The “Golden Rule” is not so Golden; it’s Time for New Guidelines

Rockwell's Gold Rule, The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1961
Rockwell’s Gold Rule, The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1961

More and more, I find myself cringing when I hear friends and colleagues promote the virtues of the Golden Rule or the rule of thumb. A popular ethical ideal, this rule tells that a guide to being ethical is that we should treat people the way we want to be treated; “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “do nothing to others you don’t want to be done to yourself.” The notion is this, limit the harm you may cause to others. Indeed, Google’s old motto, for they have now done away with it, “don’t be evil,” is a reflection of the Golden Rule.

But why talk about the Golden Rule? Isn’t is it old fashion and out of date in practice? This is what philosopher Bill Puka suggests, in his article on “The Golden Rule” for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy; “we must acknowledge that the gold rule is no longer taken seriously in practice or even aspiration, but merely paid lip service.” I must disagree, most folks I know use the Golden Rule as their main barometer for action. It may not be seriously promoted in the upper echelon of education, but most of my students, colleagues, and friends, when asked how they make decisions about how to act, explain how they live their life by the Golden rule. For most of society, it seems a simple, no-nonsense way of being and guide for action.

As a simple philosophy of behavior, the Golden Rule has been around for a very long time, has been celebrated by almost all cultures historically (Western and Eastern philosophy), and it has two primary functions, one problematic and the other helpful. Let’s start with the useful aspect of The Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule asks us to get out of our skin and to consider how someone else may wish to be treated or not treated. As humans, we have a hard time stepping out of our skin. Our emotions, genes, neurological make-up, cultural sensibility, all of these things tend to re-enforce a focus on “self” rather than an understanding of others. And, if you happen to live in communities influenced by individualism, such as the US, Australia or England, it is even harder to step out of your skin to view others. “Me” cultures focus so much on self; the assumption often made is: I feel this way, so others must feel this way too! This assumption is wrong. It assumes (ASS out of U and ME) a Universal value system, which tends to fall flat in most practical situations. However, as a rule, this so-called Rule of Thumb does beg us to think of others, which is the first step toward empathic communication.

However, it is not enough. To assume that people want to be treated the same way I want to be treated, this is what we call an attribution error; we incorrectly attribute the reason for action, motivation, and needs.

Let me give you an example, first, a situation from my point of view. I am driving down the road, and some butthead almost runs me off and into a ditch:

“Oh, Shit,” I say as I struggle to not get in an accident and stay on the road. “What was he thinking? Can’t he see there are other people on the road? We all had to get a license to drive, did he forget the same rules I was given?? Damn, Dude! If I were that driver, even if I were in a hurry, I would take a chill pill and get myself together!”

Now, let’s look at the same situation from the other driver’s point of view. He is speeding down the highway, the same road I was on. He has a child lying in the back of his car, something I cannot see. His thoughts might be:

“I have got to get to the hospital now! Hold on baby, we are almost there; Daddy loves you! Oh god, that woman is in my way. Move! Move!!! Oh god, I can’t get around her! There’s an opening!” He sees the woman yelling in her car and at him. “I am sorry, lady, but I have to get to the hospital now!”

"Alnomuc, or, The golden rule, with twenty-four engravings" Year: 1837 (1830s) Authors: Amory, John H
“Alnomuc, or, The golden rule, with twenty-four engravings” Year: 1837 (1830s) Authors: Amory, John H

It is impossible for me to know what is going on with the other driver, just as it is impossible for the other driver to know what is going on with me. I have limited information about the situation. Indeed, all either of us has to go on are our assumptions, biases, and personal experiences, all of which are failing in this case.

The Golden Rule fails in practice because we really can never tell instinctively or otherwise how someone wants to be treated, or why they do what they do; what their motivation for action happens to be.

Attribution errors are the cause of most negative conflicts in life, miscommunication, and other missteps in life. Because the Gold Rule inherently relies on the attribution error (people act and want to be treated the same way I like to be treated), it is not golden. This is especially true in a global community, made up of many cultures holding varying values. So, what do we do? And how does any of this apply to my life, my community, or my professional and private life?

We inform, question, investigate, and then act. One reason the Golden Rule seems so awesome is that it asks little of us! We have a rule, and all we have to do is to look at ourselves and then decide how to act. How convenient is that?! However, as comfortable as it is, it is not helpful. Rather than creating an attribution error because of built-in assumptions of the work, it is time to proactive rather than simplistically reactive. Let me give you another example from a personal situation.

