Given that respect for human dignity is arguably the central value of Ethical Culture, how do we express that dignity in concrete ways towards people whom we do not like or are socially destructive?
I suspect I’m like many of you in that most of the people in my life think pretty much as I do. We tend to associate with people who think the way we do about politics, religion, and social values. We don’t get a lot of experience interacting with people who are different from us. I’d probably live in a liberal bubble if it were not for Facebook and what we might call “legacy” friends—people whom I know from the old home town, particularly fellow graduates of my midwestern high school. I value our few years of long-ago common experience, if not their current politics and social views.
My hometown was not a liberal place back then, and my classmates haven’t become more liberal over the years. Sometimes, on an email list we used to maintain, or on Facebook, someone makes an assertion that I have to answer. Being by temperament and training a person for whom facts matter a great deal, I will “reply” with a factual correction or offer a broader perspective. Often, one of the few other liberal friends in the group will respond privately, “Nice, but how can you be so calm and even-tempered in answering this bigoted nonsense?”
It’s a good question, because, I can be nasty. I am perfectly capable of a snarky riposte, a meanly clever turn of phrase, or a jab of belittling humor. The good news, both for my reputation and for any possibility that I can do some good in the world, is that I rarely express this nastiness.
What keeps me for being the Bad Mike that resides within me? The answer is Ethical Culture, and specifically what Felix Adler called his Supreme Ethical Rule: “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in yourself.”
I follow this rule because I’ve found it works. Of course, it comes recommended by the founder of Ethical Culture, who spends two chapters on it in An Ethical Philosophy of Life, but “Alder sez” does not carry the weight with me that experience does. Adler called it his Supreme Ethical Rule because he thought it worked, and it does.
It works in the development of ethical personalities but I’m arguing for it here simply on the practical grounds that it is crucially important in these divided times that we persuasively express our views across a wide and hazardous ideological divide.
The rule works because it simply and directly tells me what to do. It nudges me into being the kind of person I want to be when other means fail. Sometimes the thought that I should attribute Worth to everyone and act on that attribute doesn’t motivate me. Sometimes, I find my well of empathy is dry. In those times, I just have to remember that my behavior counts. I might not know the most effective way to act, but I know that acting in certain ways surely will bring out the worst in each of us. I can’t call someone a jerk without being a jerk myself.
Furthermore, I not only won’t convince anyone by calling them jerks or worse, I will have made them the Other. I won’t be able to see them for whom they are, which certainly is more than my epithet-of-the-moment. If I can’t see them in all their humanity, I will not be able to touch their humanity, or fully realize my own.
None of what I’ve just said means that we shouldn’t be savvy political players, denouncers of bad ideas an behvior, hard workers, organizers, demonstrators, door canvassers, and people who give time and money to causes and organizations that are advocating for our values. Part of that effort is to reach people who are not now with us but who could be.
Adler’s Supreme Ethical Rule keeps us stay on the right track for this, but it needs to be supplemented by tools that help us be effective. There are books that teach us how to argue effectively and appropriately by stating our ideas clearly, and by attacking arguments but not people. Many in the Ethical Movement have found Nonviolent Communication a helpful approach to reach across divides.
The author Barbara Kingsolver once remarked, in discussing her environmental novel Flight Behavior, that “people take their truths from people they trust.” We need to be some people’s trustworthy other. They will not join us if our language or behavior shows them that we despise and depreciate them. Whether or not they come to look at the world as we do, we will know that in acting to bring out the best in them, that we will have brought out the best in ourselves.