Reflection 27: The Case for Radical Decency

I came of age in the Civil Rights era, a time when people of dignity and vision set an agenda of greater decency, fairness and justice – and perceptibly moved the needle of public policy in that direction. An abiding gift from those years is my passion to contribute to a better world; a passion that has persisted through 25 years as a community minded attorney and another 15 as a psychotherapist and coach.

Along the way I have been involved in many creative and inspiring initiatives. But my sense throughout has been that I was dealing with symptoms –“this” injustice or “that” place of unnecessary pain and suffering – and not with the underlying cause of what ails us. The question that, for me, remained stubbornly unanswered was this:

How can we craft strategies that meaningfully challenge the seemingly out of control cultural forces that – year by year, decade by decade – create an ever coarsening, unjust, and inequitable world.

What came to me about 15 years ago was that, at its core, the problem we face is values based. There is a specific set of values that drives decision-making in virtually every area of our lives and, so long as they predominate, we will never meaningfully diverge from our current course.

The sensible response? To embrace a very different set of values that I call “decency”: Respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice. And to practice them “radically”: At all times and in every area of living.

In this Reflection I make the case for Radical Decency as an approach to living that speaks with special force to the central challenge we face – in this time and place – as we seek to create better lives and a better world.

_________________________

We live in world that is driven by a very specific set of values: Compete and win, dominate and control. And these values – while not inherently bad – are wildly over-emphasized in our culture, infiltrating virtually every area for living, causing incalculable damage our selves and others.

Living this way, the evidence is irrefutable: We have created a failed culture.

How can I say this with such certainty? Because, starting a culture from scratch, we would want it to support us in pursuing at least one of the following goals:

  • Being decent to our selves; or
  • Being decent to others; or
  • Being decent to the world.

Sadly – remarkably – our world fails to support us in any of these purposes.

Consider, for example, these questions:

With regard to how we treat our selves: Does the culture support us in doing the things that truly nourish and satisfy us? Or do we feel compelled to devote our most productive hours of the great majority of our days to making money, and to jobs that drain our energy and distract us from our deepest longings?

With regard to how we treat others: Does the culture make concern for others a priority? Or is the operating rule of thumb to focus on how other people’s actions affect us; or, even more narrowly, on what they can do for us? Does the culture model and reinforce curiosity about other people’s ideas and opinions? Or does it teach us to judge and dismiss people who are different? Does the culture encourage us to treat people in need with respect and generosity? Or does it condone and implicitly encourage half measures and outright indifference?

With regard to how we treat the world: Does the culture encourage us to marshal the environment’s resources with caution and care? Or does it place primary emphasis on their unrestrained exploitation for our material advantage? Does the mainstream culture provide any significant support for life choices that actively consider the fate of other living things?

_________________________

Operating in an environment that is saturated with cues, incentive and sanctions that push us toward indecent behaviors, the compelling question before us is this: What can we do to reverse this dismal equation? How can we craft ways of living that are more decent to our self, to others, and to the world?

This is the question Radical Decency seeks to address.

Doing so, we first need to deal with the realities of our biology. We humans are profoundly creatures of habit; wired to do in the future what we did in the past. And far more than we care to acknowledge, the culture’s predominant values are woven into the very fabric of our taken-for-granted, habitual ways of living. In large ways and small, they pull us toward the “safe,” “smart,” and “obvious” choices that, in the end, root us in indecent ways of operating that, being borne into this culture, are our unfortunate birthright.

Given this reality, the process of diverging from our mainstream ways cannot operate solely or predominantly at a cognitive/logical level: Identify the problem, craft a solution, implement. Instead, what is called for is a re-habituation process. We need to systematically cultivate new habits of living that can, with practice and persistence, replace our status quo ways of operating.

Working from these premises, Radical Decency invites us to be decent to our self, to others, and to the world and – crucially – to do it on an across-the-board basis: At all times, in every context, and without exception.