The other day, I had my tooth extracted. It was not a good dentist appointment. I was shot up with Novocain, and then it turned out that my insurance said I did not exist. So, the procedure was stopped, while the office worked things out. It took over an hour. We got back to it, but I had to be shot-up again. Then the extraction went south. My tooth did not want to leave me, you know, separation anxiety. The experience was more than painful, and I was left exhausted, in a great deal of pain, and emotionally spent. My partner walked me home, and then we went back to work. In pain, I wondered why he was not helping me! “My own husband! He doesn’t care; why is he not soothing me?”

Bernard d'Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musée de Niort. Holds scales in one hand and in the other hand a book with "Dieu, la Loi, et le Roi" on one page and the Golden rule on the other page.
Bernard d’Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musée de Niort. Holds scales in one hand and in the other hand a book with “Dieu, la Loi, et le Roi” on one page and the Golden rule on the other page.

From my husband’s point of view, I was in pain, but I was okay. I got up, made myself small things to eat and drink, replied to students, and did other small tasks. Clearly, I was fine. But by the time night came, I was worse and frustrated with him. He, in turn, was not sure what to do for me or if I needed him to do anything for me. “Why,” I wondered, “did he not know the ‘playbook’ for taking care of his wife when she was in pain and emotionally spent?”

Why? Because I never gave him a “playbook” or any instructions on how he could help me. I made a fundamental attribution error in my assumption that he would just know what to do. The next morning, I sent him an email with a playbook: “this is what your wife needs when she is down and out. Please send me your playbook so I can take care of you when you need it.”

What a crazy thought?! Tell the people around you what you need. Likewise, ASK the people around you what they need and why they do what they do. Probing questions immediately take power away from assumptions and other attribution errors:

“I don’t understand why you are doing it this way, can you explain?” “Are you ok? What can I do for you?” “When you send emails to more than one person, please address names on the emails so I can better know when and if you are talking to me, or the other person on the email.” “Emily, I could use your help. I am sorry, I was getting angry at the fact that you were not helping with this office project, but then I realized you did not know I needed help! So, I am asking.”

In the end, using probing questions and other forms of empathic communication can save us the grief that often comes along with a problematic application of the Golden Rule as well as attribution errors. If we start to understand how people need, think, feel and act for different reasons that we do, we can begin to create better-living, working, and communing situations for us all.


Nurturing Empathy in the US: Thank you, Karl Becker

Karl Becker. Picture credit: ABC News
Karl Becker. Picture credit: ABC News

Karl Becker, the last questioner at last night’s debate, reminded us (I hope) that what we are missing in today’s world, not only in our politics is empathy. If you did not see the debate, he is the one who asked Clinton and Trump to state just one thing they liked about each other.

There was no empathy on that debate stage, maybe the occasional stab at sympathy, but no empathy.

Trump and Clinton, Second presidential debate. ABC News is the author of the image.
Trump and Clinton, Second presidential debate. ABC News is the author of the image.
The world we are living in is missing an empathetic understanding of each other and our environment – nature-, and unless we start to seriously recapture our ability to empathize, we will be lost. That is what I absolutely have come to understand.
This hit home when I was in Ireland, where I experienced more empathy and kindness for each other and our environment. There was almost no homeless, no graffiti or trash is thrown about. People were courteous and helpful to each other, including strangers. If you smiled at someone on the street, they smiled back and the drivers … OMG … amazingly courteous. We were biking on some roads that allowed for 100 km (62 miles per hour) and these folks gave us room to ride, even when there was no shoulder. We were not honked at, cussed at, yelled at or made to feel like we did not belong. Sharing the road was a given. I experienced, time and again, courtesy and Empathy.
In Ireland, statue in Tralee
In Ireland, statue in Tralee

When I came back from Ireland, I felt lost and ashamed. How could we treat each other like this? Treat our living environment like a trash heap? Like others, I have become a bit callous because it is so hard to live opened up emotionally when I see and experience our world where “me, me, me, mine, and I” is all we promote. A daily experience where we tell each other what to do (because our way is right and your way is wrong), and we do not respect each others autonomy or cultural differences, and where we have NO respect for our environment. I have such anxiety that I simply want to move out to the country where I do not have to be inflicted with the continuous lack of common kindness, courtesy, the lack of empathy we encourage in our world.

