Non-Harming for Mere Mortals

The words of the Hippocratic oath are familiar to most— Primum non nocere— First, do no harm. It’s associated primarily with physicians for historical reasons, but the concept is universal in health care. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. Even with the best of intentions, people are harmed in health care encounters all the time through errors, flawed science, power structures, financial structures, and more. All this, within a professional paradigm that explicitly seeks to avoid harm. 

On Practicing Ahimsa

Out in the wider world, it’s even more complex. Most people would probably say that they try not to harm others, yet that doesn’t mean people don’t harm one another. It’s one thing to make a choice between two options that are visible to you, but it’s another entirely to look for and listen to the ways that your choices are  impacting others. Our society (and capitalism in general) hides the impact of many of our choices from us, so it’s on us to look for it. This active approach to non-harming is how I understand the yogic concept of ahisma. Sometimes translated as non-violence or non-harming, ahimsa also contains the idea of an active, benevolent force that’s unleashed when the desire to cause harm is overcome. Woof.

What does non-harming look like? It might be abstract, like choosing certain language (this would come at a low personal cost to change). It might be more concrete, like not consuming factory-farmed animal products (this might come at a slightly higher personal cost to change). But in both cases, the impact might not be visible if we don’t ask ourselves what it might be and go looking.

Does it cost me anything to change?

A lot of people, including many who identify as liberal or progressive, are unwilling to hear it when someone tells them that they’ve caused harm. “But I mean no harm”, they say, or “I’m not the real problem here”, or “don’t be so sensitive”. These are defensive reactions bound up in one’s self-concept, rather than reflections on how to reduce harm. A person who is committed to non-harming can see knowledge of harm as a gift, because it enables the reduction of harm. Another way to react when told you’ve harmed someone might be to ask yourself, “could I change my behavior such that it wouldn’t make someone else feel bad, even if I don’t yet fully understand why?”

I think language is a place to start to see this clearly. Take a word like “retarded”. It’s widely used as an insult. But that use of the word is derogatory to a group of people, and this causes harm. It wouldn’t cost the speaker anything to choose another way to express themself— maybe they meant puzzling, or upsetting, or regressive, or ignorant. It’s unlikely that the speaker meant to cause harm by their word choice, but the impact still occurs. So to practice non-harming, choose another word. Problem solved.

In another linguistic example, gender-neutral pronouns are increasingly common, including the singular “they”.  Many people, (including, myself, many moons ago, I’m sorry), argue that English doesn’t work that way and it’s incorrect to use “they” as a singular pronoun. So here’s the question to ask yourself: do you feel your duty to protect the English language from evolving or changing outweighs your duty to practice non-harming by respecting another person’s identity? What does it truly cost me to adjust my language such that it doesn’t harm another person? I decided that it cost me nothing to make this change so as not to harm others, so I embrace it.

Here’s the kicker: we will all cause harm in our lifetimes. But it’s possible to make choices to reduce harm, and to actively seek understanding of the impact we have. This is uncomfortable and it’s natural to turn away from it, but to be truly committed to non-harming, turning away isn’t an option.

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