Reflection 20: Social Justice – The Third Rail of Radical Decency

When it comes to our self and our intimate relationships, many of us approach Radical Decency with curiosity, even eagerness.

But when it comes to social justice, things are different. Confronting the grim, unforgiving face of poverty and discrimination is too demanding. We instinctually fear that a full engagement with these issues might make uncomfortable demands on our time and money

Unfortunately, finessing our commitment to Radical Decency, in this area, is all too easy. Because injustice is so thoroughly condoned in the mainstream culture, there are no perceptible sanctions attached to indifference. Indeed, even half-hearted efforts, far from being critically examined, are celebrated in completely disproportionate ways. We seldom point out the obvious: Small financial contributions relative to net worth and occasional service days – while helpful – are no cause for congratulation.

Radical Decency can transform us but only if it is embraced boldly. If our commitment is tepid – if we shy away from its most perplexing and uncomfortable challenges – its rewards will be equally tepid.

Why? Because we are so thoroughly immersed in an indecent culture. For this reason, if we practice decency on a “pick and choose” basis, the attitudes and values of the mainstream culture will inevitably invade and pollute the small islands of decency we seek to create in our private lives.

Failing to fully embrace the philosophy’s challenge in the area of social justice will, like any other significant omission, irrevocably compromise our ability to inhabit the psychic and emotional states that transform Radical Decency into a vital, life-changing philosophy – and are among its greatest rewards:

  • Living in the present;
  • Appreciation, acceptance and empathy for self and others;
  • Clarity about priorities and choices;
  • An ennobling purpose in life.

See Reflection 13, Decency Is Its Own Reward.


Recent progress notwithstanding, discriminatory patterns continue to vitally affect women, racial and sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and others. However, we also need to recognize our dismal history with regard to economic injustice.

Decade by decade, the gap between the rich and poor steadily widens, even as programs to level the competitive playing field or to relieve poverty’s consequences continue to shrink. “Decency to the world” requires our full engagement, not just in response to sexism and racism but also with the thornier, less acknowledged, and deeply consequential issues of economic injustice.

Our engagement with social justice issues needs to begin with the recognition that – despite heroic efforts by many remarkable people – our current efforts are not working. Better political candidates, new governmental programs, more generous support for the nonprofit sector – none of these mainstream approaches has been able to counteract the avaricious, profit-first, economic forces that dictate our public choices. Understanding this, leads inescapably to the following conclusion: We need to create new, more effective ways of engaging with issues of social justice.

To do so, however, we first need to better understand why patterns of injustice are so pervasive and persistent. And that is the focus of this Reflection.

In other Reflections, I build on these understandings: Offering a roadmap, grounded in Radical Decency’s principles, for more effectively addressing issues of social justice. See, in that regard,

  • Reflection 7 Gathering in the Good Guys;
  • Reflection 15 Social Justice – Focusing on Business;
  • Reflection 45 Re-visioning Social Change Work;
  • Reflection 49 Politics – Systems Analysis, Values Solutions;
  • Reflections 75 and 76 Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 & 2; and
  • Reflections 73 Making Broadcast News More Radically Decent.


Seeking to understand why injustice is so persistent in our world, one perplexing – and, to my mind, crucial – question keeps coming up: Why do the victims put up with it? Systematically cut off from the mainstream economy, starved for services, and locked up in astonishing numbers, why don’t the residents of North Philadelphia burn Center City down?

Another key question is why the more privileged, with whom the poor and disenfranchised live in such close proximity, allow this to happen? Why do so many good people ignore what’s going on just a few miles from their homes; just outside the window of the commuter train that takes them to and from work each day?

Three key processes help to answer these questions.

The first grows directly out of the culture’s predominant “compete and win, dominate and control” values. Given the compelling, day by day pressure of these values, serious and sustained attention to larger, social issues feels, to most of us, like an unacceptably risky diversion of time, energy, and resources from our compelling need “get by” and “get ahead” in our intensely competitive world.

The second process speaks directly to the “why do they put up with it” issue. In Community and Confluence, Philip Lichtenberg describes a pivotal psychological transaction that operates in sexism, racism, economic exploitation, and every other authoritarian system: The dominant person’s projection of his pain onto the victim and, crucially, the victim’s internalization of that person’s pain.

