Reflection 9: Across the Board Decency

Radical Decency is a comprehensive approach to living. It is:

  • Broad – supporting decency to our selves, others and the world;
  • Deep – extending to every area of living and every interaction; and
  • Integrated – no area being optional or more important; each informing and enriching the others.

In this Reflection, I discuss one key aspect of this comprehensive approach: The injunction to be decent to self, others, and the world – without exception; a concept I refer to as “across the board decency.”

As I discuss below, following through on the logic of this injunction promises to transform the ways in which we treat others “out there, in the real world” and, very importantly, how we treat our selves as well.

1. Decency to Self

Seeking to be decent in the endless interactions that constitute our days is a challenging, wisdom stretching process. But because the philosophy puts decency to self on an equal footing with decency to others, it adds a level of complication beyond the “do unto others” injunction of the golden rule. It challenges us to be decent, as well, to the cacophony of voices inside our heads even as we apply its principles in our dealings with others.

So, for example, you are talking to a friend, and suddenly a pang of jealousy arises because of her recent success, followed almost immediately by another “voice,” shaming you for your small mindedness. Across the board decency challenges you to be warmly interested in your friend. But it also challenges you to be attentive to the discordant voices inside your own head; moving away from self-judgment; managing them in ways that are firm, but gentle and forgiving.


The world of work provides another vivid illustration of the profound impact of the philosophy’s co-equal emphasis on decency to self can have on the ways in which we treat our self.  At work and in our careers, we are invited – by an endless series of cues, sanctions and incentives – to neglect decency to self in our unrestrained pursuit of money and power:

  • Working long hours in a vain attempt to be perfect;
  • Letting worries about “how we are doing” invade our “off hours”;
  • Virulently judging our self when we fall short;
  • Neglecting our health, leisure, and private passions;
  • Chronically pinching back on the time we spend with those intimate people so central to our sense of well-being.

Across the board decency, however, pushes us in a very different direction. Promoting co-equal attention to decency to self, it pushes us to re-examine these “normal” and “expectable” ways of approaching work and career; challenging us to be more and more decent to our self, even as we seek to be more decent to co-workers, customers, competitors, and the larger communities that we affect with our professional choices.

2. Decency to the world

An emphasis on across the board decency also promises to transform the ways in which we treat others, “out there, in the real world.”

In the mainstream culture’s approach, decency is seldom explicitly abandoned. Instead, we are guided toward what I call “pick and choose decency;” that is, being decent when it is convenient but, then, when it really counts – when money or a promotion is at stake – doing whatever has to be done.

Because the predominant culture’s indecent values are so deeply engrained in our habitual ways of being, this pick and choose approach to decency is doomed to failure.  Surrounded by cues, incentives and sanctions that push us in a very different direction, we will never to able to preserve the smaller islands of decency we seek to create at home or in our communities of choice. Instead, receding to the cultural norm, our efforts to live differently and better – in all but the rarest of cases – will wind up being tepid, partial, and peripheral.

For this reason, a fulsome commitment to decency to others – at work, in politics, and in all other public arenas in which we operate – is vital. However, when we seek to make good on this commitment, we are presented with a surprisingly difficult challenge.

Here’s why.

Habituated to the mainstream culture’s pick and chose approach to decency, we instinctually compartmentalize our lives; putting our personal relationships in one category, work in a second, and our political activities in a third. Doing so, however, our tendency is to  over-focus on family and friends; neglecting, in the process, the very different rules of engagement that need to be cultivated when we seek to be decent in these other, less intimate environments.

Thus, many books are written about how to lovingly share one’s inmost feelings with your loved ones. But there is much less discussion of how to create a relationship with co-workers and strangers that is far less intimate but, at the same time, extends decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness and justice –  to all parties (including, of course, ourselves).

For these reasons, our decency skills, in these situations, are underdeveloped and limited.

And the deeper message, implicitly sent in the process, is this: Decency doesn’t really matter that much (or at all) when it comes to co-workers, strangers, and other non-intimates.

So, for example, a person in whom you have little or no interest seeks you out. What is the “normal” response? To ignore his calls or make excuses; avoiding him until he gets the hint – with no thought given to what a more decent response might look like.

Not long ago, I had to deal with this situation and, pre-occupied as I am with Radical Decency, I pushed myself to offer a more direct and respectful response: Telling this would-be friend over lunch that, while I liked her, she would likely be disappointed if she was expecting more regular contact. With my work and other commitments, I wouldn’t be able to invest the level of energy, in our relationship, that she was seeking.

