Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Never Been Normal

“I never really fit in anywhere ... My faith's in people, I guess. Individuals. And I'm happy to say that, for the most part, they haven't let me down.” – Steve Rogers in Captain America: Civil War
I’ve never been normal. Because of that, it’s always been obvious that people aren’t like me. I don’t expect them to be. I don’t want them to be. Even if I did, the truth is that they’re different, from me, and from each other. Since this is always true, it’s baffling that so many people are so bothered that other people are different from them.

But they are. Most people are socialized to fit into a group, and when someone is different from the group, it can upset the sense of order and rightness, their idea of how things are. It makes a lot of people really uncomfortable. Some of them refuse to believe that people different from them really exist. Or they put people who are different from them into a different class of humanity. Discomfort can shade into hate and fear.

The fragility of this sense of order never stops amazing me. Once, two co-workers at a temp job were talking about their curtains, and asked me what kind of curtains I had in my apartment. When I said I didn’t have any, one of them devolved into a sputtering rage. She was furious that I didn’t have curtains, and didn’t seem to want any, as if this was somehow a personal insult to her, and to everything good in the universe.

The truth is: people are different. They have different races, ages, religions. Their personalities and temperaments and interests vary wildly, they’re shaped by unique life experiences. In all kinds of ways, large and small, they are not like us. That’s something we have to accept. We have to get over the idea that the world should mirror us, in whatever way we happen to be focusing on at the moment (same race, same religion, same clothes, same view of human sexuality). Not “have to” because so-called social justice warriors will punish the politically incorrect for a wrong belief, but because if the human race is going to survive in the long run, then it needs to stop tearing itself apart, self-destructing over irrational instincts.

Unless we want to go back to living in isolated medieval villages, without travel, or access to the Internet, TV, movies, radio, newspapers and magazines and books, we will encounter the fact that people are different from us. Even if we could isolate ourselves, we can’t go back in time and make our ancestors deal more fairly with the indigenous population, prevent the importation of African slaves, or change two centuries of past choices about immigration. People who are obviously different are already here, and they are American citizens.

Even if every person with, say, a different racial background moved to a colony on the moon, where they wouldn’t have to deal with racism, then you’d be left with other people who are different in other ways. Some of them will have different forms of sexuality and gender expression. If you separated them out, to another moon colony, then you’d have people who believe in a vast array of different religions. And so on. I spent my formative years in a homogenous community, so I know: you could end up with two blond Lutheran Norwegians with literally everything in common, demographically, and they could be so different that they hate and fear each other.

None of us get to live in a world that’s just a giant mirror, reflecting ourselves back at us. And why would we want to? If it’s important that other people are like YOU, then that means it’s important for you to be like THEM. If your self-worth is tied up in a random factor you share with others, to the point that it’s threatened by the presence of anyone without that factor, then it’s obvious that you don’t see your own value, your own individuality. And that’s a tragedy.

You are a real person. You have intrinsic value as a human being. The color of your skin, the language you speak, the social class you were born into, are all things that will shape your experiences, and are a part of who you are. But that isn’t YOU. All your value isn’t based on a single factor that you have in common with millions of other people. That may give you a temporary sense of belonging, but what you’re gaining will never be worth what you’ve lost. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How to Do Unto Others

"Do unto others as you would have other do unto you" is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, and variations are found all over the world, from different time periods and belief systems. No one has to believe in any specific religion to realize the value of this idea as a model for how people treat one another, but, since we live in a country where the majority of people profess to be Christians, it certainly behooves Christians to take this seriously. These are the words of their God, in a book many of them believe to be inerrant and to be followed literally: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).

Disclaimer: Nothing I'm about to say is meant to shame anybody or make anybody feel bad. The whole point of the Golden Rule, as it's known, is that its message is in conflict with what our instinct tells us. As human beings, we are driven to survive, to care about ourselves, our families, and the communities with which we have things in common, and to put those things first. When our self-interests clash, the Golden Rule is a way to separate ourselves from our understandable selfishness, see the bigger picture, and find a more cooperative way. We all need help with this. I certainly do!

While I've historically preferred not to talk about this stuff, because it makes me feel smug and self-righteous, I think I need to get over that and start sharing my helpful hints.

First off, practicing the Golden Rule isn't going to be easy or comfortable at first, but it's not supposed to be. Secondly, in using the Golden Rule, we can never invoke anything like Majority Rule, because that's completely irrelevant. Doing unto others has nothing to do with the numbers involved, and when it's a majority (of anything) vs. a minority (of anything), that's a time it's especially important to keep in mind. And third, some situations do involve more imaginative re-framing of situations, but a lot of them are surprisingly simple, easily resolving themselves. So here goes.

Early in my life, I realized that by practicing simple logical switches, I was able to see  when the Golden Rule is in play, and take a point of view accordingly. Any time an issue, an opinion, or a strong emotional reaction involves any kind of group identity (which can be anything: men as a group, women as a group, race, religion, nationality, sexual preference, sci-fi nerds, folk music fans), it's time to bring in the Golden Rule flip. I take out the identifier for the group in question and replace it with something different. If the key part of the equation is something I personally relate to, I replace that with something I don't. If the key part is something I don't personally relate to, I replace it with something I do. The object is to take a summarizing statement and replace the "other" with a "me," or the "me" with an "other."

Let's start with a super-easy example. Should gay couples be allowed to get married? You can make all the arguments in the world you want, but when you look at it through the Golden Rule, all it takes is a flip: should straight couples be allowed to get married? Well, most people immediately think "yes" to the second. So it's yes to the first! And we're done.You may not like the answer, but it's what doing unto others as we would have others do unto us tells us.

Something else that's topical and controversial: Should Muslims be banned as a group from entering the country, because some of them commit crimes? When a question like this arises, I run it through the Golden Rule flip. I'm not a Muslim; I was raised a Christian and am in a predominantly Christian environment, so I just replace one word. Should Christians be banned as a group from entering the country, because some of them commit crimes? That sounds really different, doesn't it? In this case, Muslims are the others we need to do unto as we would have done unto us, as Christians. If we don't want Christians treated that way, we can't treat Muslims that way. Easy-peasy.

You may have noticed that this also exposes when people are not objectively looking at rights (like "freedom of religion" in general), but are actually expecting special treatment, for a certain group. It's equally a tool to "check your privilege," as they say. These are lucky side effects, and doing those things (looking more objectively at rights for different kinds of people) all tie back to the source, of doing unto others.

I also assume that some people are fuming about my wildly liberal examples, but I'm not doing these flips because I'm a liberal. It's the other way around. I became a liberal largely because I started flipping things this way. Once you start looking through the lens of the Golden Rule, it's a lot easier to see when you're in the wrong, when you really are expecting special treatment over other people, and when you are bigoted in some way toward different groups. That experience may suck, especially in the beginning, but don't blame me, blame Jesus.