Presumption and the Golden Rule

There are words we don’t use these days: Condole, Condescend, Presume. Perhaps we should not be so ready to give them up. Condole is a great word meaning to try to help someone who is grieving. Condescend is to be nice to someone when you don’t have to be. I think we should do more of both of these things. Presume is something I think we should do less, and by not using the word we attempt to deny that the behavior is a problem. I think it is.

There’s a difference between Presume and Assume. We have all heard the “witticism” that “Assume makes an Ass of You and Me”, but to assume something is to simply take limited information and extend it to make a decision based on the facts you’ve got seen through the filter of your experience. This is not a bad thing. The phrase is as odious as “there is no I in T-E-A-M”, but it is a good idea to remember that an assumption is only a working hypothesis, and you need to collect more information before you can be sure of your course of action.

However, presumption goes beyond assumption; it implies that not only are you making an assumption, you are making the assumption to your own benefit, taking up responsibilities and privileges that you have not been officially granted.  In the Victorian world one could say “You presume, sir.” and it would be understood that the offender was assuming a level of intimacy, or a class to which the speaker did not accept he was entitled. (The very word “entitled” encompasses a set of rights and obligations that are bundled with a title, and the obligations cannot be ignored any more tha the rights.) In modern America we attempt to leave class-ism behind us, and grant that each person has intrinsic worth, not defined by their birth or “station in life”. However a great deal of sexism, racism, and other prejudice continues to be based upon our assumptions that WE are better than some set of THEY. Our manners our better, our education is better, our ethics are better.

Because we are all “equal”, and we “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”, we are making the assumption that we all want the same things. The most cursory observation of humans will show that this is not true. Because a man finds a woman attractive and would like to have sex with her does not in any way suggest that she would reciprocate that sentiment. To make that assumption is presumptuous. Because the idea of being waited on by eager servitors is appealing to some, does not mean that those who we assume are there to help us would take the enjoyment in it that we would take in being helped (likewise, some are very uncomfortable being helped, so we cannot use our preferences to predict those of the rest of the world). In embracing the presumption of “equality” and “fraternity”, we find ourselves with salespeople who have been trained to use our first names. They are taught that by stepping into the role of a close friend, we will treat them as one and extend the trust that we would extend a friend, so that they may then sell us whatever it is that they are pedaling. I fear that this alteration in the definition of friendship has led to devaluation of what a friend is. The use of the term BFF (Best Friends Forever) acknowledges that a normal “friend” is not the same as the true friend (who will help you move, or, as the joke goes, move bodies).

Just as I would require a close relationship before I would have sex with someone else, I require some significant interaction to build trust before I am willing to bestow the title “friend” upon another person. The assumption is that most people in modern American culture are willing to extend that term to anyone with whom they are acquainted (and not actually feuding). Trust is based on knowledge, and modern friendship “assumes” that everyone out there will treat you as a friend. I think that most of us don’t actually make that assumption about “everyone”. There are privileges one extends to friends beyond what one grants a stranger or acquaintance. You don’t accept a stranger walking into your house, even if you have friends you know well enough that you’d rather not bother go open the door for them. There are people with whom you’ll share food, others you’ll even share a fork or glass. Different levels of friendship will distinguish with whom you exchange gifts, or how much money or what kinds of tools you’ll loan them. There are people you’ll hug, and others with whom you shake hands. You share different levels of personal information with people at different levels of intimacy, and that is based on trust. Trust is based on a larger amount of information. Casual friends you can be confident that they won’t embarrass you if you go someplace public with them, close friends you can tell your problems and know that they won’t use your weaknesses to hurt you later.

The French have a term “tutoi” that means to speak with someone in a familiar way. In French there are formal and informal pronouns, and one only uses the informal “tu” with close friends, and the more formal “vous” for others. We used to have that in English as well, the term thee or thou was only used with those with whom one was intimate- hence it’s continued use when speaking to God, because one was as intimate with God as one was with a lover. However, one also used it when speaking to children or servants, because they had no social standing, and so needed no honorific. Quakers adopted using Thee for everyone to indicate that everyone was equal in the eyes of God. The rest of us simply started using the more respectful “you” for everyone, granting them the honorific formal pronoun. We no longer use that distinction in English, which may be a good thing. Considering how prickly we can be, someone who used the “intimate” form of address to suggest closeness might easily be assumed to be suggesting that the one he spoke to was being demeaned. (As I do when a saleswoman calls me “dearie” or uses my first name.)

Anyone who claims the “familiarity” of being my friend, anyone who enters my home, and helps himself to my stuff Presumes. He (or she) is helping himself to something to which he has no right, which she has not earned. We have attempted to create a world in which humans can expect certain things simply by “right of being human”. However, all rights come bundled with duties. Your entitlement to respect and courtesy requires that you behave in a respectful way to others. If you abrogate that responsibility you presume upon my good will, and frankly, it doesn’t extend that far.




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