So as a young lawyer, I was the unwitting beneficiary of patriarchal and economic privilege. Preparing for court and unable to find a file, I would yell at my secretary: “Where the [bleep] is the discovery folder?” Thrown into a place of anxiety by my aggressive words, she would then scurry around, seeking to solve my problem.

What Lichtenberg points out is that, as the privileged person in an authoritarian system, I had transferred my anxiety to my secretary – and, she had taken it on.

This same pattern repeats itself in myriad of ways with disenfranchised people. The result is that, like my secretary, they fail to react to bullying, exploitative behaviors with appropriate pushback. Instead, internalizing the aggressor, they experience pain – anxiety, confusion, and self-judgment.

This transaction is emotional and not cognitive. And one of life’s more uncomfortable lessons is that, recognizing an established emotional pattern, does not mean we can flip a switch and stop it. Once in place, psychological systems are exceedingly difficult to unravel. So, not surprisingly, this process of internalizing the aggressor hamstrings the ability of disenfranchised people to overcome social and economic exploitation.

In Encountering Bigotry and Getting Even, Lichtenberg and his co-authors provide a detailed program for weaning ourselves from this debilitating authoritarian pattern. I would urge anyone interested in Radical Decency to read these books as well as Lichtenberg’s seminal work, Community and Confluence.

The final process I want to discuss further explains why so many good people are so passive in the face of grotesque – and routine – manifestations of injustice.

To frame the issue, consider these two hypotheticals.

In the first, a woman stops her car before a man who is bleeding profusely at an accident scene. Her first instinct is to respond to his urgent request for a ride to the emergency room. But, then, remembering the cost of the new leather seats in her Lexus, she declines.

In the second hypothetical, a man is going through his bills and comes across a request, from a highly reputable nonprofit, for $200, to “save the life” of a child in Bangladesh. Having just flipped through his mortgage, electric, and cable bills, he quietly throws the request in the trash.

The premise of the researchers who created these hypotheticals is that there is no substantive difference between the two scenarios. In each, a choice is made to ignore the dire needs of a fellow human being and, instead, to devote resources to the protagonist’s much less compelling material needs and desires.

And yet, not surprisingly, the researchers report much greater outrage at the woman’s behavior.

So what is going on? The answer is that, as we evolved as a species, we developed a powerful empathic system. But the context within which it developed was a hunter/gatherer society, our reality for 290,000 out of the 300,000 years that constitute our history as Homo sapiens. And in that environment, there was, literally, no larger world with which to concerns our selves.

So, even today, we respond powerfully, at a gut emotional level, to the bleeding man in front us just as our evolutionary wiring dictates. By contrast, we are not wired to react as empathically to suffering occurring halfway around the world – or in an unseen neighborhood, a few miles from our comfortable suburban home.


All three of these processes are deeply engrained in our psyches. And because they are emotionally based, they will typically trump reasoned arguments in favor of a more robust engagement with issues of social justice.

But our emotions are not our destiny. Better understanding and attending to them, we can consciously cultivate a different path, weaning ourselves over time from these old habits of mind. And that goal is vital if we hope to reap the benefits, individually and collectively, of a Radical Decency practice.

Reflection 19: Wisdom Stretching and Across the Board Decency

Radical Decency is a practical, action-oriented philosophy, thoroughly rooted in our day-by-day choices. As a result, there are important “how to” lessons that only emerge from its sustained practice. In this Reflection, I discuss two of these lessons; aspects of Radical Decency that need to be understood if we hope to make it a living reality in our lives and in the world.

  1. The Vital Importance of Across-the-Board Decency

Most approaches to living put a priority on one area of living over others. The mainstream culture, for example, puts financial (and physical) security first, making work the priority. We feel compelled to stay late at the office or go in on weekends because we “have to.” But we have a much more difficult time taking Thursday afternoons off for our kid’s soccer game or to visit mom’s nursing home.

Many “do gooders” are similarly one-sided in their point of emphasis but go to the opposite extreme, privileging others over themselves. The golden rule speaks about “doing unto others” but, even in its most expansive interpretation, soft-pedals how you treat your self.

With Radical Decency, by contrast, our efforts to live differently and better require us to attend to all areas of living. Why? Because our biology demands it.

We are intensely creatures of habit. We are saddled with brains that are designed to work on automatic pilot; that quickly revert to the familiar absent sustained and conscious efforts to do something different.

