We Wear The Mask, Or, Reflections On The Pyrite Rule

Moralists who are fond of comparative religion often discuss the nature of various ethical rules that are found in different religious systems. The golden rule, for example, is well-known, in its formulation that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Although it must be admitted that other people do not always want to be treated as we wish to be treated ourselves, it is of the highest value that we consider other people as beings like ourselves with similar needs to be loved and honored as we possess, and a great deal of the problems of our world would be less intractable if this was our manner of behaving towards others. Of slightly less value is the silver rule, which states the negative form of the golden rule, in that we should refrain from doing unto others what we would not have others do unto ourselves. This too is sound practice that would reduce the level of conflict and hostility in the world, if we would restrain ourselves from treating others in a fashion that would anger or offend us, as it would be a welcome step of reciprocity. Today, though, I do not wish to discuss either of these elevated and proper standards of morality that ought to be our ordinary conduct, but rather the what I dub the pyrite rule, which is our more usual standard of behavior, that we do unto others what others have done unto us. The fact that this standard is named after fool’s gold ought to remind us of the folly of living according to such a hypocritical fashion.

In the period of the late 19th and early 20th century there was a notable black poet named Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose noted and well-regarded poem “We Wear The Mask” discusses the unpleasant matter of people being forced to hide what they felt and cover over their frustration and suffering with a fake smile because they did not feel comfortable being themselves in a world that was cruel and unjust. There are a great many people throughout history who have felt the oppression of not being able to speak what they considered to be obvious truths about themselves and the greater universe because of the social power that was held by those who wished to obliterate that truth. The problem, and one that I do not believe has been sufficiently recognized, is that when any group of people holds political, social, and cultural power, they seek to enforce what they view as true, and those who hold contrary views often find it necessary to wear a mask, to pass themselves off as thinking and believing what is acceptable to the wider culture and keeping their true views hidden, open only to those who are seen as being in sympathy to them, lest they face the cruelty of lynch mobs and immense and negative consequences. We would rightly say that it was wrong that an observant and intelligent and sensitive man like the poet Dunbar and many others like him felt it necessary to wear a mask to cover their frustration and outrage at the injustices they suffered. But we would be remiss to think that such suffering is limited only to certain peoples who are viewed as subaltern groups, but rather it is something that is a universal aspect of human existence, and something that those who view themselves as victims of history can just as easily inflict upon others as they can to suffer themselves.

It is a fact to be noted, and some may lament it, that there are few people who are genuinely libertarian in their approach to matters of speech and conduct. It might be said that we all have a uniform desire to be free to speak and live as we wish, to practice our beliefs without hindrance or criticism or restraint from others. And yet few of us are willing to let other people practice their beliefs or speak their true views or to engage socially as they wish freely without restraint and without consequence. Whether or not we claim to believe in a standard of morality, the vast majority of us act according to some such standard that we hold to be universally applicable and that we enforce upon others without pity. If we find it intolerable that others should judge us, and most of us do, we show little compunction in judging other when their thoughts and words and deeds fail to meet our own exacting moral standards, seeing thoughtcrime or its verbal equivalents to be worthy of tossing people out of positions of economic or cultural or political power without the remote consideration of being merciful to them no matter how long ago the offense was or how minor the offense is, or even how we might be judged as falling short of that high standard were the situations reversed. This asymmetry between the respect and honor that we demand from others and the lack of respect and honor that we give to others whose beliefs and practices are the obverse of our own creates a society that is eternally at war within itself and that is at such a state of hostility that genuine justice and equity are impossible, for we refuse both to treat others as we demand to be treated and to accept the sort of treatment that we regularly mete out to others.

The chief barrier to treating others as we wish to be treated is our conviction that what we think and believe and how we behave is right and that others do things the wrong way, and that people do not have a right to be wrong. Where we disagree as human beings is what thoughts and what words and what behaviors are wrong, not that there are lines that should not be crossed without severe punishment for falling out of line with the standard of the times. Though we have a long span of human history behind us, containing people who lived mostly according to the ways of their own age and which we judge by the standards of our own, we seldom stop to think that we will be judged by those who come after us by a standard that is as pitiless and unjust as the standards judged by those whose standards differ from our own in the past and present day. As was the case with Winston Churchill, we are convinced that history will judge us kindly because we plan on writing the history. But as we have seen in our own times, the fact that we may record our perspective and make sure to flood the world with texts written by ourselves and others of like mind, that is no guarantee that others will view such things with kindness in later ages. But we cannot know how others will look at us in the future. We can barely defend ourselves from our own times, much less times in futures that we cannot conceive of.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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