pedophiles, sociopaths and the like. That is a decision that you have to make for yourself. The point of this article is that some people will not change. That is what you have to accept. You can tell a homosexual to not be gay just as you can tell a bird to not be a bird. However your efforts will be fruitless. I have friends who are not religious and I may invite them to church events at times but when they say no, I don’t discard them as friends. I have flaws as do all of my friends. If their flaws begin to have a negative effect on me, then I evaluate that friendship. Simple as that.

      • Okay. But Jack did in fact say his father was friends with a sociopath and he considers that decision admirable. I’m just not so sure. I think there’s room for all sorts of results in deciding what to do in these instances. And please, let’s leave homosexuality out of this discussion. I think a person who disassociates himself from an alcoholic is just as correct as a person who tries to continue getting the alcoholic to change his ways. And alcoholics and sociopaths are very accomplished at using their “friends.” So, I’d just say, use this rule with extreme caution.

        • I didn’t say that decision was admirable or not admirable. It was a good decision for my father. He trusted Bud, who never double-crossed him or any of his other two buddies. I have hypothesized that Bud regarded them as an extension of himself, as indeed my father did. He didn’t feel guilty cheating his family, but cheating his friends would have been a self-inflicted wound.

          I think homosexuality is core to the discussion. If you don’t want to associate with gays, that’s one’s choice, but they need to be viewed and accepted as the birds that they are. They don’t have the option of swimming; they shouldn’t be condemned or marginalized for that fact.

          Alcoholics are a good comp as well. It is senseless to be angry at alcoholics, because it is a terrible disease, and many sufferers simply have no control over it. Living with one may well be chaotic forever—you either accept that and try to help, or say, “Sorry, I can’t do it.” But telling alcoholics that they drink too much and need to stop is pointless. They know that. The problem is stopping. They don’t want their lives to be messes, you know.

          By the way—Bud’s whole family was alcoholic, so in fear that he was disposed to the disease, he never took a single drink his entire life. But when his youngest son was diagnosed with the disease, he wrote him off and had no sympathy whatsoever, concluding that if he, the father, could have avoided the problem, his son could have too. The son died of cirrhosis at the age of 22, I believe.) Personally, I would never have a true sociopath like Bud as a friend, associate or colleague. Never.

          • I wanted to leave homosexuality out of this discussion because asking anyone to change their sexual orientation or identity is preposterous. It’s holding down one end of the bell curve. Mental and physical illnesses are more important because they’re more difficult.

            I agree wholeheartedly that alcoholism is a nasty, nasty disease. Interesting that Bud had the gene. It seems to me to often come with a clump of other genetic tendencies: hyperactivity, extremely high intelligence, high athletic ability, manic depressive, lots of charm, etc. which all pile on top of their victims and make their lives and the lives of those around them difficult, to say the least. In my case with my golf pro friend there was just nothing good coming of our relationship anymore. I went to an AA meeting with him at my request and he said, as we went in, “Bill, these people are really f***** up!” Implying that he wasn’t. He’d prevailed upon his most recent girlfriend to make a habit of sneaking out of her house while her child was asleep and bring him a six pack. I wasn’t insistent he change, I was being supportive in his efforts to change. Until he suspended them and I just walked away. As did a prior girlfriend, with whom my wife and I became friends.

            “Personally, I would never have a true sociopath like Bud as a friend, associate or colleague. Never.” Glad to hear it.

        • I use homosexuality merely as an example, since it is a controversial issue that many feel strongly about. I mean no disrespect. And there is nothing wrong with dissociating yourself with an alcoholic, trying to get their help, or just being their friend. You must make your own decision based on your beliefs, values, experiences and morals.

          I grew up in a small town with very black & white beliefs. Ultra Conservative and Christian. When I left for college, I knew that I would only associate myself with other christians and people who shared my beliefs. I started meeting with a group of fellow believers that would get together and do sporting events together, Basketball, Ultimate Frisbee, etc. I discovered that there were many people who participated that openly denied the existence of God, if asked. When I asked some of the others why we weren’t trying to “convert” them, they pointed out that these other people knew we were christians. They knew how to find out about God. They just didn’t want to. If they wanted to, they could ask or find out in a way that suited them. And us telling them about Christ wouldn’t change them, it would simply annoy them and they’d go off and possibly spend that time doing something less savory. So in the end, we were doing good by simply providing an atmosphere where others could spend their time in an ethical manner.

          I have many friends and acquaintances that have problems that I do not approve of. Cheating on spouses, Alcoholism, drugs. They know that I do not approve and they don’t participate in those activities when I’m around. They know that I could care less if they want to get drunk and belligerent, or whatever their vice is. But I will leave the situation if I don’t like it. I don’t approve of the behavior, but I still approve of them.

          • A huge percentage of the people I hang out with are homosexuals. I associate mostly with my lesbian piano teacher friend (Ph.D level, conservatory trained), her lesbian partner (a psychologist), her best student (an oncologist) and his gay partner (an elementary school principal getting his Ph.D in Ed.) and many of their acquaintances, many of whom are gay, many of whom are straight. Do I try to convert them to heterosexuality? Hah. Do you think I’m nuts? Did I take up my piano teacher’s invitation to go see a cross dresser do a Broadway revue? No. And I told her “I’ve just never gotten (i.e. understood) cross-dressing, Lynne. Sorry.”

            And I’m an atheist ex R. Catholic. So, religion’s just not a deal for me one way or the other. I stay away from church groups and they stay away from me.

            But I still believe there’s some sort of societal value in shaming? pointing out? shunning? simply not being around or inadvertently condoning? bad behavior. And that value may inherently outweigh the value of friendship.


  2. OK Bill, you can and will stick to your beliefs. I’m glad that we have all had the opportunity to experience the point of this topic, while discussing it. And we’re done

  3. Two examples of the Julie principle – two very Fundamentalist preachers, one with his own radio station, the other a successful Internet ministry.

    Heck, I’ll mention their names – Dr Michael Brown (catch the Fire ministries) , and the Rev. Victor Robert Farrell. (66 books ministry).

    Both are friends with the same forthrightly atheist, not to say GLBTI woman. While they do offer opportunities for her to find God and repent, they’re not rude or obnoxious about it. They also tolerate her theological opposition with good nature and exasperation.

    Actually I suppose that’s three examples. For while I think they both do great harm, Dr B especially, they’re good people and worthy of my friendship. I tolerate their little quirks too – also with good nature and exasperation. Maybe that’s the bond we share – all trying to do the right thing, all amazed at the other’s obtuseness.

  4. Abounding failures of modern society, education, and morals!

    I find myself having to absolutely force myself to apply the Julie Principle more and more in to day’s politically charged world especially when close friends and family members are spouting one rationalization after another, ends justifies the means arguments, and issuing solid #9 and #10 apologies. Am I adapting to society and becoming PC soft?

    What has happened to people in our society that so many people really can’t understand just how illogical and irrational their arguments are and how terribly insincere their apologies come across? Is this a parenting issue; did the greatest generation and the baby boom generation fail our children and those parenting failures are being passed down to their children? There are so many stupid and/or blindly ignorant people shouting nonsense at the top of their lungs; my children and grandchildren are not like this.

    I’m loosing any faith that any of this can be turned around in my lifetime. I think the irrational mentality we are seeing is a cancer, it’s ignorantly being enabled, and it’s going to get much worse.

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