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A refugee, like me: why the Golden Rule matters in an era of mass migration

Tolerance develops when empathy is encouraged, because it allows a child – or adult – to enter the shoes of another. EPA/ Georgi Licovski

A refugee, like me: why the Golden Rule matters in an era of mass migration

As the refugee crisis worsens, various “destination” countries, including Australia, are engaging in internal debates around multiculturalism, integration and tolerance. People are worried about cultural cohesion, racial divides and religious differences.

As we approach these debates, psychological research can remind us that tolerance of differences, including racial and cultural divides, is a function of moral reasoning and behaviour. The archetypal example of tolerance – the Golden Rule – is based on perspective-taking, reciprocity, altruism, care and empathy.

The Golden Rule is most familiar in the Western world as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but it has reflections in every major world religion. Confucius provided the first written examples, but Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism all prescribe some form of “ethic of reciprocity”.

Intuitively, there is some form of understanding about the inherent meaning of this rule since it appears to be used across cultures, religions and the secular world.

Migrant children warm themselves around a bonfire as they await permission to enter the registration and transit camp after crossing border between Greece and Macedonia. EPA/ Georgi Licovski

The Golden Rule is a moral obligation to treat others well. Understanding the Golden Rule – in whatever form it takes – is one of the important aspects for creating racial tolerance in young people, and society more broadly.

My own research about tolerance to human diversity, using dilemmas about colour, creed and culture, found that empathy, fairness and justice were motivators for tolerance.

In one study I undertook, 112 students, aged between six and 17, were presented with dilemmas concerning racial bias. In this case, the Golden Rule was used to justify a tolerant stance almost a quarter of the time.

Empathy, which was was a strong predictor with students over 15 years of age, was very often expressed through the Golden Rule. But children from the age of 12 would also justify tolerant attitudes by referring to some form of the Golden Rule.

In a subsequent study the results showed that empathy is a significant factor for tolerance to human diversity. Empathy, indeed, is a prerequisite for the Golden Rule and persepective-taking.

Perspective taking and imagination

In response to dilemmas concerning exclusion, for example of young Asians from a nightclub because they did not “belong” in Australia, respondents in my research evoked the Golden Rule by replying, “Put yourself in his shoes” or, “Imagine how it would be/ feel to be in her shoes or her place”.

Putting oneself in another’s shoes requires a degree of imagination and a sense of perspective-taking and reciprocity. These require an understanding of the mental states of others, their thoughts, feelings and desires.

Description: epa05029821 Migrants wait in line at the Slovenian-Austrian border in Spielfeld, Austria, November 2015. EPA/Erwin Scheriau

Likewise, imagining how it would feel to be rejected or discriminated against requires creativity and a degree of empathy. Those are essential aspects of morality and are paramount for the understanding of both the Golden Rule and tolerance.

Tolerance was revealed through thoughtfulness, empathy and perspective-taking where the students were able to “step into another person’s shoes”.

Empathy and perspective-taking was revealed in responses such as, “I would ask you, how would you feel if you were an Aboriginal person and would always be served last?” (a 12-year-old) or, “How would you would feel if you were Asian and a shopkeeper wouldn’t serve you?” (a 15-year-old).

Such responses were favoured more by females. And it’s not surprising that a greater number of females evoked the Golden Rule, as plenty of studies show that females tend tend to appeal to empathy more often than males.

Empathy and moral judgements

The ability to take someone else’s perspective and empathise are important motivators of “pro-social” behaviour; that is, actions that promote social acceptance and friendship.

Children develop empathy and perspective-taking as part of their moral development. One of the motivators for tolerance is empathy.

That means tolerance develops when empathy is encouraged, because it allows a child – or adult – to enter the shoes of another.

Refugees and migrants arrive in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos (Lesvos), Greece, November 2015. EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

Crucially, while tolerant attitudes lead to acceptance of other people’s differences, this is a two-way street; exposure to different cultures and attitudes can increase the ability of children and adolescents to empathise and relate.

Research also demonstrates (somewhat intuitively) that successful cross-cultural contact depends on the quality of interaction.

Conditions for successful interaction include: the opportunity to bond, support from authority figures and a cooperative situation. Also vital is an initial open-mindedness, and finding at least some common ground.

Integration, not assimilation, is the key

As Europe and other places around the world prepare to meet an influx of refugees, governments must play their part in supporting positive contact between different cultures, particularly for young people.

Syrian migrant Muhamed Selmu plays on his instrument as his group cross the border line between Greece and Macedonia near the city of Gevgelija. EPA/ Georgi Licovski

Integration, whether social, political or cultural, into another society is difficult and will take time.

Some Muslims groups who have moved to Sweden, to give one example, have integrated better than others. Bosnian Muslims have integrated well in contrast to immigrants from Iraq who are less successful. Iraqi integration into work is strikingly low.

Cultural differences between these groups no doubt underlie those outcomes. But we need further research into ways of integrating immigrant communities into Western standards of human rights and liberal democracies while respecting their own values, provided those values do not violate human rights.

The Golden Rule, moral philosopher Jeffrey Wattles argued:

is part of the planet’s common language, shared by persons with differing but overlapping conceptions of morality.

Yet we know that racism and discrimination occur – and will continue to occur as vast swathes of humanity migrate around the globe. We must be prepared to use creativity and empathy when responding to global catastrophe, and understand both our differences and our universal values.