“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.
- The future is inherently uncertain. So who knows? This new model may actually catch on; and
- 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.