Rule 01: Don't be a Dick

  • 10 min read

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

We sat on a hill overlooking the city, tired from another mentally exhausting day of work. We felt inspired, hopeful and optimistic about the future and the role we might have the opportunity to play in building it. To our back was a farmers' market packed with vendors selling locally made food, leather goods, and, of course, the best Sangria that's ever touched my lips.

As we sipped our liter sized servings, our lips turned bright red as if dressed in a seductive shade of lipstick. There, we broke down the days events, replaying the interpersonal dynamics, the progress we had made, and basking in the warm glow of our little community called Tortuga. We talked about travel. Our personal experiences, dreams and, occasionally, regrets filled the air as we basked in each other's company.

I listened to Jenn, a powerhouse of a woman who raised a family and built a business while traveling the world, regale us with tales of her adventures. She has plenty, including the near death experience she survived on her way to meet us in Lisbon. I selfishly hoped to hear some magical insight that I might be able to use to tell better stories. To design better bags. To do a better job serving our customers. To better serve you.

Inevitably, our conversation turned to Jenn's family. We were enchanted by her philosophy for raising kids and strengthening her relationship with her partner. She was the expert. The teacher. Our Socrates. We were just hoping to learn. Something. Anything. When we began to see the bottoms of our plastic cups as we drank from them, she revealed her fundamental philosophy in parenting and in life.

"Rule 01: don't be a dick."

On some level I was taken aback. Maybe it was because I was raised by a woman who grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition. Maybe it was the elegant simplicity of the sentiment. I don't know. Over the years, I've thought about that moment, that piece of wisdom often. It's  helped me change how I try operate in the world. It's wisdom that is foundational to this project. To Heylow.

A Fight Against Myself

For much of my life, I thought that being right is what mattered most. If you have the facts on your side, you will prevail. Knowledge is power. I thought that the best way to rid the world of injustice was to take it head on. To confront those who are doing harm in the world. To relegate them as second class citizens until the saw the error of their ways and repented. I was raised Catholic, in case that wasn't clear.

I was wrong.

Yelling at people who are doing harm can feel good in the moment. It can make us feel like heroes fighting the good fight against tyranny and injustice. It can make us feel like part of a team.

But that's all it does.

It makes us feel better for a few moments, hours, and maybe even days. It does not make us better people. It does not make the world a better place.

I confess. I have behaved this way often in the past. With my friends. With my family. With those who mean the most to me. With strangers. I am ashamed. I am sorry.  If you knew me in high school, you probably associate that behavior with who I am. I deserve that. I earned it. I am sorry. Over time I changed. I hope. I started to care more about making a difference than being right. I've tried to learn the most effective way to do so.

A Bully by Another Name

When we believe we are fighting for what's right, we often relieve ourselves of the responsibility to behave respectfully and to treat others with dignity. After all, if we are doing good, the end justifies the means.


Isn't it good to shout down "a racist"? Isn't it good to yell at the people who vote in ways that do harm to your fellow Americans? Isn't if good to stand on the moral high ground and condemn those who fail to live up to our nation's values? Our ideals? I thought so.

I was wrong.

Think about this in a different context. What would you call a kid in school who aggressively terrorizes their classmates for their acne, their clothing, their social anxiety, for being different.

A bully.

You would call them a bully. Rightfully so.

So, why then do we, as adults, let ourselves fall to our base instincts by condemning those with whom we disagree?  Why do we contend that this is good what to behave? More importantly, why do we think it will help us advance our cause?

Think about it. How do you feel when someone attacks you for who you are? When they make fun of your shoes, your hair, your personality, your mind, or where you come from? Do you react positively? Do you want to listen to that person when they tell you how to be a better person? A better American?

No. You don't.

When you feel that attacked you shut down. You retreat into yourself. You find people who agree with you. You distance yourself from those who make you feel bad not just about how you behaved, but who you are as a person.

If our goal is to help make the American people happier, do you think this is going to help?

No. It only puts our goal farther out of reach.

Try Being a Friend Instead

One might read this and assume that I believe we should just give a pass to people who behave badly. To those who trample upon the dignity of others. You'd be wrong.

I believe that we should treat every human with dignity and respect. Even when it's hard. Especially when it's hard. To do that, we must treat people like humans, not avatars of evil. I think we should hold those with wealth and power to a much higher standard than we do now, but we should be much more kind and generous with literally everyone else.

tl;dr: It's good to cancel the powerful who do harm. It's bad to cancel anyone else. 

Treating someone like a human  means we must listen to them and not speak at them. We must have compassion and empathy for their life experiences. Crucially, we must give them a path to redemption that is clear and manageable.

Or, to put it a different way,you can make everyone who disagrees with you the enemy or you can be nice and give people a smooth path to joining your team while helping them become better people along the way.

The first path is one of failure. It's a big part of the reason the United States has been on a 40 year decline. Why we've created a system that has stolen half of your paycheck and given it to the powerful and the corporations they run. A system that is  quite literally killing us and our loved ones.