We must change. We must, must, must change and Becker’s final question asks those who would lead us to better embody empathy. We need examples of what this means for our children, and our children’s children. We cannot give them a clean and well-ordered world, but we can give them an understanding of how humans, through empathy and care for each other, can fix our world because this is the first step and the most important step. 

Conquering Self Fears and Mamma Mia

A personal odyssey to combat fear and return to what I love:

Today, I am feeling less than 100%.  I made myself sick because of the stress and pressure I placed on myself the last few weeks. Auditioning for Musicals just scares the crap out of me, and I did two last week. I have not done a musical since I was around twenty and going to Bellevue College. Let me tell you why I went through all of this in the first place.

I wanted to do Mamma Mia at Diamond Head Theatre in Honolulu, in a seriously bad way for a few reasons:
  • First, Abba’s music partly defines me and my childhood; the moment I learned independence when my parents got a divorce, and I had to grow up a lot, striking out on my own to some degree. I remember dancing at Skate Country East and tearing up the floor to their music – skating and Abba – Trust me, there are few things more delightful – I swear!
  • Second, I wanted to do a musical because I love them so, but I had so many bad experiences auditioning for them because of my fear of singing in public (thank God for Karaoke as that helped a lot over the years), and my directional dyslexia kicks my ass at Dance auditions. Seriously, I have been terribly humiliated more than once – There was this Sesame Street on wheels audition in Seattle that scars my consciousness.
So, I wanted to do the show, but there was a serious problem: I was petrified to face a musical audition, and felt unfit to be in a musical, no matter how much I love them.  Hell, because of a series of events, I had given up theatre entirely until four years ago – but that had to change.
Here is the thing, I am going to be 50 in two months, and four years ago I realized how much I had given up by doing what I thought I had to do in life, rather than following my dreams.  Four years ago I decided to go back and follow my dream again, and boy this decision brought me Roller Derby (yes, there is a connection), theatre in WA state, a divorce as I started to embrace myself, voiceover work, and now theatre in Hawaii. But I still wanted to do a musical, but I was scared. I had said: well, if someone does Mamma Mia, I will give it a try. Then Diamond Head Theatre announced it got the rights to do the show.

Mamma Mia Auditions

Mamma Mia at Diamond Head Theatre: July 15 – August 14, 2016

I wanted to be in Mamma Mia so much; I started taking dance classes at Diamond Head Theatre almost a year ago now.  I was hoping I could curb my directional dyslexia by being exposed to dance moves more, or at least make my dance auditions suck less (boy, do I have stories). Even before this, around three years ago now, I started working on my singing with my voice teacher Leischen Moore, in Tacoma, Wa. When we started, I had told her how much I wanted to do Mamma Mia, and so we worked on Mamma Mia music. I was going to do this thing, even if it gave me a nervous breakdown – and it almost did.

I went to the audition and, to my immense surprise, I got a callback for Rosie in Mamma Mia, a role I desperately wanted. However, I botched the callback because of my fear – stupid – and then I botched the ensemble dance callback because of dyslexia, my brain just cannot seem to take in directional information quickly. I do not think there are enough dance classes in the world to combat it.
After several personally, painful auditions, I got the call:
Thank you, but no thank you.
Sick and emotionally spent; I was angry at myself for not doing better even after all the investment in myself and my craft.
Then 10 minutes later I got another call:
So sorry, we can’t use you as Rosie, but would love to offer you a place in the ensemble.
IMG_6103These phone calls threw me off balance; I was stunned but grateful, so grateful, and I cried more after the second, good-news call. Aren’t we humans insanely funny?
For whatever reason I got accepted into the ensemble, after botching my callback audition, I am eternally grateful.  In the middle of the run, I will turn 50, and I will be up there doing it: Dancing and singing to the music I love. I won’t be skating, but I can do that at Ala Moana Park while I learn my parts, listening to my iPod.  I will also have graduated from a graduate certificate program in programming and web design, allowing me, I hope, to start a new career and be self-employed as I pursue theatre in a serious way, hoping to scratch out a living (more on that soon).
And that is my story … that is, so far. My journey toward Mamma Mia has been a three-year emotional odyssey, and I am so grateful to have this opportunity.
I have to thank my community here and in Tacoma for helping me conquer my fears and get back on track, after so many years of misdirection.  But I need to give special thanks to Timothy Jeffryes who kept on me to try and believe in myself, and who went to dance class with me, and hugged me when he saw how frustrated I was getting with myself. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better partner in life. I may be an emotional basket case at times, but I am a well supported one – honestly, how many people can say that?

