Reflection 16: Mainstream Thinking – The Tyranny of Opinion and Judgment

One key area we tend to gloss over as we seek to craft more nourishing and generative ways of operating in the world is how we think.  This may seem like a theoretical issue, but it isn’t.  Our habitual, cultural conditioned ways of thinking vitally affect our outlook and choices in life.

What are these habitual ways of thinking?  Put simply, we live in a world where opinions and judgments are all important.  Lacking them or, even worse, expressing tentativeness or confusion, we are likely to be judged as indecisive and wishy-washy. 

Opinions and judgments are, of course, important.  But what is troubling is the central role they play in our conversations and ways of thinking.  Far too often, they are substitutes for, rather than conclusions drawn from, a careful marshaling of evidence and sustained reflection.

Where does this opinion-based thinking show up?  Everywhere. In politics, for example, most of us are wedded to a belief in our “extraordinary” experiment in “democracy” and “free-market capitalism.”  But what is obvious, when you stop and think about it, is that these are simply statements of faith.  Over the years, there have been dramatic shifts in our system of governance and ways of managing the economy.  But our belief in the unique virtues of our system – however it happens to look at the moment – remains.

The result?  Even as evidence of the system’s inefficiencies, indecencies, and inequities accumulates, we maintain our belief in it.  Whether conservative or liberal, we persist in believing that our problems can be solved by working the system rather than changing it; by electing new and better leaders.

Maybe this confidence is well placed and maybe it isn’t.  But what is clear – my essential point – is that we are treating an opinion as fact.  And what atrophies in the process are our critical faculties:  Our ability to absorb new information; to integrate it into our pre-existing notions of how things are; and to allow new, more discerning understandings to emerge.

In our personal lives, a similar dynamic is at work.  When people fail to meet our expectations, we don’t instinctually become curious – sifting the evidence, attempting to understand how they are different and why they act the way they do.  Instead, we judge and dismiss. They are insensitive – or selfish – or lazy – or (the ultimate judgment) an asshole.  And this pattern applies even when the other person is our spouse or child.


Why are these habits of thinking so pervasive?  Because they so effectively promote and reinforce the culture’s predominant values: Compete and win, dominate and control. 

Thinking in this way, the goal – in perfect alignment with these values – is not to engage with and persuade others but to overpower their will.  How does this work?  A firm opinion becomes our chosen instrument of aggression.  Then, reflexively judging people who don’t share that opinion, we push for dominance and control; saying, implicitly or explicitly, either agree with me or be pushed aside.

Notice too that the opposite approach – openness to differing points of view and a careful weighing of evidence – cultivates curiosity, reflection, dialogue, respect, and appreciation; all deeply relational qualities.  And being relational, it is utterly inconsistent the mainstream culture’s (non-relational) “certainty/ judgment/dominate and control” mindset.  

So, intent on getting ahead in the world as it is, we instinctually de-emphasize this approach, understanding that – whatever its substantive merits – the far more pressing concern is to avoid being labeled as weak, wishy-washy and indecisiveness.


The good news in all of this is that the habits of thought we are seeking to undo are not the result of “stupidity;” of an innate inability to engage in reasoned thought and analysis.  Indeed, jumping to this all too easy conclusion is itself just another manifestation of the judgmental and dismissive mindset we are seeking to overcome.

But the fact that we are not dealing with an unalterable biological defect does not mean the pattern is easily changed.  To the contrary, we are dealing with mindsets that are deeply embedded in our habitual, mainstream ways of operating.

So how do we begin to undo them?  A good starting place is to identify the common conceptual pitfalls that allow these habitual ways of thinking to infiltrate and colonize our psyches.

Here are some key examples.

Assuming the best about “us”

One particularly corrosive example is our tendency to assume the best about members of our group.  Thus, I vividly recall an episode of the Daily Show, a few years ago, in which Jon Stewart presented side-by-side videos of Barack Obama and George W. Bush saying the exact same things on a series of foreign policy issues.  The show’s “reporter” reacted with mock exasperation, saying that Obama is “different.”  Why? “Because he doesn’t mean it.”

Stewart’s point is, of course, a serious one.  Our tendency to assume the best about people like us is chronic – and seldom acknowledged. So, as discussed above, most of us refuse to connect the negative dots about America’s system of government, seeing repeated examples of cruelty and injustice as unfortunate exceptions in an overall landscape of fairness, decency, and justice.