For this reason, partial approaches to change – what I call “pick and choose” decency – will never work. We tell ourselves we can be decent in one area – to our self and our family (for example) – and, at the same time, “do what we have to do, out there, in the real world.” In the end, however, we continue to:

  • Compulsively compare our self with other – seeking to be the “best” or, at least, “better than”;
  • Slip into manipulative behaviors – lest someone gets the better of us;
  • Squeeze our fun times and private passions into nights and weekends – out of fear that easing up, in any substantial way, will risk our ability to survive and get ahead.

In other words, the indecent values and states of mind that pervade our culture and inform our behaviors at work and in the larger world wind up infiltrating and polluting the small islands of sanity we seek to create.

Recognizing this reality, a successful Radical Decency practice requires an across the board commitment to decency. Our engrained, indecent habits of living can only be changed if we systematically cultivate a new, better set of values at all times, in every context, and without exception.

This is the strong medicine we need to counteract our virulent cultural disease.

  1. Wisdom Stretching As a Way of Life

Radical Decency insists on decency to self even as it challenges us to be decent to others and the world. Even in a perfect world, integrating and balancing these often-conflicting goals would be a tough and uncompromising discipline. But the compete/win cultural context in which we live makes the challenge even more difficult. So, for example, we struggle to be decent to our self and others, even as we deal with the daily onslaught of competitive, me-first behaviors from bosses, co-workers, and customers.

Given these realities, we will inevitably fall short of our “decency” goal, being insensitive to the needs of co-workers (less decency to others) – or neglecting environmentally prudent choices (less decency to the world) – or passively tolerating an abusive boss (less decency to self).

How can to we escape the spirit melting discouragement that these circumstances can so easily provoke? A key answer that has emerged for me, as I have sought to “walk the walk” in my own life, begins with a steady reminder that the philosophy is aspirational; an ideal that we will never fully realize. See Reflection 28, An Aspirational Approach to Living.

Fully embracing this perspective, I am increasingly able to bring a very different mindset to the seemingly insoluble dilemmas that the philosophy regularly presents. Instead of feeling discouraged and defeated, the times when I fall short become “wisdom stretching” moments, opportunities to cultivate and sharpen my “wisdom-ing” skills; to do better the next time.


How does wisdom stretching look in practice? Here is an example, using a familiar hypothetical: What to do I do when a beggar asks me for money?

In this situation, most of us start with an instinctual conclusion – either yes or no – that we then bolster with a handy rationale or two. With Radical Decency, however, my approach is very different. Focusing on process and not the result, it invites me to “sit” in this wisdom-stretching moment and to reflect on its implications for decency to self, others, and the world.

Since only a person in extreme need would beg, giving him money has merit. Focusing solely on decency to this person, I might even offer to buy him a meal.

But what about decency to individuals other than the beggar – and to the world – and to my self?

Encouraging public begging condones a violation of other people’s space (decency to others). And a donation to an appropriate agency, instead, would certainly be more strategic (decency to the world). On the other hand, a charitable donation, at a later time, would negate my publicly modeled act of caring (promoting decency to the world) and the good feeling I derive from a spontaneous act of generosity (decency to self).

Thinking in radically decent terms, other considerations abound. Being approached for money, without my permission, disrespects me (decency to self). On the other hand, equity and justice – 2 of decency’s 7 values – are integral to its implementation. And while the culture’s system of rewards and sanctions has materially enhanced my economic status, it has, in all likelihood, severely penalized his. So perhaps this reality should trump his rudeness.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Given the complexity of the world, and the compromised cultural context in which we operate, our ultimate decisions are seldom fully satisfactory. And that is the case here.

However, a radically decent approach, habitually practiced, changes us. Consistently sitting in wisdom-stretching dilemmas, such as this one, the philosophy highlights the implications of each possible course of action and deepens our understanding of their consequences.

As this “wisdom-stretching” perspective increasingly becomes our habitual perspective, the outcome in any particular moment, while always consequential, increasingly becomes part of a larger mosaic. We see our self, and each of our choices, as part of a larger, ongoing trial and error process. And, the quality of our decency practice is less a function of the quality of the choice we make, in this moment, on this issue, and much more about our ability to act, over time, in ways that more fully and creatively integrate and balance all of decency’s aspirational goals within the context of the imperfect world in which we live.


When we put these 2 “lessons learned” together – applying our wisdom-stretching mindset on the across-the-board basis – note the powerful role Radical Decency can play in overcoming our tendency to quietly retreat from our decency practice in areas of living in which it application feels too scary or uncomfortable; just too big a stretch from our habitual ways.

