Suddenly I realized how ridiculous it is to expect people to care. People are too subsumed in their own lives, responsibilities, worries, and so on to be expected to even have the wherewithal to care about you or me or this or that person, or group of people. Asking people to care is like asking people to like your music, or your uploaded selfie on Instagram. You can’t make people give a hoot. Sure, you can belabor people about why they SHOULD care about whatever people or issue, but in the end it’s like telling a kid that they should think the heap of boiled spinach on their plate is delicious.
I had a similar thought about “respect” some 8 or so years ago. One of my colleagues at a college I taught at in China mentioned that she didn’t feel she was getting the respect she deserved. My reaction was that I never anticipated getting any respect, and I just drew the line at flagrant disrespect, which wasn’t in short supply. Our “leaders” at the university frequently tried to take advantage of us, usually in a blatantly financial way. Foreign teachers were always a way for them to make a monetary profit. Just one example. They tried to roll out the 10-month contract. This, they said, would allow teachers to leave after they’d taught the school year, and go travelling while still on the visa. However, you could do that anyway, and the only difference is that you wouldn’t get the two months of paid vacation you’d get on the full-year contract. They’d pocket two months of your salary. And it’s all served up with a smile and pat on the back like they really appreciate you, and you are their foreign friends, not suckers to be fleeced at every opportunity.
Enough of this sort of treatment and the idea of being respected was a cuckoo fantasy. I was happy to just not be ripped off and the target of elaborate schemes to profit off of me. Liked or cared about? I’m content to not be hated. Also in China, during periods when the communist party would drum up nationalism, I could expect to be called names in public. There was a period of months where nearly every time I went out, I would here, “Lao wai fock U” (a “lao wai” is a foreigner). Note here that my college students were wonderful, and I had really lots of positive interaction with Chinese people. The main reason I don’t go back is the apocalyptic levels of pollution, and lack of sanitation.
And this brings me to the good ole Golden Rule, which everyone knows, we learned as little kiddies in the West, and which works wonderfully to sort out issues revolving around “justice”. Would you want strangers, especially groups of teenage boys, to yell “Fock-U” at you while you walked in a foreign country? Nope. How about having two month’s salary sliced off your yearly earnings and shifted to my savings account? Nope. And that’s all we can really demand, or hope for, in terms of a social contract. If we want to be a part of civilization, and have the benefits of belonging to a community, we have to treat people decently.
This, however, gets confusing these days, because while people seem to appreciate this, if someone violates this trust and is rude or disrespectful, we demand punishment that we wouldn’t want to endure ourselves. If someone says something wrong about a “protected class” of people in a tweet, than we might demand that their employer sack them, that nobody else hire them, and so on. [Note here that this only applies to “protected classes”, and you can abuse other, unprotected people, smugly and sadistically, with impunity, and even congratulate yourself for it.] True justice would protect everyone equally, and punishments would fit the “crime”, or, in many of these cases, the offensive comment or spouted piece of choice ignorance. Would you want to be unemployable because you tweeted something careless and stupid? I didn’t think so. The second part of the Golden Rule, which somehow isn’t even on the radar, is that we don’t want to punish people in ways we’d think were excessive if we’d committed the same crime, indiscretion, or offensive act. Justice can’t be one-sided.
We all get it. If someone cuts in line, we get annoyed because we could do the same thing, and it’s just selfish, and nobody wants other people to cut in front of them. This, by the way, is a very serious problem in China, and one of the stock Chinese phrases I still remember is “bie cha dui” (sorry, I don’t remember the actual pinyin, but I can say it) which means “don’t cut in line”. If someone does cut in line, you all know what the punishment is. Go to the back of the line. It’s not to be tarred and feathered and humiliated in the public square. Oh, I”m being a little hard on China today — and it’s partly because I’m avoiding addressing the sizzling hot topic of “justice” in America — but I’ve witnessed the parading of criminals in the street. Yup, they will be forced to walk in public with signs stating their crimes hung around their necks. At least I can vouch for witnessing this in person a decade ago. And you can be pretty damned sure that a lot of the people overseeing this spectacle are themselves guilty of corruption far exceeding the petty theft some of the deplorable savages walking the gauntlet of public shame committed.
One marvels that milk manufacturers in China deliberately put fake protein in milk in order to maximize profits, and this resulted in babies dying of malnutrition. When they got caught out, some were clever enough to put used leather in their formula instead, which would fool some of the tests as a legitimate protein, when, again, they very well knew other people’s children — not their own! — would suffer from malnutrition. The same goes for using gutter oil to cook with, for customers, but not themselves!
Often “justice” isn’t just at all, specifically because it violates the Golden Rule. This can be very well-intentioned or categorized as progressive, compassionate, way-overdue right action. Recently, for example, the Baltimore Museum of Art decided to only buy art of women in 2020, and many activists in the art world insisted it was too little, too late, and museums across the country should only buy female art for generations in order to make up for historical inequity. The longer the time devoted to only female art, the more radical, revolutionary, progressive, compassionate, and good the policy is assumed to be. However, would you want to be completely excluded from your work being bought for a year, a generation, or a lifetime because of your anatomy at birth? Nope! I read multiple articles on the museum’s policy, and people seemed oblivious to the fact that a women-only year of buying and exhibiting is also a “no males” year. One museum doing it for a year isn’t a big deal, could even be a good thing, but when people start asking for a decade or for other museums to join in, it becomes an institutional, anti-male artist policy. Looks good on the surface, but you wouldn’t want it to happen to you.
And don’t get me wrong. I’m all for giving artistic representation to women, minorities, and anyone else who has fallen through the cracks, been sidelined, ignored, or otherwise discriminated against by the art world! It just happens that overcompensation, or too much ostensible justice, shades into oppression and injustice.
Just for an obvious example here, in the past Chinese women suffered the institution of foot-binding. Nobody but a truly sick sadist would think binding the feet of Chinese boys today would somehow make that better. How about if we just bound Chinese boys’ feet for one year? No? What about just one Chinese boy for one week? No? Someone has to PAY for the historical inequity! OK, it happened before they were born, and they weren’t the perpetrators. And there you have an underlying principle.
The infinitely better solution is always to instill fairness for everyone NOW, with agreed-upon universal standards of justice. So, in the case of museums, if they have historically privileged men over women, the solution isn’t to do the reverse, but to end discrimination based on gender period. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and everyone can get on board and not feel like they are the ones whose turn it is to be unjustly punished. If we end injustice now, than we live in a word free of injustice (on the grand, general scale, obviously, because you can never eradicate every instance because you can’t take selfishness, cruelty, and so on out of the human character). If we keep it on and try to use it for good, well, then we live in an unjust world by choice, and yes, some people are taking perverse pleasure in meting out the injustice.
I started off saying that we can’t demand or expect anyone care about us or our issues of choice. But we can ask that they not flagrantly not care what happens to us. If there’s a double standard, and we wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the person or persons we seek to take advantage of, or punish, that’s the age old sign it’s not really justice, which, even children could understand. And a lot of us did understand it as kiddies.
There are much more elaborate models of justice that require doing intellectual somersaults to fully grasp — ex., retributive justice — but the much simpler model of the Golden Rule that everyone can understand should probably be the litmus test.
2 replies on “Runaway Rant: Justice, Caring, the Golden Rule, and the Social Contract.”
I can’t imagine what it’s like living in China, a very different culture! I couldn’t agree more with you about two wrongs don’t make a right, ugh, I just don’t see anything getting better in the near future.
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If we don’t screw things up too badly, when we pan back everything’s been getting better for centuries. I think we’re just so sick of bad things hanging on. There’s way less war, for example, but we don’t want any war.