Assuming the worst about “them”

The converse is also true.  We instinctually judge others by their worst examples, a tendency made more virulent by the media’s eagerness to amplify the shrillest voices; those that promote the most strident and debased versions of the communities they represent.  

This point was driven home for me in the 1990s when I became deeply immersed, as an attorney, in the evangelical world.  Prior to that experience I judged that community by its worst examples – the Jimmy Swaggarts and Tammy Faye Bakers.  Being exposed to many thoughtful and dedicated evangelicals leaders, however, laid bare my reflexively dismissive attitude and guided me toward a more nuanced and respectful view. 

That experience was a stark reminder of how easily I slip into a judgmental frame of mind.  Unless I am vigilant, my habitual, gut response – when presented with people, groups and ideas that are different – is to judge them as “less than,” suspect in their motives, and “wrong.”  “Not knowing” and curiosity are not my instinctual vocabulary.  Compounding the problem is the striking absence of any meaningful social norms, cues, and sanctions to steer me away from this judgmental and dismissive mainstream mindset.

Looking for a single cause

Another equally pervasive pitfall is to look for a singular, value-laden cause. Working with couples is a continual reminder of how widespread this pattern is.  A typical couple will come to counseling with her saying (for example) that “the” problem is that he doesn’t share his feelings and he, in turn, identifying her critical ways as “the” problem.

The reality?  There is no single cause and, typically, no fault.  Instead, there are a series of a mutually reinforcing acts, all taken in good faith, that lead to unfortunate results.  He feels anxious and protects himself by going silent.  Sensing that, she responds with her own protective behavior – a complaint – which triggers a renewed, more escalated response from him; and so on.  Just two good people doing the best they can.

What is true in our intimate relationships is also true in every other area of living.  That malevolent boss or co-worker is almost never the singular cause of our woes at work.  And Wall Street – or Big Government – or Trump – or Clinton (chose your villain) is not “the cause” of our political woes. However, our tendency, over and over again, is to oversimplify and demonize; to feed the certainty/ judgment machine.

Excessive faith in our own instincts and beliefs

The final conceptual pitfall I want to highlight is what Francis Bacon calls the “idiosyncrasies of individual belief and passion” and identifies as one of the key “distorting prisms of human nature.” 

We live in a world that celebrates individualism and, as a corollary, promotes a debased version of relativism:  That everything that everyone thinks is fine.  The result is that when we “feel” something or have a “spiritual experience” we all too easily assign a sweeping meaning to it. 

My problem is not with experience but the with uncritical nature of this meaning making process.  Wouldn’t we be better served if we were more cautious about labeling things as messages from God or the universe?  Wouldn’t we also be better served if we felt culturally empowered to critically question our friends and acquaintances when they offer these sorts of explanations?


Needless to say, there are many other ways in which the mainstream culture’s habitual ways of thinking insinuate themselves into our lives.  Hopefully, a deeper understanding of these processes – and the intent behind them – will allow us to cultivate more curious, accepting, and reflective habits of mind.

These are, it seems to me, essential building blocks if we hope to create more nourishing lives and a more decent world.

Reflection 15: Social Justice — Focusing on Business

“Compete and win, dominate and control” – the values that predominate in our culture – are the driving force behind an endlessly complicated system that organizes our day-by-day choices and, thus, our lives. And, as I often point out, systems elaborate and perpetuate themselves. So it is no surprise that a vast array of perspectives and habitual ways of operating have embedded these values in virtually every aspect of our lives.

Teasing these processes out, in all their variety and subtlety, is an essential part of meaningful change work. Far more than we understand, our best efforts to create better lives and a better world are defeated by these assumed and unexamined perspectives on living.

This Reflection deals with one example: Our taken for granted ways of viewing social justice and social change work.


In our generally accepted, mainstream definition of social justice, our efforts are directed toward bringing greater equity and justice into the lives of economically and socially disenfranchised people. While this definition seems sensible, it is, in reality, a mechanism for guiding otherwise well-intentioned people away from any serious investment in social change work.

Here’s how the process works.

Defining social justice in this way, we are invited into two areas of activity. One option – the global approach – is to tackle one of the big issues: Poverty, war, environmental degradation.