  • For some, the challenge is decency to the world: Struggling to pay the bills and desperately wanting the “best” for our kids, they retreat from any involvement in the larger community.
  • For others, its decency to others: An inability to take significant time from a demanding job to be a steady, consistent presence in the lives of their children, siblings, or aging parents.
  • And for others, decency to self: Overcoming their fears to stand up to an emotionally abusive spouse or co-worker.

These rubber hits the road issues are huge de-railers of Radical Decency. Unable to follow through on the philosophy’s demands in a key area, we too easily slide quietly back into our mainstream ways; avoiding, in this way, the felt sense of failure that our compromised choices would otherwise provoke.

The key here is not to hide from our shortcomings but to embrace them. Of course we will fall short. As Vikki Reynolds says, we are all in the dirty bathtub.

But with this attitude of self-forgiveness, we also need to be willing to change and grow; to acknowledge the wisdom-stretching implications that our choices, especially in these deal-breaker areas, present; to act in ways that, taking us out of our habitual comfort zones, extend our decency practice more and more fully.

Unfortunately, there is no rulebook for deciding when to act boldly and when to respect our limitations. But if we hope to create better lives and contribute to a better world, these leaps of faith will be required, again and again.

On the more hopeful side, we need to remember – always – that when we embrace this difficult work, we are tending to our own healing and growth. The perspectives, outlooks, and feelings that grow out of our willingness to fully engage with these wisdom-stretching dilemmas are, in the end, their own reward. See Reflection 13, Radical Decency Is Its Own Reward.

Reflection 18: Men and Women/ Similarities and Differences

Radical Decency is a relational philosophy, challenging us to be in mutual and authentic contact with our self, others, and the world. For this reason, it impels us to be tireless detectives. Why? Because a deepening understanding of our feelings and motivations, and those of others, is essential if we hope to make better choices in the service of this goal.

Unfortunately, there is little support for this investigative frame of mind in the mainstream culture. Motivated by a competitive, win/lose mindset, we instinctually find a handful of stories that work for us and stick to them. I am a tough guy; or a nurturing wife and mother; or a hard working but unappreciated employee. You are funny and fun loving; or emotional and artistic; or hard driving and critical.

With these stories in place, we become progressively less open, curious and speculative about the enormous complexity of factors that inform our feelings and motivations — and yours. Instead, we cherry pick the evidence, noticing behaviors that support our stories, using them to deepen and harden these views. And what do we do with evidence that contradicts? In the typical case, since it doesn’t fit into our pre-existing frames of reference, it simply disappears from view.


Our gender stereotypes are an especially pernicious example of this phenomenon. Even though it is frequently left unsaid in our current, more politically correct environment, women continue to struggle with the assumption that they are overly emotional, and with as other stereotypes as well; e.g., assertive women are bitches; the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

Also prevalent are the stereotypes that men have to live with:

  • They are insensitive, shallow, self-absorbed louts who need to be placated and handled by women – rather than met and understood.
  • “Testosterone poisoning” makes them overly aggressive.
  • They are sexual “dogs,” ready to “screw anything that moves.”

These stereotypes deeply hamper our ability to understand and empathize with the opposite sex. And since we tend to internalize the stereotypes assigned to our gender, they hamstring our self-understanding as well.


So how should we understand our similarities and differences as men and women? Here are a few orienting, context-framing thoughts.

  1. Our common humanity

Yes, we are different but not in the sweeping, judgmental ways that are our received cultural “wisdom.” Since both sexes experience the full range of human emotions — anger, vulnerability, sexual desire, empathy, and so on – it is implausible to assume that our different styles of emoting are hardwired and immutable.

More fundamentally, our differences are of little consequence when we remember the larger existential context we share. We are all, men and women alike, here through no choice of our own. We, and every one we love, are going to die. And with no agreed upon roadmap to tell us how to behave while we are here, everything we do – while we are here – is made up. Finally, and crucially, we know all this.

Like soldiers on the front line in a meaningless war, the need to deal with these unforgiving contextual realities shapes a commonality of experience that eclipses our differences.

  1. Gender-based differences; origins and implications

But there are gender-based differences and understanding why they exist enhances our ability to be more attuned, loving and empathic to the opposite sex – and to our selves as well. As I have explored these differences in my own life, and as a therapist, an overarching conceptual frame has emerged that explains many of these differences far more persuasively than the easy gender-based stereotypes that dominate in the mainstream culture.

