The Golden Rule Rules

I’ve always had a soft spot for the 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. After tension and near bloodshed, a group of New Englanders and the crew of a stranded Soviet submarine suddenly band together to save the life of a small boy in danger of falling to his death from a rooftop. What follows that scene still feels right to me. It’s still an example of the Golden Rule, something too many of us in modern America have forgotten.

Luckily, our genes still carry that rule. Johann Hari’s “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim – and Why We Should Be Inspired This Week,” which came out after Japan’s disaster, provides a good overview of how human beings follow the Golden Rule during disasters. Of course, many of us expect this from the Japanese, a people well known for their polite, civil behavior. However, Hari’s essay points out that natural selection has bred empathy and reciprocity into human beings. As he says, this instinct to help shows up everywhere:

This is so cross-cultural – from Haiti to New Zealand – that it is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species, and it’s not hard to see why. We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. That was it. That was us. If they – our ancestors – didn’t have a strong impulse to look out for each other in a crisis, you wouldn’t be reading this now.

Almost all Americans used to know the importance of following the Do Unto Others rule. As late as the middle of the 20th Century, a good many were still living lives of considerable interdependence. Even today, almost anyone who lives in an isolated area, a term that used to encompass most of America, still knows the importance of neighborliness. This helpfulness doesn’t arise out of niceness or political correctness; it comes out of necessity, a need for mutual aid, sometimes even self-preservation.

My grandparents farmed and knew this. A farm woman like her might despise a neighbor a half mile down the road, but, if that neighbor was sick and children or stock needed tending, she’d be there to help because she wanted that neighbor to do the same for her if need be. Another farmer might think his neighbor a complete fool, but he’d rush to help rescue the man’s livestock if disaster struck. Helping out in times of need–great or small–was simply the enlightened self-interest of the day.

Even now in our world of Isolated Individualism, most of us still instinctively understand humanity’s inherent need for empathy, even for self-sacrifice.

Of course a few do not. Those few with total faith in selfishness, in rugged individualism are aberrant. This ideal–or illusion–of independence, of individualism, works as long as the artificial shell of industrial society protects it. It’s when disaster strikes and the shell breaks that we once again recognize ourselves as naked, helpless, little apes.

Our greatgrandparents, grandparents, and perhaps even our parents knew of human vulnerability without needing a disaster to remind them. I grew up during that cuspish time when most Americans were becoming isolated and self-interested–suburban. I visited my grandparents farm. I knew their neighbors, but l returned to our little house with the grocery store only two blocks away. As I grew up, fewer and fewer of us had livestock or even gardens. We started relying on services. The fire department, the police, the supermarket–all were just a short drive away.

With these conveniences, neighborly cooperation faded, and many of us forgot our sense of community. But it was still there when the earth suddenly reminded us of our frail humanity. Whether they recognize it or not, the Masters of the Universe can be as vulnerable to falling buildings as anyone. Yet it is still human nature for lesser mortals to band together to dig others out.

Well, maybe not the Superman, at least if they happen to know it’s the Superman under the rubble.

Here’s Hari again:

In a disaster, very few people are on-yer-bike individualists grabbing for themselves, and they are regarded as incomprehensible by everybody else. After the 2005 tsunami, the Ayn Rand Institute – set up by the philosopher-queen of the American right – issued an appeal entitled: “U.S. Should Not Give To help Tsunami Victims.” (This was entirely consistent with her world-view: she said it was immoral to save a drowning person if there was any risk to yourself.) Even the people who every day take this callous view of victims within our own societies – the poor, the homeless, the ill – felt the need to distance themselves from this sociopathy.

Sociopathy. That’s what he calls those Randian Individualists. Are they indeed sociopathic? In some cases, I suspect this is so. Lack of empathy does suggest a clinical condition. In other cases, I suspect these Supermen are just normal humans who have become too comfortable inside their glorious shells, too sure they are Masters of the Universe and of their Fate.

Either way, if/when their shell crumbles around them, they had better hope for anonymity and the kindness of others, because if those around them know of their unwillingness to cooperate, to share, to be human, I suspect that the digging will still come, but it might be later, much later, after they’ve dug out all the others around them.

Hence, the cult of the individual carries with it its own rules of reciprocity. I don’t find them at all enticing. I want to be dug out ASAP, so my sense of self-interest means I rush to aid others. We don’t have to love or even like one another, but to survive we may well need others. That’s just reality.



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