A Marketing Reminder: Identification and Empathy

I saw this lovely short article on LinkedIn today by Sarah Nadava about Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.  Navigating the world of single motherhood,  Sandberg had some important realizations:

“But, to be fair- people are only generally good at understanding the world that they know and live in. They fight for the problems that they can see. And sometimes, people need to go through a struggle in order to really get it” (Sandberg as cited by Nadava).

As Nadav points out, for Sandberg, she could not empathize with the plight of single mothers and single motherhood and tell she was in the thick of it.

But for me, the takeaway is not necessarily about single motherhood, which is important, but about empathy. Our society is lacking a propensity toward empathy, and the fact that we can only recognize an issue when we are in the middle of it symbolizes a larger problem.

I see this missing empathy gene a great deal not only when I teach ethics (oh why can’t we teach ethics and philosophy in “K – 12” grades ??), but also when I am working with digitalSnip20160514_3 media marketing. The key for many of us in the business is to find a way to get our audiences to empathize with our point of view. We are seeking identification, as Kenneth Burke so brilliantly argued. As digital marketers, social media strategists, and content creators, we are not only looking to persuade people to buy this, or to join this gym but empathize with our point of view, to identify with what we have to offer. This identification requires the nurturing of empathy.

So this question is this: how can we better encourage and reintroduce empathy into the populace?

A few problems facing many workers

I have not updated this blog in a long time, mostly because I write for other blogs and do social media for others, leaving me to be a bit lazy updating my social media. But today I had one of those epiphanies that deserve a short essay post.

Today, while talking to students, I reflected on a not so new trend, but upon reflection I was able to put together strands and convergences I had not considered before:  having to work many jobs or have your fingers in many different pots in order to survive causes the same problems and frighten side effects as Taylorism and Neo-Taylorism, harming the workers, production, and “growth” in industry. Since 2007, hiring part-time or seasonal workers, while eliminating full-time jobs have been on the rise. We are finally seeing a little bit of a decrease in this trend, since February 2016, but it’s still a serious reality.

Mislinski, Jill

I normally reflect on this reality regarding our economy in relation to, or from the standpoint of my own part-time work schedule; God knows I don’t work “part-time,” I work overtime (at least in hours logged in), as I have to work multiple part-time jobs to survive. My story is not a new or a surprising one for many Americans. Right now, I have 3 part-time jobs working for 5 different entities in total, volunteering for one additional entity (helping professional development).  Further, like many of my students, I am attending school to earn credentials, which I hope will allow me to work in a field offering full-time opportunities, or at least allowing me to work full-time for myself.

Because I am not a full-time worker, I don’t receive help on things like health insurance. And because adjunct instructors are not seen as independent contractors, although we are treated that way, I cannot claim much on my taxes for deductions, even though I use all my own resources to do the work.  This leaves me in a quandary regarding work-life balance, finances, and the whole 9 yards.

But this reality, the reality of having one’s hands in so many pots, is not only experienced by the part-time workforce,  having our hands in many pots exists for full-time workers as well. While getting to know my new students, I was informed by several students how their full-time jobs required them to do more than one job description. This reality was hit home rather seriously when one of my students explained how diverse these tasks were: he functioned as a mechanic for small engines, played an administrative role for his company, and also drove trucks. Talk about diverse job descriptions!

When my ex-husband and I left for our RV adventure, it was partly because we were burned out – me from working so many part-time jobs and him from having to do the work of multiple positions that were closed in order to save the company money – thus doing the job of 3 people.

What occurred to me today is that we have taken a turn away from Taylorism and neo-Taylorism; the pendulum has swung in the other direction, but the irony is this: the problems that Taylorism created among workers, are the same problems we are having today, even though the system is entirely different – many of the symptoms remain.

