Reflection 58: Infiltration and Co-Optation — The Disease That Ails Us

One of our biggest challenges, as we seek to craft more effective strategies for living more decently, is to understand the precise nature of the problem that makes this seemingly straightforward goal so difficult. For starters, we need to understand that compete and win, dominate and control – the values that are so wildly over emphasized in our culture and so frequently referred to in these Reflections – are not the fundamental problem.

To the contrary, properly managed, these qualities are helpful aspects of our overall human arsenal. In appropriate situations, a competitive spirit sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance, and creates an intimate bond with co-competitors. And far from being wrong, lying to a would-be rapist or the Gestapo – control by deception – is an invaluable skill. See Reflection # 30, In Defense of Our Troubling Values.

In a similar way, focusing our reform energy on specific attributes of the culture also misses the mark. Efforts to reform the financial system or clean up the environment – while vitally important – will never lead to a fundamental alteration in the ways in which we live.

Instead, the last 40 years have taught us that, for example, if we limit the flow of money in one area of the political process, it will almost immediately be redirected into other channels; defeating efforts at campaign finance reform. And if an impeccably humanistic education became the official norm – and nothing else changed – the great bulk of us would simply tolerate this impractical, airy/fairy curriculum, finding other venues in which to focus on the art of competing and winning.

So if the fundamental issue isn’t specific aspects of the culture or the values it promotes, what is the crux of the problem? It is the process by which these values infiltrate into virtually every area of our lives. This process is like a giant, voracious amoeba that, silently and unseen, oozes into – and co-opts to its competitive, acquisitive outlook – virtually every institution, movement, relationship, and way of operating in the world.


This Reflection offers examples of how deeply this process infects two of our most private and, seemingly, benign of human activities: Humor and reason. By focusing on these less obvious examples, I hope to persuasively illustrate how shockingly deep and widespread this phenomenon really is.

Doing so, I am not suggesting that humor and reason are bad. To the contrary, logical thought, and the ideas and theories it fosters, are indispensible tools as we seek to create better lives and a better world. See Reflection 21, Theory Matters. And humor, done well, can offer highly effective, cut-to-the-bone social commentary (as well as good fun!). But because humor and reason are such critical tools in our effort to make things different and better, we need to be especially alert to the mainstream culture’s remarkable ability to twist – even them – into mechanisms that perpetuate and expand its vise-like grip on our lives.

  1. Humor

Jokes, quick quips, irony, and sarcasm are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives. The little jolt of pleasure that a funny remark provokes is a constant, very welcome companion as we tend to our day-by-day chores. But if we hope to be a force for change, we cannot uncritically give ourselves over to our instinct for teasing and sarcasm. Why? Because of the (largely unacknowledged) role humor plays in reinforcing and perpetuating the mainstream culture’s dominant values.

Anger is an integral part of our fight or flight brain and is specifically designed to overpower someone else’s will. Given the culture’s emphasis on domination and control, it is no surprise that anger and aggression are endemic. But explicit anger risks unwanted consequences: Alienation of an important person, social stigmatization and, of course, retaliation.

So one of humor’s unstated but very important roles is to offer an acceptable social cover for anger. A joke can be utterly benign – even warm and loving. But the same joke, told with different intent and timing, can also be a searing putdown.

In this way, humor provides a double cloak of non-accountability for anger. First, it is often difficult to gauge the joke teller’s intent. Is this a manipulative act of aggression? It certainly feels that way, but how can I be sure? In addition, even when the intent is clear, effective counter-measures are almost impossible. Making the effort, the victim is likely to be greeted with one of these all too familiar, accountability denying response: “Just kidding!” or “What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?

Humor is also a very important bullying tactic in the context of a debate or dialogue. When I was a practicing lawyer, a smart aphorism I frequently heard was this: “The first person to get angry, loses.” So a very common, but unacknowledged tactic of a smart attorney is to needle your opponent into an attack that makes the other participants uncomfortable.

