The Gold Rule

You all know the Golden Rule, right? “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Treat people the way you would want to be treated. Obviously this breaks down slightly in some cases (see for instance the recent flap in furry fandom about hugs–many people want to be hugged all the time, and so they go about hugging people, but there are many people who do not want to be hugged by random people they don’t know), but it’s still not bad as a rule of thumb.

I’ve generally tried my best to practice a different but related rule, and a couple of pieces I ran across on the Internet recently led me to concretize that. So here goes:

Listen, and try to understand.

There was a post on Tumblr about how to write POC if you are not one. It is long and all of it is worth reading and I read it because now when I see posts about “how to write difficult topics” I want to read them. I might never need to use them (I spent approximately eight million hours reading everyone’s opinion on a recent high-profile fictional rape just because I wanted to understand them, not because there is a rape scene coming up in any one of my books). The POC thing is less relevant when I’m writing about foxes and tigers; more relevant as some of my upcoming books feature more furless characters.

Then today I read “5 Things Cis People Can Do For Trans People,” and hey, what do you know, it follows many of the same lines as the other piece. Both of them serve as a handy rule for how to interact with people in the world generally, because what they boil down to is “listen to them tell their own stories.”

Our world is changing fast–by “our world,” I mean the experiential world for each one of us. Trans people and gay people and bisexual people and asexual people and all kinds of other people who are not straight white males have always been around; we are only just starting to hear them express their stories in their own voices because the Internet allows it. Take advantage of this.

Listen, and try to understand.

It is easy to say hurtful things unintentionally because you don’t know they’re hurtful. But look, we don’t live in a Kids in the Hall sketch. You can listen before you talk, ask questions sincerely, and apologize if something’s taken the wrong way. And this goes the other way, too: be patient with people who are trying to understand, and take the time to help.

At a party a couple years ago, the host and I were talking about him coming to Further Confusion, and another nearby guest said, “Oh, isn’t that the thing where people dress up in costumes to have sex?” It’d be easy to get upset at that, but she honestly didn’t know. So I took a few minutes and explained the fandom a little better, and she took the time to listen.

It is a natural behavior as we grow older to rely on our accumulated knowledge, to impose the structure we already understand to be true on new phenomena. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re wired this way. It takes energy to go find out exactly what some new thing is about, and if your knowledge accurately describes 95% of your known world, it’s a waste of your energy. If, you know, you’re struggling every day to find food and mates and avoid predators. I think we have a little more energy to spare these days, and as I said, our world is changing so much that our established knowledge doesn’t cover 95% of it anymore. There are times I feel like I barely understand my immediate surroundings.

So yeah, we are scrambling to keep up with this changing world, and grasping at any little pieces of information we can. We read a post on Facebook that says one thing, a tweet that says another, and we try desperately to use those to make sense of people we haven’t encountered before. But when you try to fit new (to you) kinds of people into the world you already know, or use second- and third-hand information to classify them, you are diminishing those people. You’re imposing your worldview on their lives. “Furries are people who dress in costumes to have sex.” “There’s no such thing as bisexuals; you’re either gay or you’re straight.” “Being gay is a choice you make.”

And okay, if that’s not enough for you (it should be), you are losing the opportunity to broaden your own world. New people bring new insights and new experiences and new life. Even if you are only trying to get through life being respectful to people, but especially oh my god if you are trying to be a writer, you should be zealously seeking out new experiences, new points of view, making your world bigger and broader and full of exciting people. And people will be more willing to talk to you and share their lives and listen to you share your life if you listen to them.

In the end, you could distill this rule down to one word: respect. You can’t expect to receive it from others unless you give it yourself.

Last year, an old college friend came out to me as trans. And the single behavior that drives her crazy is when people tell her what she’s supposed to feel instead of listening and asking questions. “You can’t use Eddie Izzard as a role model; he’s not really trans.” “If you think you’re a woman, that must mean you like guys.” “So you must be saving up for surgery.” Shit like that. She doesn’t know where her journey’s going. She’s just tremendously excited to be on it. And what she wants more than anything is for people to be excited with her, to let her tell them about all the things she’s feeling and going through. To listen. And to try to understand.


[EDIT: My trans friend has said that while she prefers no pronouns at all, she appreciates the difficulty of that situation, and while she doesn’t mind either one depending on how people know her, the female pronoun makes her feel happier. She said I didn’t have to change the post, but why would I not?]

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5 Responses to The Gold Rule

  1. Urthdigger says:

    In the article on writing PoC, I am boyh surprised and not surprised that they emphasize that the point is not “to feel so bad about yourself and your whiteness that you want to die.” Not surprised because it’s something that needs to be said. Surprised because it so rarely is.

    I try to be open-minded and inclusive. I regularly browse newsgroups on things like feminism and trans rights and other social justice concepts I do not have a personal grasp on. Most of it I agree with, but every so often I see things where someone says “if you feel bad about this as a white cis male, well you deserve it.” Or people’s bios where people mention “I’m white (and I hate myself every day for this.)”

    Ironically enough, the biggest source of people giving me grief for being a white cis male are OTHER white cis males. When a minority has a grief, it’s usually a complaint directed at the group, which I can accept and try not to take personally because I can somewhat understand where it comes from. It’s other white cis males who feel they’ve seen how social justice should be done who do things like personally ask me “How do you go a single day without killing yourself?”