In retrospect, the only thing I find remarkable about my response is how out of the ordinary it seemed. And that, I think, was a direct result of how little time we spend reflecting on strategies for being more decent in these sorts of situations.

Committing ourselves to a decency practice that is “across the board,” we are supported in finding more decent ways of dealing with others – and our selves – even in situations in which intimacy is limited or nonexistent.


Our culture’s lack of interest in across the board decency also has enormous consequences for our public discourse. In this area, Meet the Press, Face the Nation and similar Sunday morning news programs provide a stark example.

A politician makes a partisan speech, masquerading as the answer to the question just asked. It is non-responsive, disingenuous, and peppered with inaccuracies.  Then, with little or no effort to point this out, the moderator elicits a different, but similarly nonresponsive and disingenuous response from a spokesperson for the other side. And round and round it goes.

  • Should the moderator intervene more forcefully by, for example, noting that the question hasn’t been answered before he moves on?
  • Should sarcasm and ridicule be disallowed?
  • Should nonpartisan experts routinely be available and invoked, from time to time, to challenge the partisans’ more outrageous factual distortions?

While each of these suggestions is reasonable – and feasible – these and similar ideas seldom, if ever, come up in our mainstream public dialogue. The reason? Because, given the culture’s preoccupation with competition and power, there is little interest in moving toward new norms of decency.

Instead, numbed by years of exposure to this sham, we are conditioned to tolerate, not just nonsense, but grotesque indecency in our debate over issues that vitally affect the lives of millions. And this habitual indecency, deeply embedded in our political debate, in turn sets the stage for our tolerance of indecent, inhumane, and (with disturbing regularity) murderous public policies.


Hopefully, these examples persuasively illustrate why across the board decency is a vital aspect of our work – if we hope to create more decent lives and meaningfully contribute to a more decent world.

The rest is up to us.

Reflection 8: Why We Aren’t Good Students; Why It Matters

When I went back to social work school in 2000, it had been 32 years since my college graduation. One of the first articles I read discussed social construction as an analytic tool. I found its approach fresh and exciting. Then I learned that the article was a classic, written in 1971, 3 years after I graduated.

What hit me, at that moment, was that my intellectual growth precipitously declined the moment I left college. My interest in learning didn’t die. I continued to read books (mostly history, biography, and politics), the New York Times, Newsweek, and the New York Review of Books. I went to plays and movies. I listened to NPR. But while I was an above average adult learner, my efforts were, by any fair measure, inadequate — and utterly typical.

Why, for most of us, does serious study die when college ends?

The answer lies in the values that drive our educational system and the world of work. In theory, our colleges and secondary schools encourage students to ask the next question, to be aggressively curious, and to see learning as an endless, ever deepening, powerfully rewarding journey. But the deeper reality is that our schools faithfully reproduce the predominant culture’s competitive, win/lose values, making the competition for grades their operative priority.

Students, adapting to this imperative, become experts, not in learning, but in memorization and regurgitation. They graduate with neither the skills nor motivation to be effective learners. Instead, they are trained to be competitors: Experts at getting the best possible grades; prepped for the next competitive challenge – work and career.

In the world of work, the incentives once again pull us away from serious scholarship. In virtually every profession, specialization is the surest path to career advancement. In my years as an attorney, my serious study – seminars, research, attention to new developments – was focused on my specialty: Bankruptcy law. In like manner, computer programmers and doctors are typically students, not of their professions, but of their specialty within that profession.

In Consilience (1998), Edward O. Wilson points to this same phenomenon in academics.  To build their careers, our budding scholars become economists, or political scientists, or biologists – and play by the rules of their chosen discipline. Then, to get ahead, they find a specific niche within their chosen field, a specialization within a specialization. So even our professional thinkers are pulled away from the “big questions” that should, one would think, be the central focus for a conscious, self-aware species:

  • Who are we, biologically and psychologically?
  • How is our world structured and how does that affect our lives?
  • Given these realities, what are our best choices for living well?

For most of us, the idea of serious and sustained focus on these issues is a nonstarter.  Instead, preoccupied with other priorities, we embrace easy, superficial answers to life’s big questions; answers whose primary virtue is their ability to advance our political, professional and/or emotional agendas. Moreover, since we have so little exposure to the habits of scholarship, we fail to notice its absence. The result? We think what we believe is true.