And, of course, when humor is employed as a more direct mode of attack – as ridicule – it can be an enormously effective tool of domination and control. One dismissive comment, provided it is funny and will-timed, can be a devastatingly effective way of disqualifying the position of the person on the receiving end.

This phenomenon may seem relatively benign, but it isn’t. We are a culture that has largely lost its ability to engage in civil dialogue; one that acknowledges and respects difference and looks for common ground. So if we are serious about counteracting the massive infiltration of the mainstream’s culture values into our lives, we cannot engage in indecent humor just because we enjoy its emotional “hit” and are susceptible to its disarming charm.

  1. Reason

Many of us think of reason as an unalloyed good. While our emotions often seem unreliable and potentially damaging, we view our ability to think calmly and logically as a mature and stabilizing force.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the reality of our biology. Our emotional brain is, actually, far more powerful than our thinking brain. In fact, all data initially enters our brain through its emotional side. Why? So that before anything else happens we can determine whether something is highly pleasurable – to be pursued – or dangerous – thereby triggering our fight or flight system. Only then does the data migrate into our thinking/reasoning brain.

Thus, while the mainstream view is that the rational brain limits and controls the emotional brain, the opposite is closer to the truth. It is the emotional brain that, far more typically, harnesses the thinking brain to its purposes.

As Jonathan Haight describes it, our thinking brain is predominately a lawyer, advocating for the things our emotional brain impels us toward. And, as Edward O. Wilson notes, “we make decisions for reasons we often sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully.”

Trusting our reasoning abilities as cool and objective – when, in in fact, they are anything but – they are ripe for infiltration and co-optation by the culture’s mainstream values. All too often, we weave webs of logic that are, unknown to our thinking brain, a cover for emotional drives that are – given the culture we live in – aggressive, controlling, and manipulative.

In this chilling quote, the psychologist and social theorist, Jordan Peterson describes the deadly extremes to which this process can go:

I understand and having understood, I impose order on reality. That’s what every ideologue and utopian does. It’s convincing and, I think, the reason people do this is partly because they want an explanation for their being. More important than that, however, is that they want a mask that covers up their tendency to atrocity with the appearance of virtue. Most utopian thinking is of that sort even though the mask can be very well argued.

The consequences of this process can wreck havoc in our lives, at both a personal and political level. Operating unseen and unacknowledged this process has led, over and over, to murderous rampages by political and religious zealots. Equally, it has more quietly shredded one intimate relationship after another as the parties battle about who is “right,” certain that their problems would be solve – if only the other person could understand.


If we hope to create better lives and a better world, the fullest possible understanding of this process of infiltration and co-optation is vitally important. Why? Because, failing to understand its breadth and depth, we will never be able to craft strategies that are equal to the challenge we face.

Absent this understanding, the best of us – those who actually care – will continue to be channeled into activities that seek to soften our indecent system’s excesses: Elections, legislation, lawsuits and, of course, a myriad of (shamefully underfunded) services to the culture’s endless victims. And with our good energy and attention diverted away from the disease that really ails us, the mainstream culture’s headlong pursuit of private wealth and power will continue unabated.

Radical Decency, by offering an alternative set of values – applicable in all areas of living – offers a way to deal with this core issue. It is not designed to supplant the very useful, but more limited, reform efforts that are our current focus. Instead, it offers a more comprehensive context in which each of these activities can be pursued.

In this way, the good people who promote current reform efforts can expand their potential impact and, crucially, understand how deeply interrelated and mutually reinforcing their seemingly separate pursuits really are. Then, hopefully, they can be knitted together into a unified and far more effective movement for change. See Reflection # 45, Re-visioning Social Change Work, and Reflection 56, Religion – Debasement, Inspiration, Lessons Learned.

Reflection 57: Men – We Make Complete Sense!

Into my 40s, I did what a lot of men do. I kept my feelings mostly to myself – except with my girl friends and, then, my wife.