    Stuff like this doesn’t help people who need it IMO. It just lets privileged people feel good about being a “martyr”, and make it more unlikely that others will help. After all, I’m far more sympathetic to a cause asking for donations to help people with transition expenses than a cause saying I’m an awful person for being born with a gender identity matching my body.

  2. Mr. Wolf says:

    I can totally get the importance of understanding what it’s like to empathize with others. As I am going through the process of becoming my fursona, I often find myself wondering what it would be like if I were more like him. On the one hand, I was scared of fursuiting in this black wolf head. How would I get in character? Where would be an appropriate place for it? And how differently would I think in character? Well, fortunately enough for me, I found myself reading books by Garvey, Carmichael, Newton, X, and Baraka to help me understand what this new character I’ve put on would act like in any situation. And I wore tons of red, black, and green to remind myself of the “nation within a nation” that lives inside the USA. Along the way, I discovered a few things that totally rocked my view of the world- 320 million people are only united in the fact that they live under the same flag while not necessarily viewing themselves as members of one people. Tribalism is becoming more important in American life and having a costume that enables one to transcend the color line can be quite useful but only if yopu read up on what they think.

  3. Dmitry says:

    I’ve seen this path – “Listen and understand” as something much more complicated. Understanding or open mind person both of this terms doesn’t mean anything good, like and every other method (formations of opinion) they are neutral, they cannot tell you which things is good and which is bad. You can be an understanding person and still doing bad things, just because you can understand bad things as well as good ones. So even if you are choosing that kind of behavior, you are still going to make lots of hard choices like “what kind of ideas I want to try to understand and to which one I’m going to say – no”.
    Of course It’s a great to listen other peoples, it’s their right actually (to be listened), but the question is – does every idea worth to be listened? I think all of us have some examples of ideas we would prefer to never know about. We can put away some of them and there’s nothing wrong with it. Some ideas could spoil us, our souls. So it’s a kind of safety mechanism – to avoid them, do not even give them a chance.
    Every time you are opening yourself for new information and trying to understand something new, you are risking  its might be good or bad, only the time will show. Results are going to be different in every single case, because it’s personal.
    For some peoples it works like that with LGBT thematic and I cannot judge them, really, it’s out of my rights.
    I have read both articles you were talking about here Kyell, but I was mostly disappointed. There were a few good and obvious ideas like “getting the information from carriers”.. but honestly this *challenging* manner of writing – it’s just ruining whole impression (here I’m mostly talking about “Transgender themed article”) . And don’t you see a conflict inside of their ideas? To talk about “special attitude” at first and then – WOW! we are just like you are! Don’t forget it!
    If you are thinking of yourself like about something “special” you are always going to be threaten like that. What’s the point to abstract from society if your purpose – to be threaten like all the others? This appeal for “special attitude”, I’m thinking it’s one of the main problems of now days LGBT society. I see the way this idea working with POC theme as well..

    Best wishes to your friend, sincerely !!! :)

    • Kyell says:

      Well, first, how do you know if an idea is good or bad until you listen? And second, “understanding” is not the same as judging or adopting. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean that idea automatically becomes part of your behavior. But most people act out of a belief that what they’re doing is right according to some structure, so it doesn’t do you much good just to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong. If you understand why they’re saying or doing whatever it is, then you can figure out how to act appropriately.

      I understand your complaint about the conflict between “special” and “just like you,” as I hear that every now and then when right-wing people say “why do gay people want special rights?” The rights they are talking about are either not special (marriage) or are necessary to correct for an imbalance that already exists in society. For example: straight people are never at risk of being fired because someone finds out that they’re straight. Gay people have been fired once their employer found out they were gay, for no other reason. So there are laws in many states now that say “you can’t fire someone because of their sexual orientation.” Is that a “special” protection? No; it covers ANY sexual orientation. But straight people have never been at risk of losing jobs because of their sexual orientation, so they perceive that the law doesn’t apply to them and they feel it’s other groups getting special treatment.

      I think what it comes down to is that we all have things in common as well as things that make us different and unique. Appreciate the differences but don’t forget the commonalities.

  4. Dmitry says:

    There’s not much ideas which is really could be called “new”. During our life we are form opinion about things, even if we heard only a little about them. Simple example – peoples saying that radical Islam is a bad thing. Do they really know what is that? Did they have a conversation about it with a mulla? I guess no. It’s not the best example, but its showing the way it works.

    “Understanding” is not the same as judging or adopting. Yes. But :) do you still can judge when you REALLY understand the idea? Understanding is the way which is replacing “judging” to adopting. Example? Just imagine that you are a person who’s doesn’t like “gays” (yay!) but one day you are deciding to getting know more about it (you are trying to understand them) and here you are.. you could possibly release the fact that they are the same peoples like you, can you judge them now? i think no. There was a moment where you are “switching your opinion” but is it a moment of judging or it’s just a part of understanding? I was trying to catch this moment in my mind, but i failed.

    Uuuh.. I know I’m not good at conversations about such themes. No fox! I wasn’t meant that! I’m more than just okay with those “special rights” which is not special at all. It’s obviously for me, and I’m totally agreed with you here. And i don’t know much about the current situation with a gay rights at USA, here’s here you are just paying money for a kissing with a guy on the street or going to jail for a 15 days :D
    I was talking about different thing here. Like – you shouldn’t act differently when you are somehow communicating with a people of a different nation/race, gay, straight or trans. Some peoples from this mm social groups? Trying to dictate the way you are supposed to act with them and this is a HUGE mistake. This is the wrong way.

    I hope it’s more “clear” now :)