How do you treat yourself as compared to your habitual ways of treating others? I’ve been thinking about the dangers of self-exploitation.
I’ve always thought my radar for being exploited was keenly sensitive, even hyper-sensitive. I always attributed this to the way my young self was used by my family, constantly urged and deployed to live for others as I was entitled to no needs and desires of my own. I thought I was over that form of self-punishment, that I could no longer fall unawares into situations that made me feel used. But not long ago, I found myself talking about my own life-choices—particularly my proclivity to stick where I am needed long after it serves me—and the voice of my mother came into my head. “Do it for me,” she said nearly every day, “it will cost you so little and mean so much to me.”
The shock of realization was visceral, the epiphany loud and clear. No one had coerced me. Driving myself, my fuel had been the very same message I’d worked so long to reject. I had been using myself in precisely the same way others had used me long ago.
When it came to others, I had both preached and done my best to avoid exploitation, practicing the fundamental and time-tested principle of reciprocity—of symmetry in relationship. Much of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s most recent book, Skin in The Game, turns on two such principles he calls The Golden Rule and The Silver Rule. The first is the familiar Christian appeal to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The second is the Hebrew version, do not unto others that which is hurtful to yourself. Some version of this principle is embedded in every culture and spiritual practice since the beginning of time. After all, the survival of humanity depends on a functional degree of empathy. Here’s a 2010 essay I wrote on the subject, inspired by Artist Beth Grossman’s exhibit, “All The Rest Is Commentary.”
I prefer what Taleb calls The Silver Rule because the positive statement—do unto others—has been used to excuse quite a bit of damaging behavior such as repeated attempts to persuade others to one’s spiritual path (Jesus, yoga, transcendental meditation, etc.), health regime (paleo, vegan, gluten-free, etc.), or politics (capitalism, socialism, anarchism, etc.) because “if I hadn’t discovered it my life would have been so much poorer.” The exhortation to refrain from harm seems a lot less vulnerable to unwanted interference. Taleb points out that in general, we are much more likely to be aware of and find agreement on what’s wrong than what’s right, and that makes the negative principle—do not unto others—easier to enact in truly symmetrical ways. [Note to readers: Taleb is an unusual combination of down-to-earth, arrogant, and mind-blowing. I don’t always agree with him, but I always find his books stimulating and thought-provoking.]
I’ve written about the principle of reciprocity many times. In my book The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future, I proposed it as an omnibus public policy:
I have often proposed a one-line public policy grounded in The Golden Rule. As everyone knows, policy-makers sometimes prescribe measures for others they would find intolerable in their own lives, such as installing families in degraded or dangerous public housing, or consigning children to substandard and neglected schools. Consider what would happen if we required policy-makers and their families to live with the strictures they impose on others: if their families were required to attend public schools, live in public housing, use public heath facilities.
If the sheer preposterousness of that makes you laugh, consider what your laughter means about the hegemony of our double standards.
But sometimes readers have grasped the other end of the stick to poke my argument. “Lots of people treat themselves badly,” they say, “or find themselves attracted to self-harm. Doing the same to others could be a form of abuse.”
My response has always been that the reciprocity principle is transactional. The people I’ve known who walk a path of self-harm—alcoholics, drug addicts, anorexics, for example—know they are risking their well-being. If they invite others onto their path, the incentive is usually economic or some other form of desperation: the heroin addict begins dealing to support a habit that feels as much unbreakable as insatiable. Every possible distortion of human behavior exists in this beautiful and troubled world, so I’m certain there are people who persuade others to self-harm just for the perverse fun of it. But it begs the question beyond breaking to assume that in following the principle of symmetry in relationship, most (or even many) people will be motivated to recruit others to the things that harm themselves.
Still, the question about self-harm—the point that not managing to love oneself can make loving one’s neighbor that much harder—is a good one. What happens when you turn The Silver Rule on its head? “Do not unto yourself what is harmful to others.”
It is revealing to regard the rule of symmetry in relationship as part of a circuit rather than a one-way street. Last week I wrote about cultural appropriation, for instance, describing ways my own cultural identity has been exploited by others for profit, and also touching on quite a few examples related to other cultures. For me, the reciprocity that rejects real appropriation has to be a circuit: I would never make a joke that disparaged Jews or immigrants or women (all elements of my personal identity) in ways that rhyme with offensive stereotypes; and I would never sit silent while someone casts such aspersions in the name of humor regardless of who is targeted. That one is easy.
But I am in much sparser company when I say I would never make claims of special virtue or superiority for any of my categories, even out of a defensive desire to balance bigotry. I just can’t see any way to claim that women are smarter, more resourceful, morally or ethically superior to men that doesn’t automatically license men who think it to counter-claim the opposite. And I can’t see how either claim leads to mutual respect, convivial intentions, equity, or justice.
Out of caring, I can choose to take on a task in service to others or to the values I support. But I would never ask others to suppress their own sense of what is right or best or most effective to serve “me, since it will cost you so little and mean so much to me,” so I cannot allow anyone—even me—to do this to myself.
Counter-examples are thick on the ground. You can be sure the sexually abusive politician or executive has said something very like this to the long-suffering wife standing by his side at the press spectacle following his exposure, to the woman wearing a rictus where her real face used to be. You can be sure the political operative who begs corporations for campaign funds will turn around and ask the progressive rank-and-file to suppress their disgust and line up behind party leaders, abandoning inconvenient principles for the sake of unity.
And so it is with litmus tests that ask us to prove, to earn, our identity. The artist Adrian Piper has a massive show at the Museum of Modern Art right now, which is drawing attention to her earlier work. In her 1991 essay, “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” Piper, who comes from a light-skinned, prosperous, and socially prominent family, describes being challenged as not-black-enough by both racists and racial loyalists. Her careful deconstruction of the psychological and political processes of such challenges is well worth reading. And her point that both types of challenge are predicated on “an essentializing stereotype into which all blacks must fit. In fact no blacks, and particularly no African-American blacks, fit any such stereotype.” In refusing to enact this litmus test, Piper is treating herself with the respect she believes should be offered to others.
And so it is with claims of categorical superiority. My Facebook feed is riddled with global assertions about the deficiencies or superior qualities of certain races, genders, sexual orientations, national origins, or religions. Only one problem: we cannot defeat a system of oppression grounded in white supremacy by enforcing that system’s racial, religious, gender, or other categories, by treating them as objective truths rather than social culling mechanisms. Applying The Silver Rule to myself, I refuse to take part in the current brouhaha about whether Ashkenazi Jews are “white,” because that is futile, attempting to use the “master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” Practicing reciprocity, I refuse to debate whether someone actually deserves the category “black” (or “Christian” or “artist,” or any other). If I do not wish myself to be imprisoned by these damaging and insanely reductive tools of domination, I cannot do the same to anyone else.
Do not unto yourself what is harmful to others; do not unto others what is harmful to yourself. Freely given out of love and without self-neglect, service is a form of reciprocity, a gift of symmetry that enlarges all involved. Have you ever made use of yourself in service to aims not your own, contravening the principle of reciprocity? How would things change if the self-exploitation stopped?
A nice version of “Respect Yourself” by Aaron Neville and Mavis Staples.