That said, my way of sharing with my romantic partners was not very skillful, to say the least. I was able to express anger and annoyance, but sadly – for her and me – my deeper fears and longings were expressed in equally reactive ways: “Why can’t you get off the freakin’ phone,” instead of “I’m missing you and hope you’ll be fully available to me soon.” I pretty much had it figured that I was an insensitive jerk: A victim of testosterone poisoning; not very good at that emotional stuff; hopelessly aggressive; far too focused on sex.

At lot of good things have happened in the ensuing years. One very important part of my healing journey has been time spent with other men – not at ball games or in the cushioning presence of our spouses – but in settings that allowed for frank and open conversation about life’s challenges and what it means to deal with them as a man.

I have learned a lot. One of the central lessons: We men are fully capable adults in every sense of the word – emotional as well as practical, empathic as well as assertive.

In this Reflection I focus on an issue that has become one of my abiding passions: Why we men make complete sense and why, understanding this, we are fully capable of pushing back against the gender based myths and stereotypes that consign so many of us to sad, isolated, and reduced existences.


The key to mounting an effective response to our assigned gender roles is to remember that biology is not the issue. In Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, Lise Eliot reviews in detail the evidence of gender based biological differences. Her conclusion? The differences in our physiology are minor and, standing alone, inconsequential.

So what is going on? As James Carville might put it, “it’s the culture, stupid.”

We live in a world that accentuates these small genetic differences, pushing each sex toward certain capabilities and vulnerabilities and away from others. In the process, it shrinks the humanity of both. When it comes to gender, the culture’s message – relentlessly reinforced – is that for girls, intimacy and nurturance are fine but assertiveness isn’t and, for boys, the opposite is true.

To illustrate this point, Terence Real and Carol Gilligan tell the following stories. Ask an 8-year-old girl what kind of pizza she wants and she will tell you. Ask an 11-year old girl and she’ll say, I’m not sure. Ask a 13-year-old girl – now fully socialized to her assigned gender role – and she is likely to say, “what do you want?”

On the other side of the equation is the 3- year old boy who falls down in the supermarket, his eyes filling with tears. What happens? An adult rushes to tell him everything is fine, brush it off, be a little man; a response that is far different from the hugging, cuddling and gentle stroking a 3-year old girl would typically receive.


The message that is communicated to our boys through a myriad of cultural cues, incentives and sanctions – and with increasing intensity as the years go by – is this: Suck it up, be strong and tough, don’t be needy, hide your fear and vulnerability. And never forget that intimate sharing and emotional comfort are unmanly, the province of girls and sissies.

Needless to say, the emotional price we pay as boys and men – like the price our sister’s pay as they absorb their assigned story – is enormous.

This intense cultural conditioning makes sense of so many of the male behaviors that women, often with withering judgment, find so perplexing. And, understanding that they are learned behaviors is a powerful reminder to us men – and to the women who love us – that they can be changed. As the women’s movement has so persuasively demonstrated, our culturally defined gender roles are not a life sentence.

Working through the implications of our assigned gender role, here is an explanation of why some of the things that we men do, in key areas of living, make complete sense.

  1. Our sexual behaviors.

By the time we reach puberty, we boys are already emotionally isolated; having long since learned not to cry, not to seek physical comfort, not to share fears and vulnerabilities.

But we can be sexual. Indeed, our emerging sexuality – at least insofar as it means scoring with girls – is seen as a badge of honor. So what we learn as boys, and carry into our lives as men, is that hugging, stroking, and nurturance are not ok – except in the context of sex.

Viewed in this context our pre-occupation with sex is entirely understandable. It’s not because we are pigs, ready to “screw anything that moves.” It’s because this is the only socially sanctioned arena in which we can get the physical nurturance we long for.

It also explains the male tendency to leave after having sex or to abruptly disappear from a relationship. While the sex is going on things are simple. Singled-mindedly focused on the sex act, we men naively (and, often, inaccurately) assume that is she as well. In our minds, there is nothing to complicate the equation, nothing to be said, no complicated choices to be made.

But then orgasm occurs and everything changes. Now suddenly we are naked, and nose-to-nose, with another human being. Moreover, this is a person whose experience with intimate interactions is far greater than ours. From that post-coital moment of transition forward, we are prone to feelings of confusion, unease, and vulnerability. So we flee, not because we are insensitive louts, but rather to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that flood us, now that we are forced to inhabit this far more complicated world of intimate interaction with another human being.