But as Wilson notes:

“Most people believe they know how they themselves think, how others think too, and even how institutions evolve. But they are wrong. Their understanding is based on folk psychology, the grasp of human nature by common sense – defined (by Einstein) as everything learned to the age of eighteen – shot through with misconceptions. [Even] advanced social theorist, including those who spin out sophisticated mathematical models, are happy with folk psychology.”

The downside of this phenomenon is easy to name: Habitual, unreflective thinking that leads to excesses from endemic and murderous tribal exceptionalism (Rome, the Crusades, British and American imperialism, etc., etc.); self-immolating beliefs such as radical jihadism and the rapture; and so on.

The upside benefits of a serious commitment to life long learning are far less obvious.  Does such a commitment really make a difference?

My answer is an emphatic yes.

If we hope to craft the best possible answers to life’s big questions, we need to become skilled and dedicated students: Grounding ourselves in the best available research; allowing that data to guide us in formulating answers ; always remaining open to new or revised answers as our empirical knowledge and conceptual understandings evolve.

Note, importantly, that my enthusiasm for this enterprise is not some generalized “this is good for you” platitude.  To the contrary, the new understandings that result can literally change how we see the world and, with it, how we think, act, and feel.

So, for example, Daniel Siegel and others have taught me about the neurobiological mechanisms that make our brains habit forming machines – reacting to new stimuli in the same way it reacted to similar stimuli in the past; increasing the likelihood of that response with each repetition. I also learned that our fight or flight mechanism for dealing with imminent danger reacts 10 times faster than our thinking brain, pumps cortisol and adrenaline into our system, pushes blood into our large muscle groups, and shrinks the activity of our thinking brain.

From Steven Stosny I learned as well that the jolt of energy and (false) sense of clarity that fight or flight’s physiological changes evoke is deeply addictive at an interpersonal level: That, when attacked, we are biologically wired to respond in kind, with either a counter attack (fight) or withdraw (flight).

These understandings have changed my life.

Because my mother was a rager, I grew up with a hair trigger temper. The result? For most of my life, I judged myself for my outbursts; coped with the shame that grew out of my inability to control my emotions; and suffered in silence, certain in the knowledge that there was something profoundly wrong with me.

But no more.

Understanding the biological and psychological realities described above, I now make complete sense to myself. Confronted with anger from an early age, I learned to counter attack. And because the pattern kept repeating itself, that response became a deeply engrained habit, reinforced through the years by the jolt of energy its activation provided. I wasn’t wrong. I was human.

The result has been an easing of my shame and the defensive crouch it provoked; states of mind that, for years, limited my efforts to tame my emotional demons. Armed with a better understanding of the rage cycle, I was able to craft strategies to prevent its activation or, failing that, to interrupt it.  Knowing that our brains are habit forming machines, I also embraced a more realistic vision of the change process – seeing it as a war of attrition, requiring a steady and open ended commitment to my new ways of thinking, acting, and feeling.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, offers another, good example of the transformative power of serious study. That book persuasively argues that the historic dominance of Middle East and European cultures resulted from geographic and climactic factors; the early development and spread of plant and animal domestication in those areas. Diamond and others also describe the seismic impact of this event on human history, setting the stage for exponential population growth and – through the ability to control the food supply – the emergence of the hierarchical, authoritarian cultures that have dominated the last 4,000 years of human history.

With these understandings, any residual attachment I might have had to the mainstream cultural notion of Western superiority is gone, as is the mainstream view of history as a journey toward modernization and progress.

Our history is not preordained and is not shaped primarily, or even substantially, by the intrigues of the kings and generals that fill our history books. Who we are and how we live is, most fundamentally, the result of the interplay of biology, environment and natural selection. And history’s appropriate time frame is not the 5,000 years of “civilization” covered in our history books. It is instead 300,000 years of Homo sapien history, our 7 million years as a distinct primate subgroup, 3 billion years of life on earth, and 13 billion years of cosmic evolution.

I could cite many other examples in which scholarship has profoundly changed my thoughts and outlook: Paulo Frieire and Philip Lichtenberg’s dissection of the psychology of authoritarian relationships; Carol Gilligan and Terence Real’s insights into the different ways in which men and women are acculturated; and so on.  Hopefully, however, the examples described above make my point: Serious, careful and sustained study and reflection can change our lives. And, more fully assimilated into our mainstream ways of living, it can change the world as well.