We have existed as a distinct line of primates for 7 million years and as Homo sapiens for about 300,000 years. And for all but the last 10,000 years or so, we existed in small groups of hunter/gatherers. Not surprisingly, then, so much of what we have become through the process of natural selection evolved in the hunter/gatherer context.

Steven Stosny points out that, in order to use our energy efficiently, women evolved as the group’s early warning system, as the folks who scan for danger. Thus, even today, it is the woman who typically bolts up and bed and says, “I think I heard something.” And, since duplicating the women’s process made no sense, men evolved as reactors, not to the environment, but to women’s emotions.

Given this evolutionary division of labor, men and women developed different emotional sensitivities. Continually scanning for danger, women became especially susceptible to safety issues. Men, by contrast, molded in this evolutionary dance to respond to women’s needs, became more susceptible to the shame that results when they fall short as providers, protectors, and lovers.

This distinction explains a lot.

A couple comes into my office and she is upset. They hosted Thanksgiving dinner and, while he did the discrete chores she “assigned” to him, he seemed to shrug off her far more focused and intense concerns about how the house looked and whether the guests were being graciously attended to.

Why is this couple struggling? Because no one told them that the woman – wired to be more sensitive to safety issues – had an experience that is very different from his. For him, a few folks were getting together for dinner. For her, the warm and nurturing “safe” sanctuary that she is emotionally wired to create was being opened to her entire clan. So he, without any understanding of the gut-level depth of her feelings, thought his behavior was just fine while she felt unseen and unappreciated.

Needless to say, analogous situations happen in reverse. Wired to be a provider, protector, and lover, powerful feelings of shame come up for him when (for example) his competence at work is challenged. Now she is the one who doesn’t understand. Why is work so important to you? Why are you so withdrawn and preoccupied? He, in turn, feels misunderstood and alone – for reasons he only vaguely understands.

Notice also how this evolutionary artifact explains women’s alleged over emotionality. Challenges to a man’s core sensitivity – shame – tend to be discrete and boundaried. He loses his job. His wife is sexually disappointed. His competence is questioned. However, the events triggering a woman’s core sensitivity – perceived danger – are more diffuse and pervasive. So, perhaps, women aren’t more emotional. It’s just that we live in a world in which their triggering events are far more prevalent.

This evolutionary difference also explains why men avoid conversations about feelings. For women, an ongoing intimate dialogue is an anxiety reducer, allowing them to monitor the situation moment by moment; to confirm that all is well or, alternatively, that danger exists. For men, however, no such emotional pay-off exists. When his wife says, “we need to talk,” his evolutionary wiring signals risk only: The possibility of disappointment, judgment – and shame.


It also explains why men – when they get together – talk sports, exchange insults, and leave pizza boxes and crushed beer cans on the couch. Looking for surcease from the risk of shame, they are creating shame-free zones where nothing he does will be judged – unless of course he acts like a girl (hence, the far greater prevalence of homophobia in men?).

There are, of course, many factors besides this danger/shame dichotomy that shed light on our gender-based differences. Focusing on cultural influences, for example, Real and Gilligan explain how boys are pulled away from intimacy but are allowed their power, while girls maintain intimacy but are pushed to relinquish their assertiveness. Understanding these pressures, we no longer need to see either sex as inherently limited in the areas they are culturally pushed to relinquish.

Thus, for example, we can let go of the view that boys and men are hard-wired to be angry and aggressive. It’s just that for them anger and aggression are more socially acceptable than vulnerability and tears. In short, these are learned behaviors.

Similarly, men’s preoccupation with sex is more accurately viewed as an understandable pre-occupation with one of the few places where they can receive the hugging, stroking, and nurturing they learned to retreat from at such an early age.


With a deeper understanding of our gender differences, here is the hopeful news:

  1. Because we are dealing with learned behaviors, our culturally engrained habits and mindsets can be unlearned. Men and women alike can grow into more fully human ways of living; and
  1. An increased understanding of the true nature of our gender-based differences can naturally lead to a greater sense of understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation for members of the opposite sex – and for our own gendered journey as well.

Radical Decency promises – and demands – nothing less.