  1. Our ways of being intimate.

Because of the ways in which women are raised, intimate conversation is, for them, a place of comfort. But for men, with their very different socialization, it is an invitation into unfamiliar and, therefore, emotionally unsafe territory. When our spouse says, “we need to talk,” it signals, for us, the risk of being judged and shamed. Small wonder, then, that our instinct is, so often, to resist the invitation.

Our socialization also explains our typical ways of interacting. Talking sports, cracking jokes, exchanging insults, hanging out – doing these things, we are creating companionship at a distance that feels comfortable. What we create are shame-free zones where the danger of being judged has been banished. In this environment, no one is shamed, even when he gets falling down drunk and vomits all over the bathroom floor.

  1. Our aggressiveness.

Given our cultural conditioning, we men are far more conversant with aggressive emotions – assertiveness, anger, annoyance, and frustration – than we are with more vulnerable emotions such as hurt, sadness, fear, and confusion. But what is less obvious is how we use our aggressiveness to shield our selves from these less familiar, less comfortable emotions.

As Steven Stosny points out, anger is like a little hit of crack cocaine. Its negative consequences are severe, but in the moment it actually makes us feel better. Why? Because it shifts our body into action mode. Adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into our bodies and blood rushes to our large muscles groups, giving us a sudden jolt of energy. In addition, the reasoning parts of the brain – the parts that could breed indecision at a moment of crisis – shrink, leaving us with a heightened sense of clarity.

So a typical man, trained to be assertive but not open and vulnerable, predictably falls into this emotional pattern: When, as is inevitable, more vulnerable emotions come up, he “fast forwards” through this unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, seeking instead the short-term relief that anger and annoyance offer. And, over time, this pattern becomes so engrained and automatic that many men are not even aware of the underlying hurt, fear or confusion that triggers it. In this area as well we are not perverse, inexplicable beings. What we are doing is an understandable – if flawed – adaptation to our culturally assigned gender role.


Knowing that the ways in which we act are culturally and not biologically determined brings with it this vitally important understanding: We men are not flawed and limited beings. To the contrary, we are fully capable humans who can become, if we do our healing and growth work, comfortably conversant with the full range of our emotions and entirely capable partners in intimacy.

A description of key, “how to” aspects of this vital work are explored in Reflection 69: Moving Beyond Patriarchy, and Reflection 72: Men’s Moment(s) of Truth.

Reflection 56: Religion: Debasement, Inspiration, Lessons Learned

The philosopher Charles Taylor provided this insight that has deeply affected my view of the world: Just because we are continually confronted with debased versions of an idea doesn’t mean the idea itself is necessarily debased. It may be but, then again, it may not. As I look back on my personal journey with religion, this concept seems particularly apt: A rich mix of debasement and inspiration.

In this Reflection, I offer my experiences with this compelling area of living and seek to draw some lessons about how religion can be more effectively translated into a force for positive change.


The son of secular parents, a Protestant and a Jew, I grew up indifferently associated with the First Congregational Church of Scarsdale, New York. One clear memory from those years is leaving services with this thought: They told me to love my neighbor. But it’s now 11:30 a.m. on Sunday and I won’t get another word of guidance until next Sunday at 10 a.m. So what I am supposed to do?

Another memory: A “charming” anecdote about the minister who, in response to a prospective member’s concern about hypocrites in the congregation, responded by saying, “we can always use another.” No inspiration there – for an earnest teenager.

With this tepid introduction, I have, as an adult, strived to maintain openness and curiosity about religion. After all, billions of people across thousands of years have been deeply attached to it. Who am I to dismiss it? However, I have been continually been brought up short by the staggeringly debased versions I see all around me.

An obvious example is religion’s lethality. When Moses discovered the Hebrews worshipping a golden calf, he had 3,000 of his people massacred (Exodus, 32:29). And their triumphal entry into the holy land was an unprovoked attack on a people whose cardinal sin was worshipping gods other than Yahweh.