Taylorism is management of working and production that was devised through the study of efficiency in human production (Fordism looking more and machines and mass production). Under Taylorism, workers were divided up into categories that optimize production, and each person in each group would perform a specialized, repetitive task in order to speed up production. This also ensured that each worker became an expert in the task he or she was performing. Being an expert, in theory, eliminated waste of time and thereby expanded profit. However, the problem with this became evident fairly quickly: people became bored. They became so bored that they stopped paying attention to what they were doing, repetition becoming automatic. And this actually harmed production: accidents, not being observant about the quality of work being performed, and finding diversions on the job. Motivation tanked and this, in effect, harmed production bottom lines. Worse, this absolute specialization made it so that if the right-hand failed, the left-handed know what to do about it. This is a big problem with such extreme specialization.

Further, instead of seeing workers as people, workers were seen as cogs in a wheel that could be easily exchanged as they “broke down.” This approach to workers’ worth causes high anxiety and increasing mental health issues among American workers. Thus, this approach toward replacing tired/ burnt out workers and the view of workers as disposable togs is also an expensive proposition, especially when you consider how much money it costs to replace a worker: train that worker, get the new worker acclimated to the company culture, and so on and so forth.

So now to my epiphanies: reflecting on myself and others I know, those of us having to have our hands in so many pots whether we are part-time or full-time workers creates, oddly enough, the same drawbacks as Taylorism and Neo-Taylorism:

Having so much on my plate is overwhelming, so it takes me more time to get things done. The more I think about everything I have to do, the more overwhelming it is, the more stressful it is, and the more I want to retreat.

Stress of having to be excellent in every single task that is required of me makes me feel sick.  This stress just overwhelms me, causes anxiety, and I can’t get things done as well as I need to.

The bottom line is the burnout effect and the feeling that one is simply a cog in the wheel quite literally impacts every aspect of one’s life, personal and professional, as well as one’s health. So we have a different paradigm, generalists rather than absolute specialists, but we have the same problems. So the question is how do we fix this?

The key is to pay attention to workers as people, and to help workers have better work-life balance, and this goes for full and part-time working conditions. Which really is not a surprising conclusion. And in each case a good medium needs to be strapped, and the worker needs to feel they are valued. As a part-time worker, although I appreciate the companies I work for, my loyalty is absolutely split. It has to be, that’s just the way of life, as I cannot commit absolutely to one company since I work for several. As Crowley et. al. (2010) argue: “A withdrawal of loyalty is indeed apparent among contractors who have opted out of a traditional employment relationship.” Although “opted out” implies a firm choice of the worker, and I would argue that the part-time paradigm is not always a choice but a market reality, the results regarding loyalty is the same. Further, when full-time workers are asked to play multiple roles in order to keep their full-time status, they also start to lose loyalty to their company as it becomes apparent that their company is not really worried about their wellbeing.

“The image that emerges from the last quarter of the twentieth century for all employees is one of increased organizational flexibility at the expense of employee well-being” (Crowley et. al., 2010).

I am reminded of that wonderful episode of Roseanne, where she calls it quits:

Some Articles for your consideration:

  • Neo-Taylorism at Work: Occupational Change in the Post-Fordist Era Author(s): Martha Crowley, Daniel Tope, Lindsey Joyce Chamberlain, Randy Hodson Source: Social Problems, Vol. 57, No. 3 (August 2010), pp. 421-447 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems Stable URL: .

Honolulu Weekend Anarchist

Honolulu Weekend Anarchist

Tables set, slippers on
Scarlet A’s on wrists,
Eye catching Occupy
Catching concert goers and sports fans
Protests on the fly
Hanging on street corners, for forty-eight hours

Honolulu, Waikiki, it’s Hawaiian style anarchy

Weekend anarchist warriors
I chant and strum
X them out, those corporate scum
Sung to ukuleles painted red
For effect
Missing one string
I used to tie my suit thong in place
improv, baby, for a short time and space

Honolulu, Waikiki, it’s Hawaiian style anarchy

Aloha time occupy
Style and sun, drinks and sand
Reclaiming public spaces in between surfing, cocktails and
Hang time
Bang time
Sunburned tattooed squatting sign
On my stomach for effect
I pluck my thong tied string
Ping, pong, ping

Honolulu, Waikiki, it’s Hawaiian style anarchy

Monday comes I scurry and run
Office jobs, state run
I drink the Kool Aid, Hawaiian Punch
While my hand reaches under the tailored
Claiborne white top, feeling for the monogram
Tattooed into to my sun dried skin
Punk rock corporate Jolly Rogers
Waiting for the Sabbath
We are weekend anarchist warriors

Honolulu, Waikiki, it’s Hawaiian style anarchy

Yes! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!