Narratives and the Golden Rule

I was doubtful as to whether to complete this, since I guess things have kinda blown over in recent times, and perhaps we may not even need this message. But something I read recently made me want to write about it all over again…

You may have seen our great Wall of Text discussion recently in a recent article I wrote here, but you know, I think there was enough stuff in the comments between Bruce, Chanson, and me alone (so I can’t really recommend reading through all of them unless you have time…it might be considered torture in some states) to merit another full-blown article.

We quickly got into how the way we see things (particularly about the church) is guided by our own narratives. Our narratives are of course, incomplete, and sometimes formed on split second reactions (for example, our moral foundations) in a way that may make us think they are natural, normal, and perhaps unbiased. They aren’t necessarily objective (and sometimes, even when we recognize our bias, we can’t correct for these things because we’d be biased in our own bias correction…) But Bruce at Mormon Matters has already written about the idea of narratives and narrative fallacies several times, and I *do* recommend reading through those if you have the time…definitely not torture at all. (In fact, even if your gut disagrees with them and thinks they are torturous, read them anyway because that disagreement is the quickest way to understand narrative fallacy.)

In one comment of the article here at MSP, I remarked that even if we have these narratives and they are fallacious, people should trust their own narratives…because after all, they are practical for us. As was mentioned on yet another post at Mormon Matters (Bruce really does all the work for me), “all” of the narratives cannot be treated as equally true, because some of them have irreconciliable incompatibilities. We use our own narrative to discern between them — whether that will be a narrative that inclines itself to faith one to skepticism. Regardless of the actual truth (which may or may not be discoverable), we still have these narratives and personalities that get in the way.

But…alas, I realized that even though this is the way things *are* (or at least, this is the way I see things as)…this isn’t the way I think things should be. *Gasp*. Even I think there should be some ethical standards in place (so look at that; we aren’t all moral relativists here). In fact, I realized that many of my arguments were academic and positive, but they weren’t normative. Although I recognize that people are going to trust their narratives — we all do it –I realized that in some instances, we should suspend this and use the narratives of others.

What got me to reconsider. Well, Bruce had said something that reminded me of the Golden Rule…this set me on edge, because I strongly dislike the Golden Rule. I don’t know what element to assign it, but my ideal rule would be: Treat others as they would like to be treated.

Of course, this changes everything. It gives me what I think is a personal imperative in my dealings with others…if I am dealing with a faithful member or someone I see differently from on any issue, then really, I shouldn’t just default to accept my narrative and nothing more…I should try to see their narrative too.

Now wait…this…has problems. If I don’t stand up for my narrative, then really, others will walk all over me.

So, back to the drawing board.

I think nearing the end of the conversation, I devised a better view. I don’t (and shouldn’t) have to abandon my beliefs for those of others when I meet and communicate with other people…because that would be kind of silly and would actually hinder development (I really, really feel bad for all the people who pretend to believe whatever things even though they actually don’t believe for whatever reason — this seems to cause resentment and loathing and a misunderstanding of whatever the feigned belief actually was.)

However, where does my little rule come into play? I think…we do need to make concessions in narratives when we first come to discuss. We’ve had some less than ubiquitously positive discussions here at the MSP (or elsewhere, for that matter), and I’ve written about how I eventually hate arguments for this reason… but it seems that arguments have this tendency to escalate into wars about personalities. At some point, parties may feel personally attacked by another comment. Regardless of who starts it, there is a tendency for people to start speaking *for* the other party’s narratives. They might assume something like, “Oh, that guy is only saying xxx because he’s trying to justify his own erroneous beliefs and won’t admit his error.” When this happens, a person takes his own narrative at the exclusion of the other person’s…and he begins to think in the same ways that remind me of why I dislike the Golden Rule. So, we might drum up skepticism about the other person’s motives.

In some cases, we might very well be right. Our opposition might very well be bluffing, trolling, goading, assuming, condescending, etc., But regardless of the truth or falsity of the accusation, the accusation closes walls of communication and progress. We can’t even begin to communicate, for example, if we assume that someone is brainwashed and everything they say can be discounted because of their brainwashing. If we truly want to engage in conversation (because, let’s fact it, sometimes if we see it coming and aren’t comfortable with the perception of the other person, we don’t want to engage), we’ve got to accept, in these occasions, the other person’s narrative wholeheartedly. We have to trust that they are being open, not cynical, not jaded, not presumptive, etc.,

I guess this is tough. It’s probably a lesson we could learn a thousand times through experience and never get it down. But I thought it was important.