Then there is the last 2,000 years of history, a period riddled with Christian, Islamic, and other religiously motivated crusades, jihads, wars of aggression, and massacres. And the religious carnage continues: Jews and Muslims killing each other in the Middle East; Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir.

This murderous aspect of so many religions is not some weird coincidence. One of the prime lessons of history is that entrenched power co-opts movements that have the ability to move people and, thus, to challenge its authority. So, it is utterly predictable that the great religious traditions, whatever their original intent, have been repeatedly co-opted; enlisted as apologists for those in power. In this domesticated state, their prime function – the rationale for their privileged existence – is the “divinely inspired” moral rationale they provide for the ruling class’ relentless push for more and more power, by whatever means necessary.

This co-opted version of religion is how I remember the Church of my childhood: Holding its expressed values lightly; soft-soaping – with an easy quip, as above – hpocrisy and other deeply consequential moral issues; sending the message, in large ways and small, that wealth and power excuse all but the most aberrant and blatant ethical lapses; offering programs and messages that felt good but made no uncomfortable demands. So too, in the Jewish world – my religious community of choice for the last 40 years – where we lavish praise on the biggest donors, quietly overlooking the problematic choices that, in so many instances, allowed their outsized private fortunes to accumulate.


Another area where religion’s message is endemically debased is in the intellectual sphere. As Howard Lesnick points out in Listening for God, religious stories are meant to inspire. At their best, they are poetry, touching our hearts in ways that a carefully reasoned ethical treatise never can.

But when the intent of these religious texts is misunderstood, the damage is incalculable: Condemning birth control as our population approaches 7 billion; denying social and, often, political legitimacy to dissenters and nonbelievers; teaching young people that masturbation, sexual fantasies and premarital sex are sinful; provoking murderous attacks on Shi’ite neighbors, abortion doctors, and so many other demonized individuals and groups.

Much of this intellectual confusion results from religion’s excessive pre-occupation with speculative thinking, ungrounded in empirical evidence. “Miracles happen.” “We can speak with God or commune with the one-ness of the universe through prayer, meditation, or altered states of consciousness.” “Ours is the path to everlasting life.”

There is nothing wrong with this sort of thinking. To the contrary, for a self-conscious species, speculation beyond the four walls of our perceptual capacities allows us to more fully explore our potential. But our mainstream religious traditions have extended this sort of thinking far beyond its appropriate boundaries. Far too often, it has become a replacement for critical thinking instead of an important complement to it.

The result? Far too many of us slip into a place of conformance with one set of spiritual beliefs or another. And, with our ideas continually reinforced by co-believers, we wind up believing that we have found the ultimate answer. Then, pre-occupied and distract by our chosen sect’s answers, we fail to adequately focus on life’s most important questions:

  • Who are we? What are our capabilities and limitations?
  • What choices can we make that will allow us to live more nourishing lives and contribute to a better world?

For compelling evidence of this process at work, one need only look at the dismal state of our efforts to change our habitually indecent ways of living. Is there any doubt but that religion, in this debased form, plays a key role?


One the other hand . . .

Religious rituals, as I have experienced it in my affluent suburban community, have always seemed mechanical and uninspired. But, then, my wife and I attended 6 a.m. mass in a one room, cinder block church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Port Au Prince, Haiti. Watching the nuns and lay Catholic workers take communion before they left for their work at a nearby orphanage, the idea of taking in the blood and body of Christ suddenly seemed powerful, real, and inspirational. And I couldn’t help but notice that most of our fellow service workers were religious, either Catholic or evangelical Christian.

Several years before that, I was a key attorney in a $500 million Ponzi scheme that began in the evangelical community and, ultimately, swallowed up a significant number of secular nonprofit organizations as well. The fuzzy religious thinking, I described earlier, fueled the scheme. Believing in miracles – that 2 plus 2 could equal 5, if God willed it – many Evangelical groups were particularly susceptible to the “too good to be true” scheme that the promoter, speaking their language, proposed.

