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.