David Markham at UU Way of Life is presenting a series of questions that the new candidates for UUA President were asked, and commenting on their answers. One of those questions really got me:
"What experiences have you had that help you deeply understand the mindset and values of another culture?"
Honestly, I don't feel like I get other cultures*, indeed, I'm not sure I get my own and have learned most of what I know from hearing what other people say about it. I can observe differences from my own as I perceive it, but I think the question assumes a lot. Heck, I'm a Northern Virginian who has lived around "real" southerners quite a bit and married into a North Carolina family and I wouldn't claim to really get Southern Culture.
I don't think my lack of desire comes from a lack of curiosity, just a cognizance that what I see I see through the eyes of someone in my culture and an invitation to claim that you understand another culture's mindset is an invitation to make an ass of yourself.
Markham calls for using the "platinum rule," which is "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them," which he says calls for an understanding of the "values, opinions, beliefs, practices, and preferences of the other." The most straightforward way to find all this out would be to ask them in what promises to be a lengthy interview. If you're not directly asking, you're probably making a lot of assumptions that are based in how you perceive you would feel if you were in their shoes anyway.
For simple things, which really constitute most of human interaction (e.g. "If I were carrying a bunch of packages and I dropped them, I would want someone to help me pick them up," "If I were practicing a presentation in front of a co-worker, I would want them to be diplomatic and encouraging, but to tell me if they saw a mistake before I did the presentation in front of the boss," etc,) the plain old Golden rule is going to have to do.
Also, there's a certain amount of cockiness inherent in saying you follow the platinum rule because in doing so you're claiming to understand someone else's needs and desires well enough to act on them.
Once, a good friend's wife was having a baby, and I encouraged him to call me any time of day or night when she went in to labor. Both husand and wife were effusive that they would love to have me there and they called a few times when she had false labor and theCSO and I went rushing over and sat with them through it. One afternoon, her husband called to say she'd had the baby the previous evening. Later I asked him why he hadn't called and he said:
"Well, it was late at night, and you have such a high-pressure job. My wife knew you wouldn't have wanted to come out here, but I know you would have felt obligated, so we decided not to bother you."
"Umm... Wouldn't you have wanted to come if I were having a baby?"
"Of course!" he said "But I'm not as focused on work as you are and I don't have a high-pressure law job. We knew you would *really* want to get some sleep so you could get lots of work done"**
The platinum rule in action.
I can see where people are coming from with the Platinum rule on a theoretical level, but I would say that it takes a great deal of confidence in your own understanding to pull off, and I don't think that level of confidence would be justified in most people. Indeed, probably the more certain you are that you understand, the less confident I am that you do since the primary think that brings a feeling of confidence on these issues is oversimplification.
I don't think Rabbi Hillel's words "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it," are in any danger of going out of style.
This is the root of my issue with "reaching out" to people of other races and classes. I really don't know how to do that without being insulting. Particularly given the number of gay folks who find the "welcoming congregation" stuff annoying and insulting, and I would think that would be easier.
I think everyone can agree that getting greater diversity in our congregations is a good thing, whether that means reaching out to people of other races or other classes. I just think we're paralyzed by the discomfort people have shown with what we've done already. (I think just about all recognitions of Kwanzaa have making the African-Americans in the congregation feel welcome as at least a partial goal. Ever seen an African-American actually enjoy a UU Kwanzaa recognition? The ones I've seen have always looked vaguely uncomfortable.)
I don't think it's lack of desire. I think this stuff is just next to impossible to do well.
*And when I do feel like I get it intellectually, I still don't feel it, so I don't think I really understand it. For an example "We're a poor and tight-knit community and you were born here and you're 'one of us.' If you study hard and go to college and become a professor like you want to, then you won't be one of us and you will forget your roots and who you are. Indeed, you will be abandoning your community. So every time I see you studying, I'm going to remind you that 'real' members of our culture don't do that and if your friends kick your ass for using big words and acting like you're better than the rest of us by talking about that Shakespeare stuff, I'm going to turn a blind eye to it."
As far as I know, that's not a terribly inaccurate summary of some people's attitudes about kids who are "trying to be white," or "acting too big for their britches." (Indeed, for evidence of this attitude and the impact it has one only needs to look to Faith Hill singing that "A Mississippi girl don't change her ways, just because everybody knows her name, ain't big headed from a little bit of fame" or Jennifer Lopez reminding fans "Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got, I'm still, I'm still, Jenny from the block" to see that fears about success separating one from one's roots are very real.) I think I understand the logic intellectually. But I can't imagine feeling the feelings behind it, and I think one has to do that to truly say one understands a mindset.
**Yes, I've considered the possibility that she and her husband decided they wanted to be alone, but she swears up and down that this isn't the case and they had called a few other times when she thought she was in labor. I honestly think she believed that she was doing what I would really want her to do.