A five-word-long twitter post this week from Gen inspired me to write this post for our blog.
“Be excellent to each other.”
It’s a simplified version of the golden rule – do to others what you would have them do to you – and as is often the case, I think simpler is better. I know what you’re thinking, “But, how is it simpler than the golden rule??”
The golden rule gets bogged down in philosophers doing what philosophers do best – overthink things. Philosophers have taken a simple encouragement to be nice to each other, an expression that is easily understood, and derived all kinds of problems and horrible hypotheticals.
What if the way you want to be treated isn’t the way someone else wants to be treated? Who are we to assume how another person would like to be treated?
There’s the obligation of reciprocation. Under this ethic, you would be expected to treat others the way they treat you. It’s what follows from treating others the way you want to be treated, you expect that treatment in return. Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe you think they don’t deserve the same treatment. Maybe they really don’t deserve the same treatment. Maybe you think they deserve better treatment. Maybe that person doesn’t want to be treated in the way you want to treat them.
Then there’s the silver rule – Do not treat others in the way you don’t want to be treated. It’s a different take on the same idea that emphasises the negative, leaving the positive side of it open for personal interpretation. The obvious problem with this one is that it doesn’t set the bar very high for the standard of how we treat one another.
See? philosophers get involved, and such a simple thing gets all messy and confusing and dissatisfying.
Then there are all the religions that try to lay claim to the golden rule in its variations. Ask a Christian and they’ll tell you that Jesus said it first. He did say it, according to the book, and it is his simplest and most famous teaching, but he wasn’t the first to say it. It was around for thousands of years before Jesus thought it would be a good idea to mention it in a different form. He said, “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them”. It sounds much the same, but it puts a heavier emphasis on the reciprocity aspect.
The golden rule is, of course, an attempt to simply convey the ethic of reciprocity. That is a concept found the world over. It predates all religions and is the basis for what we call the Social Contract – an implicit agreement among the members of a group to cooperate for mutual benefit. We easily see the social contract at work in primate communities, and recognize it in most other animal collectives as well. The idea is that by treating others well, you will benefit, maybe eventually, maybe in some small way, but there’s a payoff for you doing it.
“Be excellent to each other”. Five simple words, forming a simple phrase, expressing a simple directive, uttered by two simpletons in a fairly simple movie. It is, of course, from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which I watched because it had George Carlin in it. It’s a fun and entertaining buddy movie about a pair of slackers trying to complete a history paper for school that coaxes your brain into unguarded softness before dropping this philosophical anvil on it.
The important scene is of the movie’s two title characters, Bill Preston and Ted Logan who end up in a future not-so-subtly influenced by the two. Bill and Ted find themselves in front of a trio of leaders, where they improvise some “words of wisdom”. The first thing Bill comes up with is “Be excellent to each other”. This sudden and sobering moment of profundity is immediately salved by Ted perking up and offering “Party on, dudes!” for his wise words. Ted’s words are deeper than you might think. It’s a reminder not to dwell on it, not to overthink it.
The first time I watched the movie, the next few minutes were lost as my mind worked at the weight that had just been unceremoniously dropped on it, and for myself, it was the moment that I completed the long process of shedding my religion (I tried to be Presbyterian). But that’s another topic for another post, maybe.
“Be excellent to each other” gets rid of all that philosophical noise and gets back to the idea behind the golden rule, which is simply to treat each other well. There is no expectation of reciprocation, and there is no regard to personal benefit, it’s just a simple directive to play nice with your fellow human beings with no other baggage attached to it. If there was a church of Billandtedism, it would consist of only one tenet, with the encouragement to not overthink it.
And that is why I like it so, and I have adopted it as a personal maxim. I don’t always manage to do it, and I need to work on that.
As I look at what’s happening around the world, it’s a message many people could take to heart.