The golden rule is wrong. Fight me.

As a healthcare provider and educator, equity is a top priority for me. I try to consider the differential impact of every decision I make on different people with different needs. I know I don’t always do this perfectly and I am always learning. It helps to observe others a lot and develop some basic frameworks for correct action.


One mistake I have seen from all kinds of people again and again is the assumption that there’s a single best approach to an issue or problem, and that they know what it is, because it’s what they would want for themselves. This isn’t totally crazy; it’s what we are taught from childhood as the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It sounds nice. It come from a good intention. But it doesn’t always work as a tool to support correct action. In some contexts, it enables people to make decisions that benefit other people who are like them, predicated on their values and experiences. Those decisions often have far-reaching impact when the people in question are politicians, business leaders, and others with societal power.  I probably don’t need to remind you that people in power in this country are overwhelmingly white, male, cisgendered, able bodied, wealthy, straight. Et cetera. Power begets power, and this keeps the needs of the less powerful invisible. Don’t give others what YOU want and need, give them what THEY want and need. It sounds simple, but of course, it is not simple.


Let me tell you a story about the golden rule. My husband, before he was my husband, once brought me flowers. Lilies. “They’re your favorite,” he told me. “Aren’t they beautiful?”. I don’t like lilies, especially, and they make me sneeze. Where had he gotten this idea? It turns out that HE loves lilies, and had sort of equated that in his mind with them being my favorites, too. (He has since learned this lesson, and he even still brings me flowers— sunflowers, usually, which I adore). I tell this story (with his permission) to illustrate that he did a nice thing for me (brought me flowers) with good intentions (he thought I’d love them since he loves them). And I was happy that he wanted to make me happy— but I was also slightly confused, and sneezing. Great impulse, good intentions, so-so on the execution. With flowers, this is funny. With policy, or medical care, it can be tragic.


When people follow the golden rule, they are implicitly assuming that others want or need what they themselves want. And often, that just isn’t true. It’s convenient to think so, because learning what people want and need takes work, openness, listening, time, curiosity, interest. It takes acknowledgement of difference, and sometimes of privilege and oppression (that’s a tough sell). But it enables inclusion, and promotes equity. It’s less “if I were you. . . .’ and more “you know you.”  This is an approach rooted in empathy, and it’s not intuitive for a lot of folks.  It’s a lot of un-learning to get there. It’s ongoing work for me and maybe for you, too. It means we need to de-center our own experiences sometimes. But I 100% believe that if we could shift the default position, we’d be a more loving and inclusive society. And I, for one, would value that.

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