But what was remarkable was the response of my evangelical clients. Two days after the bankruptcy filing, Steve Douglas of Campus Crusade for Christ convened 50 of his community’s leaders and, quoting principles taken from scripture, proposed a cooperative approach the workout.

Then, over the next 4 years, a coalition of 800 Evangelical groups did something truly unique in the bankruptcy world. Pouring their time, money and inspirational leadership into the effort, they crafted a plan that was premised, not on everyone grabbing what they could, but on fairness. The “winners” (those who took out more out of the Ponzi scheme than they put in) voluntary returned a percentage of their winnings; the losers divided the resulting pool of money equally; and small, endangered nonprofits were able to file for hardship exceptions.

Then, finally, there is the example of my half-sister, Judy, and Delle McCormick.

Judy, 10 years my senior, became a nun while I was still in junior high school. I didn’t understand the choice at the time. But over the years I have been struck by her clarity of purpose, devotion to service, and ease and zest in living.

Delle is a woman I met on a service trip about 10 years ago. Inspired by her faith, she left a comfortable suburban life to devote herself to social justice work. She too is suffused with clarity of purpose and a passionate sense of mission.

By their example, Judy and Delle have deeply affected my outlook and choices. The fact that they were both inspired by their religious beliefs is, I believe, no coincidence.

Lessons Learned

I draw two primary lessons from my journey with religion.

The first is positive. At its aspirational best, religion aims high, seeking to make sense out of our existence.

Focused on this really big issue, it has produced great wisdom and inspiring role models. Moreover, the language, rituals, and traditions that are deeply interwoven into our religious traditions offer enormous comfort and inspiration. If we turn our backs on this legacy we will be immeasurably diminished.

Radical Decency, with its focus on respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance and appreciation guides us away from dismissive judgment and toward a deep and abiding curiosity. As I see it, we are far better served if we view our religious traditions through this lens; gleaning the best, not just from our own tradition but from other traditions as well.

A recent conversation with a Catholic brother illustrates the rewards of this approach. Visiting a disturbed young man at his home in the middle of a workday, the brother was asked how he could take the time out of his busy schedule. His response: My vows – poverty, chastity, and obedience – free me to tend to life’s truly important tasks.

Bringing Radical Decency’s attitude of openness and curiosity to our discussion, what flashed for me was how I, too, could find inspiration and wisdom in his vows. My version of “chastity” – a committed marriage – frees me from an over pre-occupation with sex. And I can infuse the spirit of “poverty” into my life, not by giving my possessions away, but by turning more and more fully away from the (false) belief that my well being depends upon them. Finally, if I am fully “obedient” to my core values – Radical Decency – I will be freed from the selfish and grasping values that dominate our culture and so powerfully distract me from my larger life goals.


The second lesson I draw from my journey with religion is cautionary. Even as they offer inspiration and wisdom, our religious traditions are – with depressing regularity – co-opted by those in power. Sometimes the examples are spectacularly obvious to all but the truest of believers. But far more often they are quite subtle and, for this reason, more insidious and pernicious. So, even as we embrace the nourishment and guidance religion can offer, we need – always – to be vigilant. We must never temporize on the crucial task of exploring the implications of “this attitude” or “that choice.”

Over the years, I have discussed Radical Decency with a significant number of religiously committed people, from a wide variety of traditions. And as these experiences have accumulated so too has my confidence that the philosophy can provide an important anchor in this vital process. Decency to self, others, and the world, at all times, in every context, and without exception – this approach to living distills, I believe, what is best in our religious traditions.

Fully committed to Radical Decency’s values, my hope is this: Each of us will embody the best in our chosen religious tradition and, crucially, be a clear voice, within that tradition, for resisting the ever present temptation to compromise these ideals for the sake of money, members, and power. Then (to complete my dream), these like-minded religious people, and their secular sisters and brothers – with a growing recognition of their common purposes – will knit together into a powerful, perhaps even irresistible force for creating better lives and a more humane and decent world.

One can only hope . . . and have faith.