Reflection 55: Being Decent To A Hitler

In this Reflection, I focus on the more practical side of Radical Decency, working with an example that is regularly raised by readers: How to react to a public person who you are deeply at odds with, in a world in which demonization of political adversaries –Ted Cruz (for liberals), Barak Obama (for conservatives),Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein – is endemic.

In the analysis that follows I discuss how a person, seeking to be radically decent, might constructively engage with a political leader who, in that person’s sincere but subjective opinion, is dangerous and unscrupulous. In other words, how do you engage with a “Hitler” in a more decent way?


A key to dealing with this issue is to remember – always – that Radical Decency makes decency to self every bit as important as decency to others and the world. Putting this perspective into practice is not as easy as it may seem, however. Why? Because the mainstream culture cultivates an either/or outlook: Either we are selfish, self-absorbed competitors, intent on getting ahead; or, we are selfless nurturers who, in the words of the country and western anthem are “always giving, never asking back.”

Since Radical Decency is clearly not a selfish approach to living, there is a tendency to stereotype it as a selfless philosophy that over-focuses on how we treat others. But, as its emphasis on decency to self makes clear, this assumption fundamentally distorts its purposes.

Making decency to self a co-equal priority leads to interesting and helpful shifts in our outlook and choices. It reminds us to be respectful, understanding, and empathic not only in our dealings with others, but also in how we handle the often-discordant voices inside our head. And, importantly, it brings into focus two key, threshold questions that are all too easy to overlook in our dealings with others: How much intimacy do we want to have with this person? What kind of boundaries do we want to set?

Why are these questions so important? Because, lacking clarity on these issues, one person in a relationship may well expect more than the other person is willing to give. This, in turn, is a recipe for misunderstanding, hurt, disappointment, and, as tensions rise, reactive fight or flight behaviors that make respect, understanding, and empathy impossible.

When it comes to our politics, here is how this process works: Failing to attend to these threshold intimacy and boundary issues, our implicit assumption – understandable but untenable, given our engrained political culture – is that we should be able to rely on our leaders to be wise, fair, and just. Then, when politicians on the other side disappoint this expectation, our fight or flight mindsets are powerfully triggered and, with that, we instinctually move into anger and demonization.


With these orienting thoughts in mind, how should we deal with a Hitler? The starting place is to be clear, from the outset, that we have no interest in a relationship that is frank, open and, thus, intimate. Instead, our initial focus should be on strategic choices; choices that keep us emotionally and physically safe. See Reflection 44, Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships. Then, with this understanding in place, we should strive to balance self- care with two other key goals, inherent in Radical Decency: (1) Our responsibility to resist injustice; and (2) to be respectful, understanding and empathic to others – all others.

Pursuing these multiple objectives is not easy. Many of us, fearing retaliation, choose instead to abandon the two key goals, just identified, retreating as unobtrusively as possible, into our private/nonpolitical pre-occupations. Others accept their responsibility to resist injustice but make no effort to be respectful, understanding and empathic.

The first of these two reactions is a retreat from the principles of Radical Decency, pure and simple.

The second is more complicated and presents a more interesting dilemma. A “fight fire, with fire” reaction to injustice is fueled by two emotions. The first is anger: Do you really expect me to be decent to “him,” after all that has done? The other is a fear that, striving to remain decent, we will wind up condoning and enabling this person’s conduct, with the result being that we will be rolled in the knife fight that is the reality of politics.

While the risk of “going soft” is real, allowing it to control our choices is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. We cannot and should not tolerate murderous dictators. But the root problem is not the Hitlers, Saddams, and Gaddafis that regularly turn up in our world. It is, instead, our mainstream values – compete and win, dominate and control – that, pursued to their logical extreme, spawn one ruthless dictator after another.

When this reality is factored into our thinking, the hard truth is this: Giving ourselves license to demonize the politicians we oppose, and to use any means necessary to fight them, we are unwittingly adopting and perpetuating the very values that allowed them to come to power in the first place.

The more productive approach is to model the change we seek. We should persist in efforts to understand the other – even a Hitler – on his terms, knowing that his worldview has an internal logic that makes sense to him. We should also seek to understand – and even empathize – with the fears and vulnerabilities that have driven him to such perverse attitudes and behaviors.

So when you see “that person” on television, lean forcefully against the temptation to sputter in anger, call him names, and change the channel. Instead push yourself to understand who this person is and why he is saying the things he is saying. Then craft a response that is not a reactive “f__ you” to this “idiot” but is, instead, thoughtful and strategic. Finally, and very importantly, show up and speak up: Offer your more decent ideas and outlook.


One particularly thorny problem that repeatedly comes up, in this context, is how to respond when you are drawn into a substantive debate with a person from “the other side.” The more productive approach, as I see it, is to parse out the real arguments – which deserve to be addressed – from the ones that are obviously partisan and sophistic; a process made surprisingly easy by our politicians’ utter lack of subtlety or restraint in presenting their bogus arguments. Then, instead of engaging in the fruitless exercise of responding to their politicized argument, seek to expose their inauthenticity.

In the 1980s, I experienced the power of this approach when Elie Weisel, presenting his arguments in an issue of the day, was greeted with a highly personal attack on his character. His response: “Shame on you, there are important things to say on your side of the argument and your response dishonors them.”


Another point I want to emphasize is that a radically decent approach to a political adversary does not exclude extreme measures. The first principle of decency to self is to maintain physical safety. So if the choice is to kill or be killed, by a person intent on doing you in, killing is appropriate. Hitler needed to die. But such extreme choices are unusual and we need to remain vigilant lest a principle that is applicable in extreme situations is expanded to condone killing or other forms of domination and control in less extreme contexts.


Cultivating this balanced approach when faced with the extreme provocation of a Hitler is, of course, extremely difficult. But we need to remember that, with each exception we make to the principles of Radical Decency, we are walking down the road toward “pick and chose decency;” the self serving version of decency that is the mainstream culture’s convenient cover for its avaricious, exploitative ways.

The good news is that inspiring historical precedents demonstrate the power of this balanced approach. One need only look at the lives and choices of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Jesus to understand that you can be forceful, audacious, heroic, effective and – at the same time – respectful, understanding, and empathic in a social/political context.

We also need to remember that the alternative, “fight fire with fire” approach is a self-defeating proposition. We are unlikely to defeat a dictator at his own brutally murderous game. And if we do – as occasionally happens when corruption saps his vitality or fortuitous events conspire against him – the people who succeed him are usually primed to use these same authoritarian methods. Why? Because these tactics were, in case after case, the very tools that allowed these “reform minded” leaders to rise to the top of the political system.


Any challenge to entrenched power is a long shot and the discouraging truth is that most of us, if we engage in this struggle at all, genuflect (figuratively or literally) before the inspiring leaders of the past and, then, revert to the self-defeating “fight fire, with fire” tactics, described above. Hopefully, the clarity of vision and concrete strategies that Radical Decency offer will allow us to avoid this trap and enable us to become more effective contributors to the struggle against oppressive leaders.