by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr.
For me, one of the most important moral teachings of Jesus, and in fact one found in various forms in a number of religions and moral philosophies, is his words in Matthew 7:12, “Therefore, whatever you want people to do for you, do the same for them, because this summarizes the Law and the Prophets.”
At the core of this teaching is to treat people as individuals. We want people to treat us for who we are, not as a member of some group. This is one of the easiest commands to understand, and yet one of the hardest to practice, if for nothing else, because we are not God.
God knows each one of us as an individual, our strengths and our weaknesses, our good, and our bad. In fact he knows us far better than we know ourselves, because he is truth, and we, unfortunately, lie even to ourselves. After all, if we were all being really honest with ourselves, how could 93% of US drivers place themselves in the top 50% of drivers?
But we are not God. So when we look at those around us we often do not see people, we see labels and groups: rich, middle class, poor; boss, owner, and employee; Republican, Democrat, and Independent, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, and atheist just to name a very few.
At this level it is not very detrimental. In fact, labels are necessary. While God can think in terms of individuals our capacity to do so is extremely limited, so we are forced to use those terms. While Jesus may have been able to walk into a village and speak in terms of the individual needs of each person who lived there, his followers could not and so we see him speaking more generally of groups like the poor.
Where the real problem enters in is when to start to attach adjectives to the label. The rich are not just those have a significant amount of money, they are greedy. The poor are not just those who are lack financial resources, but are lazy. This is just as wrong when reversed. The rich are hardworking, the poor are oppressed.
To be sure, there are some rich who are greedy just as there are those who are rich because they work very hard. Likewise, there are those who are poor because they are lazy and there are those who are poor because they are oppressed. And if we are referring to the greedy rich or the lazy poor we may be OK, it is only when we reverse concepts and start seeing the rich as greedy or the poor as lazy that we really begin to run into trouble. In logic this is call the fallacy of composition, taking something that is true of one part of a group and applying it to the whole group.
When this logical fallacy is combined with our tendency to lie to ourselves, it becomes very pernicious. Just like we tend to see ourselves as better than average drivers, we tend to see ourselves as better than average people. Thus, as we begin to assign adjectives to the various groups, we will tend to assign the positive ones to the groups to which we belong, and the groups we disagree with will be given the negative ones.
Is it any wonder that just a few verses before he said “do unto others…” Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3) We are really good about seeing the problems in others. When we generalize this to the entire group this becomes demonization.
When this moves into the political realm this can become downright ugly. It happens across the political spectrum. Republicans can be found who demonize Democrats. Democrats routinely demonize Republicans, Big Oil, Wall Street, and the rich in general. And Independents can be found who demonize the other two. And, of course it is very common to hear people say that they’re all a bunch of crooks.
This puts us in a dilemma. We do not have the mind of God and thus cannot think of a planet of 7+ billion individuals. To talk about people we must use labels. Yet when we do so we are dehumanizing people to some extent.
The first thing we can do is remember that these are abstractions, and that we must be caution of the illusion of superiority. One thing I do is that when dealing with individuals I try to forget all negative labels. Instead I start by assuming only positive ones. The person is just as smart, just as good, just as caring, well meaning, concerned, informed, etc., as I am. I am prepared for them to be different in some respects from the group to which they belong. Now after talking, or watching them, they may demonstrate that they have some negative characteristics, but the conclusion is based on what they do or say, not because of the group that they belong to.
In short, I try to treat others the way I would like to be treated, as an individual, and not just an indistinct member of a group. When it is someone I disagree with, I try extra hard.
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