Reflection 17: Decency Defined

“Decency” is a useful summarizing term, evoking certain attitudes and behaviors, and disqualifying others. But Radical Decency’s goal is broad and ambitious: To provide a more humane, orienting frame of reference for handling the endless variety of situations and circumstances that constitute our lives. To move effectively toward this goal, a detailed roadmap for understanding what we mean by “decency” is essential.

Toward that end, I have evolved this working definition:

  • Respect;
  • Understanding and empathy;
  • Acceptance and appreciation;
  • Fairness and justice.

Testing this definition’s utility, over time, I always refer back to this intensely practical question, at the heart of Radical Decency: How well does it support us in making the day by day choices that can best guide us toward more nourishing, purposeful, and generative lives and a meaningfully contribution to a better world?


Respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness, and justice – each is a broad concept, open to a wide variety of interpretations. And each is more commonly viewed as a distinct value, at best only loosely related to the others. However, operationalizing Radical Decency, we need to view these 7 values as a unified whole, with each working with – and magnifying – the others’ impact.

The discussion that follows describes each of these 7 values and then offers key examples of how they interconnect and mutually reinforce one another.


Respect is Radical Decency’s entry way value; the orienting context in which the other values can be more productively cultivated. When it is absent, our empathy and desire to do justice quickly dissipate in the face of behaviors we find uncomfortable or offensive. As a nonprofit executive once told me, far too many donors are only interested in “pretty little white girls in wheelchairs” – and are decidedly uninterested in “overweight, verbally abrasive African Americans.”

The mainstream culture typically associates respect with politeness: Expressing yourself with civility; making space for others. Properly conceived, however, it encompasses much more, challenging us to consistently presume good will and, with it, a seriousness of purpose; to sustain that presumption in the face of provocation; and to find value in the contribution of others.

The competitive, win/lose values that pervade our culture make manipulative and underhanded behavior all too common. So, it goes without saying, we need to apply these principles with an appropriate level of caution. But our self-protective instincts need to operate in a larger context in which we actively seek to interrupt our automatic inclination to (for example) label anyone who disagrees with our political outlook as a heartless conservative or knee jerk liberal; or to view a critical friend as selfish or mean.

A belief in the other’s bad motives needs to be our last option. We need to strive, instead, to make sense of people with whom we disagree; to see them as people who, seeking to get by in a difficult world, are doing the best they can.

Understanding and Empathy

Primed by our habit of “respect” to be curious, rather than judgmental and dismissive, there is a natural flowering of understanding and empathy: Our ability to be aware of, and receptive to, differing outlooks, beliefs and communication styles. We are better able to see the world as others see it (understanding, or cognitive discernment), and to experience in our bones what it feels like to be that other person (empathy, or emotional and visceral discernment).

Many people instinctually resist these “soft and fuzzy” values, seeing them as an invitation to bullying and domination. Far from advancing the goal of better lives and a better world, their consistent application will (they tell themselves) simply invite victimization. Driven by this fear, they are drawn to a “fight fire with fire” approach – seeking to overpower their adversaries, silencing their voices.

This approach will never succeed – if our goal is a more a humane life. Adopting it, even a “win” becomes a loss since it perpetuates the very value system we seek to overcome: Compete and win, dominate and control.

The stark truth is this: We’ll never be able to bully or manipulate our spouse – or the world – into being more relational and decent.

Acceptance and Appreciation

We live in a culture where the norm is to see our group as “good” and the other side as “bad.” But this dismissive/judgmental mindset flies in the face of a deeper truth: The full range of human thoughts, feelings, and actions are within all of us – from the most loving and generative to the most hateful and destructive. So while there is, indeed, a significant subset of “permanently stuck” people who are locked into ways of living that inflict pain on others, the great majority of us have, within us, the ability to nurture our better instincts and, thus, to lead more decent lives.

This understanding leads directly to my inclusion of acceptance and appreciation as key decency values. Cultivating these qualities we become active agents in the effort to nurture and support the emergence of this potential in others and, crucially, in our selves as well.

“Acceptance” is grounded in the Buddhist belief that, because we are human, all things human are within us and will come our way – from the most uplifting to the most painful and demoralizing. Thus, it makes no sense to treat an adversary – be it another person or unappreciated part of our own psyche – as an aberration or an affront. Better to view them as inevitable parts of living and, thus, with a sense of acceptance and equanimity.

