Reflection 30: In Defense of Our Troubling Values

Central to Radical Decency is the belief that:

  1. A specific set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – are pre-eminent in our culture and, thus, wildly over-emphasized in our day by day choices;
  2. That the result is incalculable damage our selves, others, and the world; and,
  3. If we hope to live differently and better, we need to wean ourselves from the corrosive habits of living, spawned by the relentless emphasis on these values, replacing them with more decent ways of being.

Repeating this formulation over and over, it is easy to create a pantheon of good and bad values: Respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – good; compete and win, dominate and control – bad.

Doing so, however, misses the point. The problem is not inherent in the values themselves. It lies, instead, in their over-emphasis and the relentless, culturally based pressure to conform to their strictures.

Radical Decency puts its priority on modeling and promoting virtues that are, in our culture, chronically neglected: Attending to the well being of the socially and economically disenfranchised; treating others with respect; being empathic and fair even when it draws energy from our competitive aspirations; focusing – with the seriousness it deserves – on our need for rest, reflection, novelty, and play.

But promoting these neglected values is not the full story. We are multi-faceted beings, with a wide range of dispositions – from the most loving and affiliative to highly aggressive and dominating. We also operate in diverse and, all too frequently, indifferent and unforgiving environments.

So even as we pursue our aspirational “decency” goals, we need to constructively employ and manage our diverse biological instincts, and realistically come to grips with these harsh cultural realities that surround us. For these reasons, the culture’s predominant “compete and win” values have an important – though far more limited – role to play in our lives.


Take competition, for example. We are socialized in schools where the emphasis on testing, grades, and achievement is pervasive; the goal being to create successful adult competitors; “winners” in life. Sadly – inevitably – this has led: (1) to an epidemic of self-judgment, anxiety, and depression as we strive, in vain, for unending success and perfection; and (2) to a myriad of self-medicating strategies (work, sex, alcohol) as we seek to maintain this psychically compromised approach to living.

Given these disheartening realities, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a competitive spirit, properly used, sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance and, at its best, creates an intimate bond with co-competitors. An innate part of our nature, it can add its own unique zest to the fabric of our lives.

In other words, competitiveness is not the problem. It is, instead, the grim, “winning is the only point” attitude that threatens to entirely eclipse its nourishing aspects.

How far gone are we? Pretty far – and, I am afraid, farther than we think.

As things stand now, the coaches and parents of 10 year olds, who scream at referees – and at kids who don’t play well – are a cultural commonplace. And our “normal” expectation is that businesses will distort the truth, skimp on quality, and overreach on pricing, all to improve profitability; that is, to win.

Contrast these attitudes with the Talmud’s injunction that a losing litigant should thank the judge for enlightening him as to the correct behavior. Reading that as a young attorney, I was brought up short. It seemed so sensible and appealing – and so utterly foreign to the world in which I operated.

Now, 30 years later, that sensibility seems even more farfetched. But imagine how different things would be if an attitude of curiosity, possibility, openness and ease were more present in our attitude as lawyers and litigants – and in other competitions as well?


We also need to look beyond the inhumane versions of domination and control that are rampant in our culture. Like competitiveness, these are aspects of our psychic make-up that, used judiciously, are useful and, at times, indispensable.

Every day, and in virtually every area of living, we are surrounded by people who operate by the culture’s mainstream values. As a result, we continually confront this dilemma: How can I be appropriately self-protective – decency to self – without sacrificing decency to others and the world?

In many instances, the best approach is to create a firm boundary – a form of control.

As I often remind clients that, sharing your anger with a total stranger – the guy who shoves his way to the front of the line, for example – is an act of intimacy. You are disclosing, to him, exactly how you feel.

With that, your vulnerability increases and an emotional connection is created with a person with whom you actually want no connection at all. Better to let his behavior pass without comment, managing your feelings either alone or with the support of someone you trust.

But sometimes this option is not viable. The bully persists. Or the bully is your boss or your child’s teacher. Or you are dealing with a person that seems intent on harming you. In these situations, other acts of control or domination may be called for.

Thus, far from being wrong, lying to a would-be rapist – control by deception – is an invaluable skill. And, after exhausting more respectful options, appropriately modulated counter aggression may be the best option when confronted with an implacable foe, intent on dominating and controlling you. Indeed, even a physical attack may be appropriate when the only other option is serious injury or death from an unprovoked attack.


A final thought: While understanding the “good” side of these mainstream values is an important exercise, so too is an openness and curiosity about why these values developed in the first place and, with that, the role play in our lives. While the primary goal is, without question, to limit their outsized influence, we should strive not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Our traditional gender roles offer a good example. A passive/placating woman and unemotional/unresponsive/work-first man – these patriarchal archetypes are poster children for our pattern of dominance and control and the incalculable pain it causes. But we need to understand why patriarchy evolved in the first place: Its role in our evolutionary history.

Women evolved, across our 300,000-year history as Homo sapiens, to be our early warning system; the folks who scan for danger. And since duplicating this 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. Woman – wired to react to danger – are especially susceptible to safety issues whereas men. Men on the other hand – wired to their women – strive to be good providers, protectors and lovers and, for that reason, are more susceptible to shame.

These emotional predispositions, deeply embedded in our psyches through millennia of evolution, continue to influence our behaviors. Understanding this, the behavior of a placating woman is much more understandable.

Her steady message to her mate – that he is a good provider, protector and lover – minimizes his shame and frees him to play his traditional role more effectively. In an analogous way, a stoic man – keeping his fears and anxieties to himself – is better able to attend to his spouse’s immediate, potentially safety-threatening concerns.

Since we no longer live as hunter/gatherers, these restricted gender roles no longer serve us. However, teasing out these sorts of behavioral nuggets in patriarchy’s otherwise highly destructive pattern of dominance and control, allow us to make smarter more modulated choices; choices that are egalitarian but, at the same time, attend (for example) to “her” sensitivity to safety issues and “his” susceptibility to shame.