Why did I decide to revive this topic (which is kinda stale now, and probably off the minds of many?) Well, I was reading yet another blog, and I saw my idea written from a believing perspective:

Ultimately, in such “sacred argument,” it is necessary for each debater to be fully committed to the humanity, rationality, and decency of their opponents. The moment we begin to suspect (much less say!) that disagreement equals irrationality, stupidity, or maliciousness, we have lost the debate.

Andrew S

Andrew S grew up in a military family, but apparently, that didn't make much of an impression upon him because he has since forgotten all of his French and all of his Hangungmal (but he does mispronounce the past tense of "win" like the Korean currency and thinks that English needs to get it together!) Andrew is currently a student at Texas A&M who loves tax accounting, the social sciences, fencing (epee), typography, presentation design, and public speaking, smartphones, linux, and nonparallel structured lists.

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7 Responses

  1. aerin says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days. I’ve mulled over various comments – and may still make other comments. What I will say, in the idea of treat others as THEY would like to be treated places a tremendous burden on the original person (me). It’s assuming 1 – I know what I want and how I want to be treated. (would I ALWAYS want to know the truth? And other people’s opinions) and 2 – I can discern how the other person wants to be treated.

    It’s not enough to say, the other person wants their beliefs and position to be treated with respect. Because what “respect” means to one person may mean something completely different to another person. There are some beliefs (not discussed here) which are not worthy of respect (genocide, etc.)

    Or perhaps since I don’t meet certain standards or qualifications, my views are not worthy of respect in some circles (i.e., not a faithful temple going mormon, not wearing the Islamic habib headscarf, etc.)

    But it gets tricky if the other person says that the conversation is “not respectful” if I bring up different studies, theories or additional information. And some people might want to discuss that additional information out of a genuine thirst for the truth. Others may not be interested and may be offended by a person bringing up that additional info.

    That’s why I think it works better to treat others as I/you/one would like to be treated. And people can leave the conversation and debate at any time for their own reasons.

  2. Andrew S says:

    I guess I might just be a little masochistic here, but it seems that if there’s a tremendous burden on the original person to know what you want and how you want to be treated and then seek to know what others want and how they want to be treated, that is a *healthy* burden to have. I mean, the benefits of discovering yourself (even if your “self” isn’t comfortable with hearing the truth all the time) will then help you in the future if you want to improve yourself. I think this kind of thinking gives people something to work towards that doesn’t rely on divine command, really.

    You’re right in that respect means something different for others (and particularly that some things do not deserve respect)…and that’s really what I think the kinda delicate point of this idea is. For example, if you’re raising a kid, he probably thinks (in his limited knowledge) that if you don’t make him eat his vegetables and let him run wild all the time, that’s the way you would respect him. But at the same time, is that worthy of respect’s

    And that’s avoiding truly egregious things that should never be respected (genocide, etc.,)

    My idea is supposed to be precisely for instances where you don’t meet certain standards in certain circles. Your not being a faithful temple going mormon or not wearing the headscarf shouldn’t make you ritually unclean. This is a danger of the Golden Rule…because a TBM would look at his own beliefs and say, “Yeah, this is how I’d want to be treated if I had fallen away. I’d want people to try to bring me back to righteousness, etc.,”

    Your second to last paragraph gets into the meat of difference. See, I mention that in part, we must treat others as they want to be treated. This is for *before* we begin any discussion or conversation. But we still have to defend *our* beliefs, and that’s what conversations for.

    Before we enter a conversation then, we need to recognize the other person’s situation. If I’m talking with a believing Mormon, I recognize that their faith is genuine for them. I can’t assume something like, “They are faking it,” or “they are dishonest and only interested in their lie.” At the same time, someone who believes should recognize that my skepticism and lack of faith is genuine for me. They shouldn’t assume that I’m just “hiding in sin,” or “prideful.” Even if any of those things are the case, to have productive conversation, we cannot begin with these assumptions.

    So, if we are in discussion, we *cannot* declare that another person is “not respectful,” because this implies that we were arguing for at least some point under the pretenses that they are not arguing in good faith…that they were arguing to not be respectful. When this happens, the conversation tends to fall apart.

    So, if someone says to *us* that they feel *we* are not being disrespectful…then our test is to not escalate the conflict by pointing out the unfairness of such a charge (even if it is unfair). Because when we do point out the unfairness, then now they can assume that *we* haven’t been arguing in good faith. “Oh, so you just thought I wasn’t genuinely thirsty for the truth!” etc.,

    If we truly suspect that someone *is* being disrespectful or someone suspects that we are being disrespectful, then we can simply make the choice to leave the conversation at any time without calling out. Because then we know that that person would not like to be treated that way (even if WE, for example, would like to continue pressing forward.)