In 1980, the average American died 1 year younger than the average citizen in our peer countries. Today, our peers live 4 years longer, on average, than we do. Think about that. That's 4 years without your best friend, your mother, or your kids. Four fucking years. I know I'd love to have four more years with those I have lost. I suspect you do too.

Our inability to see each other as human beings is killing us. It's making us unhappy. It's destroying our mental health. It's stealing cash out of our pockets. It's destroying our country and its people. It's hurting you and me and everyone we care about.

The second path, that works. In politics, they call it deep canvassing. It real life, we call it being a friend.

We take as a given that we will be divided against ourselves. Left against right. Young against old. Men against women. This isn't some inevitable human failing. We don't have to make our fellow Americans the enemy. We can choose not to.

We all want the same things for our friends, our families, our children, and ourselves no matter what we look like, where we come from, or how wealthy we are. Yet, few of us have those things because rich, powerful elites in business, the media, and politics are pushing us apart so they can profit by screwing us over.

Together, we must reject their attempt to divide us. We can do that by choosing to tell better stories about ourselves and each other. We can do that by choosing have productive conversations instead of arguments.

We must work together across our differences to take back what has been stolen from us so that we can build the lives that we have earned and that we deserve. Only then can we make the United States the happiest place on Earth. Heylow exists to help you make that happen.

We can be friends if we choose to fight back against those who have divided us for the personal gain. Their greed. Their hate. Not ours.

I'm not saying this because it's what I believe. I'd be happy to argue with people if it were effective. I actually enjoy arguing with people, so I wish it were effective, but it's not. I'm saying this because it's what works and we don't have time to keep trying things that are doomed to fail. Lives are at stake.

Effective Shame

There's a toxic meme circulating in political discourse that shame is not effective. That's it's wrong to make people feel shame. That it's wrong to make people feel bad for the things they've done that hurt others. That making people feel ashamed can only hurt your cause.

This is dumb and it couldn't be further from the truth. What is true, however, is that shaming random strangers on the internet is pointless. Shaming through name calling and direct attacks doesn't in most cases. Using shame to relegate those you interact with in the real world to second class citizens isn't going to work. That kind of shame fails because it is a dead end. It presents no reasonable path forward for the person being shamed.

Instead, we should look at how to actually change the behavior of others for the good of the world. Shame plays an integral role in that process.

We know how to interact successfully with our friends or, better yet, our children when they do harm. We pull them aside. We let them explain themselves and their actions in a private, yes, safe space where they can be truly heard. We show them how their actions hurt us and others. We help them feel empathy for those that they have harmed.

Then, we give them a way out. A path to redemption. A way to maintain or even surpass their previous standing in the world. We give them the opportunity to be heroes in their own story and in ours. Then we must be patient and persistent. It takes time to break bad habits and create new ones.

We don't isolate them. We don't separate them. We don't condemn them to a life of pain and suffering. We help them become better people.

This is how shame can be effective.

The reality is that most people want to see themselves as good. We don't wake up each morning with the intent to harm those we care about. Or strangers. We do it anyway because we are flawed and imperfect people. All of us. When we know we've harmed others, we feel shame. We feel embarrassed. We feel guilty. 

And shame feels bad, so we want to make up for what we've done if we have the opportunity to do so. But only if we are treated with dignity and respect, even when we've failed to extend this grace to others. If we are treated with aggression and hostility, we feel anger. We feel hate. We feel wronged. And, crucially, we feel no motivation to change.

To make America a better place, we must feel motivated to change. To do that, we need to welcome others to our team. In a representative democracy, we need an overwhelming majority of people to believe the things we believe in order to make an impact. And the best way to do that is to start with those closest to us. Our friends. Our family. Our coworkers. our neighbors.

That's just the reality of the world we live in. We can continue to live in the world as we wish it were and fail to make a difference. Or we can live in the world as it actually is and find a way to succeed.

Let's Build a Brighter Future. Together.

Over the past few years, I've heard many in disadvantaged or underprivileged (or whatever the correct term is) groups exclaim that is it not their job to change the minds of those in the dominant culture. It is not their job to make white people see the harms they have done and are doing to those around them. It is not their job to help reform men who've abused them and treated them with disdain. It's not the responsibility of the young to help correct the many grievous mistakes of the old. The list goes on.

These people are right. It is not their job to do these things. We would be able to build a better world more quickly if they did, but it is not the responsibility of the victim to right the wrongs of those who did them harm.

But we always have a choice whether or not we engage others. If we choose to engage them, we have a choice in how we do it. We can either chose to be a dick or we can choose not to. They only way we can build a better world is to choose not to be a dick.

Let's put on a different hat and think about criminal justice for a second. Most of us who want to make the world a better place know that the criminal justice system is ineffective in preventing future harm. The recidivism rate in the US is unconscionably high. At its worst, we know that our system can actually cause future harm as it does in the "school to prison pipeline." Being a dick just makes everything worse.

If we know this approach of anger, vengeance, and revenge fails in criminal justice, why do we expect it to be successful in our interactions with other people? It won't. We know that. We must be better.

Let's treat each other like friends, not enemies. Let's build a brighter future, together. It's our only hope.