One of the rules that our society tends to espouse is the Golden Rule. Though many people espouse it, its application can be extremely problematic. This rule has been a rule that has caused constant difficulty for me in my life, but also one I have wielded for teaching purposes on many occasions.
The Golden Rule, for anyone who may not be familiar with it, is “do on to others as you want to be done on to.” It seems simple enough and it seems to get to the heart of empathetic thought. I would argue that it espouses a very limited view of empathy.
The problem with the Golden Rule is that it assumes that the other person wants to be treated the same way that you do. As an autistic person it becomes very clear very quickly in life that it isn’t the case in many aspects of life. Autistic people often want things from social interaction that is very different from what a non-autistic person wants. We may also perceive certain treatment differently than a non-autistic person.
There is also the issue of enculturation to consider. One’s culture can play a role in what treatment they prefer to receive. The Golden Rule can rapidly break down in social situations where social norms are different. The concept that there is a monolithic way in which people want to be treated, and perceive certain treatment, that centers around the viewpoint of the person applying it has led to a lot of issues in how we study and perceive other cultures. In short, the Golden Rule doesn’t fit well into the concept of objective relativism, which is an essential skill when interacting with cultures different from the observer. The list of horrific treatment that has been done in the spirit of the Golden Rule is very long.
In the autistic world we can see the Golden Rule being applied in a misguided way in some parents of children with autism. I’ve seen online posts by parents who are sadden by the fact that their children will never experience the joy of socializing and being accepted the way the parent perceives would bring a person happiness. I caution such parents from taking that stance. Obviously, it depends on the autistic person, but many autistic people don’t desire typical socialization or social acceptance. We don’t necessarily take the same thing away from socialization as a non-autistic person. The thing that you want for you child might not be the thing that they want for themselves. It might be the exact opposite of what they want. If that’s the case, then your sadness is for nothing. You’re sad about them missing out on something they don’t want.
To put that into a perceptive that might be easier to understand, imagine a food you really hate. Then imagine that someone is really sad for you because you don’t get to experience the joy that they do by eating that food which may be their favorite food. Think about it for a minute. Does it make you sad that you are missing out on that food? Do you feel some loss by not being able to eat that food? Now consider if the person who loves that food, tried to force you to eat it so that you could experience their happiness? Autistic people deal with this all the time.
I’ve used the Golden Rule as a means to teach people a lesson, so it does have its uses. If someone does something unpleasant to me, I generally evaluate why it’s unpleasant, then do something to the other person that fits the reason it was unpleasant for me. It might not be exactly the same, but the underlying reason for why it was unpleasant is the same. The idea is, “if you treat me this way then you must want to be treated that way.” It’s the Golden Rule in reverse. You might be amazed how often people don’t like being treated the way they treat others.
Instead of the Golden Rule, I propose that we adopt the Platinum Rule. That is “Do on to others as they want to be done on to.” The idea is simple, treat people how they want to be treated. Use Theory of Mind to understand that other people have different desires, beliefs, preferences, etc. and treat them accordingly. This takes more mental work than the Golden Rule. To apply the Platinum Rule, you must learn about individual people. It takes the kind of work that many people with autism already do. I argue that not only does it create a more pleasant experience for all parties involved, but it might strengthen the bond between people. I think it also leads to greater appreciation for diversity. In the case of those with a loved one with autism, it could do wonders for that person and your relationship.
One of the things I tell people is “you get out of me what you put into me.” If you are willing to compromise and be a little uncomfortable for me, I’m willing to be a little uncomfortable for you. Treat me like I want to be treated and I am more willing to treat you like you want to be treated. Often autistic people are on the end of an arrangement that requires us to treat people how they want to be treated at all times while we get nothing in return. If we apply the Platinum Rule and are willing to compromise, we can create a different world. One of tolerance and stronger relationships. One filled with more happiness. The world doesn’t revolve around any one person and the Golden Rule implies that it does.