But, given the size of these issues, it is not an effective call to action. Who do we call? What meeting do we go to go? – to make even the smallest perceptible dent in world hunger. Lacking any but the most quixotic of answers, we stifle our better instincts and get back to the more pressing business of getting by in the world as it is.

The other option that this definition invites – the worm’s eye view – is to do service work: Volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity or a local shelter. Here too, however, we quickly see the insignificance of our contribution. Given the macro forces that drive our society, we could work at the shelter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of our lives, and things will continue to deteriorate. Once again, we are offered option that invites discouragement and inaction.

And there is a deeper problem with this approach.

While good things certainly happen when we pursue social justice in these culturally sanctioned ways, the unfortunate truth is that, channeled into these areas of activity, we wind up focusing on the consequences of our inhumane culture – instead of on the culture itself. It’s as though, with a pack of wolfs running loose, we focus all of our efforts on patching up the wounds of the injured, making no effort to hunt and kill the pack.

And this, of course, is our reality. We are being attacked, every day, by an enormous, culturally sanctioned pack of ravenous wolves – with most of us being both wolves (or wolf enablers) and their victims.

The overall effect? Our reform energies are marginalized, allowing on our status quo ways of operating to continue without effective challenge.


So what is the way out? We need to shift our strategic focus from the victims of the system to its perpetrators.

And who are these perpetrators? Virtually all of us since, when we are unflinchingly honest in our assessment of others – and of ourselves – we see extent to which the culture’s predominant mindsets push every one of us toward a life whose operative priorities are money, possessions, and power.

Given this reality, what is the better approach to social justice?

Imploring largely indifferent, success-oriented politicians and businesspeople to allocate more dollars for the poor is frustrating, to be sure. But the work is important, affecting the lives of millions, and needs to continue.

However, this should no longer be our highest priority. Instead, our initiatives need to be organized around, and grow out of a larger, overarching strategic frame that systematically challenges the culture’s routine, taken-for-granted habits of mind and ways of operating.

One by-product of this shift in strategic focus is that it avoids the global vs. worm’s eye dichotomy that plagues current social justice efforts. Instead, we will be able see, with far greater clarity, the extent to which endemic indecency – and its inevitable handmaiden, injustice – is, quite literally, everywhere. It dominates our politics, to be sure. But it is also deeply embedded in our day-to-day dealings as workers and consumers – and in our personal relationships as well.

Armed with this new perspective, every day, and virtually every encounter, will become an opportunity to make choices that model and promote a more humane set of values and, with it, greater equity and justice. In all that we do, we will be empowered make meaningful choices in support of a more decent life and world.


Systemic social justice efforts usually focus on politics. Against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we hope that an electorate indoctrinated into a competitive, every man for himself, dog eat dog approach to living will elect good-hearted politicians who will legislate on behalf of the disenfranchised.

When we focus on bad values as the root cause of injustice, however, the obvious becomes painfully clear: Politicians are not motivated by humane values and are not even leaders in any meaningful sense. They are instead polltakers and panderers who, in their zeal to get elected, unerringly reflect the culture’s predominant values.

So where should our organizing efforts be directed? Toward business, the epicenter and driving force behind the culture’s indecent values. Why? Because the wealth generated by business is the main driver of system. Not just politicians but also the media, mainstream churches, universities, and nonprofits – all are dependent on streams of financing and income that find their way back to business’ profits and accumulated capital.

Given this reality, imagine how different things would be if mainstream companies were seriously committed to quality products at a fair price, worker welfare, truth in marketing, socially conscious purchasing and investing, environmental prudence, and so on. Indeed, the simple truth is this: If the prevailing mindset in business shifts and, with it, its allocation of resources, the world in which we live will shift with it.


There are a number of factors that make a strategic initiative in the workplace feasible – exquisitely difficult but realistic nonetheless. To begin with, there are no elections. An empowered CEO can simply implement Radical Decency.

Moreover, the idea that a company can be fully committed to Radical Decency – and profitable – is entirely plausible. Such a company would be well positioned to attract a highly competent and fiercely loyal group of employees and customers. Imagine, for example, the market niche for the first credit card company that treats its customers fairly – doing away with 30 page single spaced contracts, usurious interest rates, and exorbitant penalties and late charges.

