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.
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.