    Here’s an example of something I see with the golden rule. When people think about what they personally want, they have (I think) a skewed sense of what the other person might want and they refuse to change this. For example, some members, when they see gay people, will think, “Oh, isn’t that unfortunate, but if he/she works hard enough, this affliction can be removed.” or “I guess this person should just keep with the gospel until the next life.”

    So, after this ultimatum from the LDS church worldview, there is no listening to what the other person wants — there can be no consideration of gay marriage or gay rights, because those gay people obviously need to work harder on being straight or celibate.

    And so, even when a member uses the golden rule, they say things like, “Well, if I were gay, then I’d just follow the law of chastity.” It’s an easy (and uncompassionate) decision for them to make because they don’t live that life.

  3. The Golden Rule definitely has problems if followed prescriptively. I view it as a rule of thumb to encapsulate the basic idea of living compassionately, then I trust my instincts to know what is and is not compassionate.

  4. aerin says:

    Yikes Andrew – still trying to digest this.
    quote from Andrew:

    (end quote)

    I’m trying to figure out the skewed sense of what the other person might want.

    There are many assumptions that are intrinsic to what you’re saying. The first assumption is that a person can know what’s best for other people. Another person’s narrative may assume that they know what’s best (because that’s a part of their belief system).

    I still maintain – just because another person thinks that they know what’s best, and what’s best for me, doesn’t mean that they actually DO know what’s best for me. And – just because I might think I know what’s best for another person doesn’t mean I actually DO know what’s best.

    I might think a person would be better off taking drugs and treating their high blood pressure – but who lives with those consequences? They do, in the end. And the more that I try to place my happiness on whether or not someone in my life chooses to take blood pressure medication the more disappointed I’ll be.

    I’m saying this is a radically different way of thinking to what some were taught in mormonism. That the only person I’m responsible for is myself. I can’t control anyone else – they will either take their medication or they won’t. They’ll believe in mormonism or they won’t – nothing I do will impact that either way. There are some things a person could do that might have some influence, but in the end, I’ve found that I’ve learned the most figuring stuff out on my own. I can only assume that most other people learn the same way.

    Back to the conversation – maybe I didn’t read enough of the original posts to understand what’s going on in this discussion about narratives. People have core beliefs, and they will either be receptive to new and different information or they won’t. If they want to believe that quakers live on the moon, despite evidence to the contrary, they will probably still believe that. And is it really my job to argue with that?

    They’ll either engage in a conversation and think of things in a different way or they won’t. I can understand that these beliefs (particularly core beliefs) a person takes very seriously, and takes criticism of those beliefs seriously.

    I guess what I’m saying is that when one takes out the need to change other people’s beliefs – it makes the conversation so much more meaningful (from my perspective).

  5. Andrew S says:

    i’m scrambling to figure out where exactly I had said that. I must be going senile.

    But here’s what I meant: if we approach a perspective from our own narrative and our own worldview, we can fall into a trap of prescribing people what they *should* be doing or thinking. But really, when we do this, we close off meaningful communication, because now we aren’t respecting the individual as rational beings (even if they happen to not be rational)…we are reducing them to pawns and stereotypes of our worldviews.

    So really, we need to come to treat people trusting that they are rational and reasonable (even if when we actually engage in conversation, we may have evidence to the contrary). We have to trust that a person can know himself and his situation best.

    So, I can’t go anywhere if I assume that a believer is “deluded” or “brainwashed” or “afraid of the truth” (no matter how much I may actually feel that way)…I have to suspend any ideas of this and trust that he came to his belief honestly and that it’s genuinely good for me. In the same way, if someone thinks I am a nonbeliever because I am “mired in sin” or “prideful,” then the conversation doesn’t go anywhere. That someone, if he wants a productive conversation, has to suspend these narratives about nonbelievers and trust that I am a nonbeliever for genuine reasons that I present, and not because of stereotyped pathologies that I do not agree with.

  6. aerin says:

    You didn’t – quickly this is what you said…it was cut off due to my use of coding (very badly:

    “Here’s an example of something I see with the golden rule. When people think about what they personally want, they have (I think) a skewed sense of what the other person might want and they refuse to change this. For example, some members, when they see gay people, will think, “Oh, isn’t that unfortunate, but if he/she works hard enough, this affliction can be removed.” or “I guess this person should just keep with the gospel until the next life.”

    The rest of what I had quoted is what I wrote. Sorry about that!

  7. aerin says:

    Andrew – I just read your comment #5 and agree with you. Thanks for keeping up with this.

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