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Golden Rule must become more than oft-quoted cliché


February 06, 2017

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Last semester, I didn’t say much about decorum in our classroom. Somehow, erroneously, I thought I didn’t need to. I stand corrected. A collaborative document concerning potential edits to our department’s brochure was rudely peppered with phrases like “BUILD THE WALL” and “KEEP AMERICA NATURAL.” 
 
This spring, we are studying subcultures as a research focus for the course, and students will be assigned readings and film clips pertaining to the diversity of human experience. They will encounter groups they may find offensive or amoral. Some of them are choosing on their own to study highly stigmatized subcultures for their semester-long research project, and that’s where I turn Mother Hen. 
 
In an effort to create an environment that is both inclusive and candid, we have been working, in increments, to build our own civility clause. I don’t think most of my students are amused, and some of them seem outright annoyed. 
 
The fundamentals of speaking to one another with respect and civility are ones we were taught early and have, in theory, practiced all of our lives.
 
In response, then, to some of the students who believe that most of this does and can go unsaid, I encouraged the inclusion of clichés or state-the-obvious tenets. 
 
One student called out, “The Golden Rule.” 
 
“Good. So what is the Golden Rule?”
 
Some huffing and puffing, and then, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 
 
“Right. So how many of us practice this each time we engage with another human?” 
 
No one raised a hand. And therein lies the rub. We all know these rules, and can practically recite them in our sleep, but we don’t always approach one another with the intention or the care we preach. The lifelong drill of these principles has nearly stripped them of their very meaning. 
 
In some of my classes, the dominant suggestions for keeping peace were “not to take things personally,” “not to take things so seriously” and “not to take offense so quickly.” All are also true, on some level, and are important mindsets for peaceful interaction with those who offend us, most especially if they do so inadvertently. 
 
But it means a great deal to me that in my classroom, these axioms be secondary to those aforementioned imperatives. In my world, the Golden Rule trumps “don’t take things so personally.” In my world, attempting to put oneself in another’s shoes takes precedence over not taking serious things seriously. It is hard work to be careful with one another, and consciously respect the safety and sovereignty of those around us at all times, but it is important work. 
 
Of course, it is also important – even for the biggest peacekeepers among us – to recognize that there are moments when kindness cannot serve us. When our very well-being is threatened as a result of misinformed or narrow-minded beliefs, we must speak against those threats, and do so aggressively if our survival and sanity depend upon it. This is the harder lesson for me, and I am working every day to build my reserves of bravery in the face of this new, intolerant government. 
 
But this primarily placid ethic of mine does not mean that anyone’s values are under attack in my classroom. It does not mean that students cannot express themselves candidly, or share their perceptions. It simply means doing so with regard for the emotional and intellectual well-being of their peers, no matter where they come from, or where they stand.
 
So far as I can see it, that’s not censorship. It’s human decency. And to quote another of my students, it’s as simple as this: “Don’t be an (expletive).” Quick, somebody get Washington on the line.

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