Some of my earliest lessons in ethical behavior, as a child, came in the form of a question: “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” It was reasonably effective because it was simple. I could guess how I would feel, and I didn’t want to make anyone else feel that way. Although I couldn’t have spelled the word at the time, the theory underlying that lesson was reciprocity.There’s a lot going on in those two paragraphs. In that “How would you feel” is the basis for the first rule of interaction in the three Faiths of the Book. There’s an important corollary, as well: the precocious child might ask Mom or Dad “How would you like being put in time-out?” Kids don’t like being put in time-out, and the wise parent will note something to the effect that the grown-up version of time-out lasts for days, not minutes, in a place called “jail”. The concept of reciprocity, though, is a straightforward elaboration of the things that matter that are learned in kindergarten.
Reciprocity relies on an underlying sense of relevant equality. You and I may be different people in any number of ways, but we’re both fully human, and that entails some basic respect. There’s an implicit politics within the ethical norm of reciprocity, too. I’m no better than anyone else, but I’m no worse, either. Taken seriously, that ethical position tends to lead to a rough egalitarianism. There may be hierarchical roles for various reasons, but the people occupying those roles are just people. They have the same human flaws as everybody else. And the power they’re granted is both a grant—that is, removable—and for a limited purpose. It is not license. Nobody is entitled to abuse anyone else, and nobody deserves abuse.
My husband is presently attempting to wind down his software business and is suddenly discovering vast chunks of free time. Recently he heard that the Blanton Museum, at UT Austin, was looking for volunteer docents. So he volunteered, took the sample tour, blew through the training materials over the weekend, and went over there today expecting to pass the test and get assigned hours.
He didn’t get as far as the test.
First there was another tour, composed (I think) entirely of volunteer docents, who were encouraged to ask intelligent questions and add to the discussion.
Well, they’re having an exhibition of Western art right now. So they’re looking at a picture of a buffalo, and somebody says, “Didn’t we exterminate the buffalo in order to deprive the Indians of food?” and the official docent says yes, yes, that’s right. And Steve pipes up and says there are a few other factors to be considered, such as the fact that the Comanche horse herds seriously overgrazed Texas and deprived the buffalo herds of food.
Come the end of the tour, a snippy Museum Lady takes Steve aside and essentially tells him not to bother taking the test, they don’t need his kind around there.
Steve came home saying, “I don’t get it. What did I do?”
See, he’s spent the last 30 years buried in map label placement and gridding algorithms, and had not been exposed to the total smothering effect of extreme Political Correctness. He knows not to say anything bad about Obama at neighborhood get-togethers, but that’s about it.
I had to explain to him: “You said something negative. About American Indians. At an art museum. On a college campus!”