My friend Gary Gray says a lot of smart things. A few years ago he described how women, in the 1960s, would meet to talk about “it.” They knew something was deeply wrong with the cultural roles to which they were consigned but couldn’t quite put their finger on it. Only after considerable ferment were they able to name it – feminism, women’s liberation – and only then was it transformed into a mass movement.
This act of naming is crucial. Until something is named, its existence is problematic. Either it is culturally invisible or exists only in a series of seemingly diffuse, disjointed, and (at best) vaguely connected thoughts, feelings and activities. But the naming process has the potential to transform this inchoate thing into something coherent, powerful and in its most expansive form, world changing.
In We, the Jungian theorist Robert A. Johnson, focusing on the emergence of romantic love as a cultural phenomenon in the Middle Ages, describes the process in this way:
“At a certain point in the history of a people, a new possibility bursts out of the collective unconscious; it is a new idea, a new belief, a new value, or a new way of looking at the universe.”
And, Johnson continues, it can operate as a powerfully positive force if:
“It can be integrated into the [collective] consciousness” and we “learn to handle its tremendous power.”
The culture in which we live is in the grips of a highly defined and thoroughly elaborated “it,” so much so that we usually think of it as unchangeable reality, as just the way things are and have to be. Compete and win, dominate and control – these values permeate virtually every part of our lives.
What are we supposed to do? For anyone living in our culture, the answer is easy. Get the best possible grades at the best possible school, so you can get a prestigious job where you can make more and more money. And, of course, always strive to be richer, thinner, sexier, more popular.
Do you notice how singular the values are in this prescribed way of living? Compete, win and, ideally, be dominant. Be in control of every aspect of your life. Indeed, the ease with which we can answer this “what are we supposed to do” question graphically illustrates how thoroughly these values have infiltrated our collective consciousness. It is the dominant “it” in our lives – either through conformance to it or in our struggle to loosen its grip.
As I discuss in Reflection #30 In Defense of Our Troubling Values, these predominant values are not intrinsically bad. Properly used, a competitive spirit sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance, and creates an intimate bond with co-competitors.
Similarly, lying to a would-be rapist (control by deception) is an invaluable skill. And, after exhausting more respectful options, appropriately modulated counter aggression (domination and control) may be the best option when confronted with an implacable foe, intent on imposing his will.
But we have utterly failed, in Johnson’s terms, to integrate these values into a larger “collective consciousness” that allows us to manage their “tremendous power.” What is starkly absent from our lives is a more expansive and humane “it” that can subsume and manage these competitive, win/lose values so they serve our humanity instead of riding roughshod over it. Radical Decency has to potential to be this new “it.”
There are many, many people who, troubled by the culture’s predominant values, are actively seeking to craft more decent and humane ways of living. But having no shared, values-based idea around which to organize, their energy is fractured and divided.
To further complicate matters, the mainstream culture does a masterful job of encouraging this fracturing process, dividing us up into liberals, conservatives, libertarians, evangelical Christians, environmentalists, free market capitalists, and so – on and on. Then, unwittingly replicating the values of the mainstream culture, these movements compete with one another saying in effect: Our approach is the right one – the one that will create a better world – if only everyone else would fall in line with our program.
The deeper truth about virtually all of these mainstream movements is that, while they capture the energy of many well-meaning people, their message is deeply compromised by the culture’s predominant values. Why? Because they are seduced by the (plausible) possibility that – adopting the culture’s “business as usual” ways of operating – they will be able to tap into its resources: Money, access to the media and other center’s of power, etc., etc. And on the flip side, they are driven by the fear that, failing to do so, they will wither and die – or, at best, remain quixotically small and marginal – due to a lack of access to these resources.
In addition, the mainstream culture’s mechanisms for allocating money, access, and media attention make it almost inevitable that the people who build and maintain these movements will be goal-oriented people who know how to work the system; people, in short, who are experts in “winning.” But that, in turn, means that unless they have extraordinary awareness and mastery over what drives them, these leaders’ instinctual choices will, in large ways and small, reflect the mainstream culture’s ways of operating.
Where does this process leave the well-intentioned people who so passionately identify with these movements? Sadly, because of their powerful emotional identification with the cause, most of them stick with the group’s party line, becoming in the process unwittingly apologists for their leaders and the compromised messages they embody.
- Liberals who bite their tongues and go along with President Obama’s failure to push for meaningful financial regulation and Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war.
- Evangelical Christians who condone wildly uncharitable judgments leveled at gays and lesbians.
- Catholics who remain loyal to leaders who condone and then minimize massive, systemic child abuse.
If Radical Decency (or a similar formulation) ever “burst out of the collective unconscious” as a “new way of looking at the universe,” it would offer the many well-intentioned people, affiliated with these mainstream movements, a life and, potentially, world-altering perspective.
Their new “it” would be this: The problem is not greedy businesses, or corrupt and profligate government, or the failure to follow the Buddha or Mohammed or a literal reading of the Bible. It is, instead, the pre-eminence of a set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – that deeply compromise our humanity. And the solution is to systematically implement an alternative set of values: Respect, understanding and empathy, appreciation and acceptance, fairness and justice; that is, Radical Decency.
Radical Decency works well as the new “it” because it is specifically designed to deal with the pre-eminent challenge of our time: The indecent values that dominate our lives and world. For a new sensibility to emerge, this clarity of focus is essential.
Because Radical Decency is not a pre-existing religious, political, or social movement, one of its virtues is the absence of additional agendas that might otherwise to deflect and divide energy, or confuse its purposes. This fact makes it a perfect gathering place for people operating from diverse perspectives: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers; liberals, conservatives, and free market ideologues. In short, well-intentioned people who identify with these movements can continue to be who they are and still be radically decent.
If Radical Decency took hold as the new “it,” here’s what could happen. Armed with a new clarity of purpose, these well-intentioned people would increasingly separate themselves from the indecent aspects of their established movements, de-legitimizing in the process their co-opted leaders and flawed messages. And, understanding their deep kinship with similarly situated people – operating from their own unique perspectives – a new more inclusive movement for change would emerge.
How would these reformed and reinvigorated political, religious and social groups be organized? What would their leadership look like? How would they cooperate with one another? What would the inclusive, overarching movement – that they would be a part of – look like? These and many other questions remain to be answered.
But, in contrast to the cynicism and mistrust that our mainstream ways of operating evoke, theirs would be a process worthy of our confidence and respect. Why? Because, with their whole-hearted commitment to Radical Decency, we could trust that they would steadily move toward policies and ways of living that are more decent and humane.
This is the world I long to live in.