The business world also lends itself to serious organizing efforts in the service of Radical Decency. Meetings to discuss its implementation can occur at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and people will show up on time and treat their take-away assignments seriously. Why? Because it’s part of their jobs.

And while this last point may seem trivial point, it isn’t. Imagine – by way of contrast – how hard it would be to schedule a single meeting of neighbors, let alone a series of meetings, to take action against a local environmental hazard?


Needless to say, getting such a movement off the ground – even in individual companies – will present an enormous challenge. One problem is that many companies have cynically crafted marketing campaigns around decent sounding themes (“quality is our most important product;” “Nationwide is on your side”). For this reason, any initiative in this area is likely to be greeted with skepticism, both within the company and in the marketplace.

For this reason, the project can only succeed if decency is applied radically – at all times, in every context, and without exception. And that requires guts, patience and persistence. Absent such a commitment, mainstream competitive pressures and habits of mind will overwhelm the initiative, unraveling it piece by piece, exception by pragmatic exception:

  • Quality compromised for the sake of profitability;
  • Lawyers dictating how disputes are handled;
  • The reduction or elimination of humane worker benefits and environmental programs when (as is inevitable) a few less profitable quarters are strung together.


The initiative for this shift in approach could come from many sources – shareholder activists, unions, business schools, socially conscious investors. My immediate hope, however, is that a group of wise and determined business people – seeing these possibilities – will undertake the serious work of organizing for Radical Decency, in both their individual businesses and in the larger business community.

The chance of such an initiative actually transforming our mainstream ways of doing business is, of course, surpassingly small. So, as we take on this seemingly quixotic project, we need to keep two things in mind.

  1. The future is inherently uncertain. So who knows? This new model may actually catch on; and
  2. In every area of living in which it is embraced with focus and persistence, Radical Decency is its own reward. There is, quite simply, no a better way to spend our time and energy — or to run our businesses.

Reflection 14: Dying – and Our Epidemic of Immortality

The goal of Radical Decency is to be decent to our self, others, and the world, at all times, in every context, and without exception. But across-the-board decency – as opposed to pick-and-chose decency – is impossible if our habitual beliefs and behaviors are not in tune with our biological realities.

When such a disconnection occurs, the physical realities that define us – and limit of our possibilities – inevitably emerge. And the conflict between our biology and these “unnatural” thoughts and actions brings, with it, a high risk of pain for our self and others.

One the obvious example of this phenomenon is the suppression of female sexuality at so many points in our history. Think of the incalculable damage that it has caused in the lives of countless generations of women?

In this Reflection, I discuss another pervasive and deeply consequential distortion of our innate biology: The way in which we view dying and incorporate that reality into our lives.


There are two events that define us more than any others: Birth and death.

The first just happens, with no awareness or anticipation on our part.

Dying, however, is different. An awareness of our mortality is inescapably with us throughout our lives, and how we deal with it is vital to our quality of life. As Irvin Yalom, one of our foremost psychotherapeutic theorists, flatly states: Whether acknowledged or not, mortality is a key issue in every clinical relationship – every one.

Unfortunately, the values that drive our culture, and mold our choices, deeply marginalize this reality. If asked, we agree that death is inevitable. But the ways in which we compose our lives speak to a very different, if unspoken, operative reality.

We live in a world where the fantasy of dominance and control is pre-eminent. We can do anything if we try hard enough – and are “less than,” losers, if we don’t.

Thoroughly interwoven into this larger message is the implicit belief that, through shrewd choices and sheer force of will, we can make ourselves invulnerable to the effects of time. The right combination of food, vitamins, supplements, exercise, and stretching will allow us to always feel great and never get sick.

And we supplement this fantasy of actual invincibility with an increasingly mainstream regiment of artifice. We dye our hair; surgically alter our faces, breasts, and thighs; inject botox; and consume viagara – all strategies designed to maintain the illusion of perpetual youth, not only for others but for ourselves as well.

Moreover, the mainstream medical profession is fully complicit in promoting this illusion of immortality.

  • We will find a cure for cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s – indeed for every malady that can kill us; and
  • Patients in their 80s and 90s – in the last stages of their biologically programmed deterioration – are put on experimental drugs.

Death isn’t the natural endpoint of life. It is an enemy to be defeated.


Regular exercise, sensible diets and good medical care are, of course, positive things.  But this motivating mindset is not. The unstated goal is never to get old, never to die.  Our idealized 40 year-old feels 25. Our 60 year-old role model looks and acts 40.