At its core, Radical Decency grows out of this simple premise: If we whole-heartedly commit to this different way of living, allowing it to guide our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, we have a fighter’s chance of leading a better life and more effectively contributing to a better world.

The reverse is also true. If we adopt a pick and chose approach to decency – with family and friends but not at work; in our self-care but only in half-hearted ways in our politics – we will fail. Given the pervasiveness of the mainstream culture’s predominant values, if we continue to practice them – out there, in the real world – they will inevitably invade and compromise the small, private islands of decency we seek to create.

_________________________

By focusing on our day-by-day choices, Radical Decency expands our vision, pointing to ways in which we can more effectively deploy our reform energies. So, for example, it highlights the extent to which work and business dominate our lives, and is an uncomfortable reminder of our complicity with the culture’s indecent values when we succumb to the workplace’s bottom-line oriented, “do what you have to do” ways of operating.

On the positive side of the equation, Radical Decency highlights the importance of change in this crucial area of living. Imagine how different the world would be if business’ were routinely committed to quality products at a fair price, worker welfare, truth in marketing, socially conscious purchasing and investing, environmental prudence, and so on – and, if business’ profits and accumulated capital funded a decency agenda rather than the self-aggrandizing policies that currently dominate its public agenda?

Radical Decency’s operative principles also lead to an analogous shift in focus in the political arena. Living in a compete and win, dominate and control culture – in which money and power are the coin of the realm – the political system is fixed. While elections and legislative battles are unquestionably important, the likelihood of ever electing a critical mass of good-hearted politicians, interested in putting a priority on decency, is surpassingly small.

Radical Decency, however, with its focus on the underlying values that drive our public policy choices, seeks to change the rules of the game – a daunting but, ultimately, more promising avenue of attack. Thus, by way of example, the logic of the approach invites:

  • Major initiatives to redirect our public discourse away from its current adversarial, win/lose mindset toward one marked by respect, understanding, and reasoned compromise; and
  • A far deeper commitment to collaborative efforts that bring people together, from across the political spectrum, who share an underlying commitment to decency.

___________________

A very good piece of additional news about Radical Decency is that a committed practice can have a dramatic, positive impact on our personal lives as well.

Here’s how it works.

Seeking to harmonize and balance decency to self, others, and the world, we are confronted with a seemingly endless series of difficult choices. When, for example, does self-care take precedence over the needs of others – and vice versa? And when we truly face up to our responsibility to people who are socially or economically disenfranchised, what is an appropriate allocation of time and money to their needs?

With these challenges, however, come a whole series of life changing benefits. When grappling with these “wisdom stretching” dilemmas becomes our habitual way of operating, there is a perceptible shift in outlook and approach. We instinctually reach for a richer understanding of the diverse needs, motives and feelings that we, and others, experience – and need to be dealt with in our ongoing effort to be more and more decent. And with that, we become more open, curious, thoughtful, and reflective.

As we settle into these new habitual mindsets, increased emotional awareness and analytic acuity are inevitable byproducts. We also develop an increased ability to act, even in uncomfortable situations; the patience and self-control to forbear when that is the better choice; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The endpoint? When all that we do is approached with these new habits of openness, curiosity and a growing sense of discernment, we wind up with an increased sense of:

Living in the present, which leads to less shame, guilt, and remorse about the past, and fear and anxiety about the future;

Appreciation, empathy, acceptance, and love for our self and others, which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control;

Clarity and coherence about our priorities and choices, which leads to less anxiety and an increased sense of ease in life; and

An ennobling sense of purpose, which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust and an increased sense of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.

These are, it seems to me, the attributes of a vibrant and nourishing life. And a committed Radical Decency practice is a vital pathway toward their realization.

In my view, Radical Decency works. If the goal is to create a better world, it is the strong medicine we need to deal with the virulent, values-based cultural disease that ails us. But, happily, the argument for adopting a committed Radical Decency practice does not rest solely on my analysis being correct. In the end, a radically decent life is its own reward.