“Appreciation” grows out of the realization, central to Imago couples therapy, that everyone (and every thought and feeling we carry within us) makes complete sense if we just know enough about this person’s innate disposition, history, adaptations to that history, and hopes and dreams for the future. Given this reality, appreciation for the pain, confusion, and struggle that we, and others, experience as we seek to get by in life – though highly aspirational – is a realistic and worthy goal.

Note, importantly, that we are talking about acceptance and appreciation of each “person” and not of that person’s beliefs and actions. Thus, even as we cultivate an increasing sense of acceptance oand appreciation of a person with whom we fundamentally disagree, we can continue to be fierce and determined advocates for the values in which we believe.

When we bring these mindsets to every interaction – accepting each person for who they are; appreciating the fact that a very human struggle has led them to this place in life – we turn away from the “right/wrong, good/bad” mindset that permeates our culture, nurturing instead the kind of mutual and authentic interactions that are the hallmark of decency.

Fairness and Justice

Being fair, we are alive to the consequences of our choices for our selves and others, and seek to balance them in an equitable way. Being just, we cultivate and maintain a sense of accountability for our own actions and the actions of others.

Notice importantly that, from a Radical Decency perspective, the goal is not to judge our selves and others. Instead, we are reaching for an ongoing, fearless inventory of what we and others are doing that will, in turn, push us to consistently challenge the inequities and injustices that litter our life and world.

A full-throttle commitment to fairness and justice is the crucial, rubber-hit-the-road test of our commitment to Radical Decency. It is at this point – and at this point only – that we become active agents for fundamental change. And our commitment to these values needs to be across-the-board, extending:

  • To our political and communal engagements;
  • To our personal relationships – fully recognizing that bullying or silencing a spouse or child perpetuates the same patterns of inequity and injustice that permeate the world; and
  • To our selves – being equally effective in countering these behaviors when they’re directed toward us.

The Interconnectedness of Decency’s 7 Values

To see how these qualities reinforce one another, consider “respect.” In the absence of “understanding,” “empathy,” “fairness” and “justice,” respect is pallid and incomplete, exemplified at its worse by the cold, even cruel person who is unfailingly polite.

Similarly, fairness and justice – uninformed by respect, understanding, and empathy – invite angry, adversarial, and dismissive behavior. And, when you think about it, history is littered with examples of this behavior: The person, devoted to the principles of his religion or utopian political sect, that is severely, even murderously dismissive of nonbelievers.

Another example of the 7 values deep interconnectivity is the relationship between empathy, on the one hand, and understanding and justice, on the other.

Because we live in an indecent world, we need to manage our feelings of empathy judiciously. Understanding this enables us to be more discerning, measured and appropriately protective when, viewing the object of our instinctual “empathic” concern through the lens of “justice,” we take his duplicitous or manipulative behaviors into account. And, on the flip side, embracing an active sense of “justice,” we are better able to act on feelings of “empathy” even when it involves sacrifice, risk, or discomfort.

Finally, notice how acceptance and appreciation reinforce and solidify the other 5 values.

We, humans, are wired to be tribal in our outlook, seeing the best in people like us even as we judge others by their worst examples. For this reason, our vocation of decency is deeply challenged when we are dealing with people whose ideas or ways of living feel alien to us.

How in the world can I maintain an attitude of respect, understanding, empathy, fairness and justice when “that” idiot shows up on the TV screen? When my overwhelming instinct is to yell at him or switch the channel? How can I maintain a decency practice – with these kinds of people – when the entire effort feels like a grim, uncomfortable and, ultimately, untenable exercise in pretending to be someone I am not.

This is precisely the point at which “acceptance” and “appreciation” come to the fore. Cultivating these values in every interaction and in every context of living – so that, with time, they become increasingly habitual – we are empowered:

  1. To vigorously resist the “unfair” and “unjust” byproducts of that person’s outlook and choices; and, at the same time,
  2. To “accept” the fact that he is just another human being struggling to find his way in the world and “appreciate” his essential humanity; a humanity that is, in the end, no different than ours; and, thus,
  3. To interrupt and displace our knee-jerk reactivity to this person, allowing us to engage with him with “respect,” “understanding,” “empathy,” “fairness,” and “justice.”


I have been developing, honing, and revising my definition of decency over the course of many years. But like everything else in Radical Decency, it is – and remains – a work in progress. So I invite you to evaluate it with these questions in mind:

  • How effective is it in moving you – day by day, choice by choice – toward a better life and a meaningful contribution to a better world; and
  • Are there ways in which it can be improved upon?