In this way, the reality of dying never arrives. It is always out there in the future – 10 years further down the road from wherever we are now.  Somewhere in this process, of course, we die. But by virtue of this cognitive sleight of hand, it is always premature – an unfortunate stroke of bad fortune.


We pay a high price for this chronic state of denial. A natural rhythm of living is built into our nature. Fully embraced, each stage of life has its own special challenges and rewards. But all that is swept aside when we reflexively seek to freeze our outlook and choices, struggling to maintain the ambition and sexual allure of a 35 year old into our 60s and beyond.

Chronic denial of aging also leaves us unprepared when life’s natural end point becomes imminent. We typically react to a terminal diagnosis with disbelief which, when you think about it, is truly funny. Did we really think it wasn’t going to happen to us?

What is less funny is the fact that we then face this final challenge with little or no psychic preparation. The result? Too many of us die badly, railing against our fate and filled with complaints because our bodies no longer work as they’re “supposed to.”


The more sensible approach is to embrace death and dying in ways that empower us to live more fully and vibrantly. My particular take on how to do this is framed by two stories.

Not long ago I listened to an interview with Nuala O’Faolain, the Irish memoirist, who, living with a terminal diagnosis, was struggling with the fact that all of her wisdom would die with her. Hearing her anguish, I remembered a second story, of a woman whose Berkeley Hills house burned down in the 1980s, destroying all of her possessions.

Shortly after this event, people started contacting her. Years earlier she had copied her favorite recipes and sent them to a friend. That friend called to say that she was re-copying the recipes and sending them back to her. Her children also called to say they were making copies of the family photos she had faithfully sent to them over the years.  As these calls continued, the woman realized this: The only thing that was safely hers was what she had given away.

So here, it seems to me, is the answer to O’Faolain’s dilemma. One way to look at the rhythm of our years is to think of it as consisting of two interwoven but distinct paths.

The first – an acquisitive one – starts at a high level, exemplified by the infant who is constantly exploring, touching, experimenting, testing, and learning. This remains our dominant preoccupation into young adulthood as we hone our social and romantic skills, build careers and establish homes, families, and places in the community.

The second path – of giving it away – is always there as well. Indeed, Radical Decency teaches that, in healthy intimate relationships, loving and being loved are completely intertwined. Thus, effective giving is a skill we need to master as we emerge as seasoned adults. But while giving away is an important subtext in the earlier years of life, there comes a point when it needs to become our central focus.

Even into our 60s and 70s, the culture invites us to continue our acquisitive ways: To go on striving in our careers; to gorge ourselves on trips, games and new toys; to remain competitive with younger people, both professionally and socially.

The obvious problem with this approach is that it’s doomed to failure. Even Hugh Hefner eventually becomes a pathetic and laughable caricature: A doddering old man in pajamas.  The less obvious – and more serious – problem is that it crowds out the more nourishing promise of our later years. Properly conceived, these years are an incredibly sweet race against time: To give away as much as we can while we can; my answer to O’Faolain’s dilemma.

In making this our priority, we replace the doomed goal of “staying in the race” with a more realistic purpose. Here is a goal for our final years that offers an ennobling, life-affirming challenge; one that requires wisdom, sensitivity, imagination, patience, and persistence.

A serious commitment to “giving it away” also invites us to die well. While it is seldom acknowledged, everyone who loves us will be exquisitely aware — as we grow old — of  our death’s inevitable approach and deeply attentive when it finally arrives. Thus, if we are serious about our vocation of loving and nourishing our loved ones, our death is an absolutely vital and formative moment; our final, really big challenge – and opportunity.

What greater gift can we give to those we love than to handle this last and greatest of life’s mysteries with equanimity, acceptance and, even, curiosity and anticipation? Dying well, we give them an invaluable role model that, hopefully, will help to nourish and sustain them as they face their own decline and death.

As I write this Reflection I am 68, ridiculously healthy, feeling great. Knowing that dying can be really tough, I worry that I am being glib and Pollyanna-ish. When my own decline and death arrives, I may not live up to these brave words. But I also know that giving away what I have – now – is not just a nourishing way to spend my next years.  It is also the best way I know to prepare for my last, really big moment – when it arrives.

When I die, I hope to kick some serious butt!