Reflection 81: Being Radical — An Expanded Perspective

About 12 years ago, my preoccupation as a writer and activist was on trying to understand why my two areas of interest, social justice and personal growth, seemed to operate in different worlds, with only haphazard overlap. It was then that I had a pivotal insight that led me the approach to living I now call Radical Decency.

To that point, I had – without a lot of thought – been using the mainstream culture’s accepted definition of social justice: To seek greater equity and justice for the economically and socially disenfranchised. What I realized, in my moment of insight, was that this seemingly benign definition was fundamentally flawed. The reason: It ghetto-izes our vision of social justice, turning into a specialized activity to be pursued by political types – or by “ordinary people” but only in the spare left over from their taken for granted, private, priority activities in life.

Implicitly promoting this definition, the mainstream culture – in a way that is seamless, invisible and, thus, breathtakingly effective – separates the activities that constitute social justice from other change initiatives including, importantly, individual personal growth efforts; deeply diminishing the impact of each.

For me, understanding this crucial definitional limitation was the key. From there, the next step seemed obvious: To define social justice as the effort to apply, in the larger world, the same values that inform our best personal growth work – the values I refer to as Decency. See Reflection 17, Decency Defined.

Working with this new definition, my hope was – and remains – that Radical Decency can act as an organizing concept that brings together our fragmented change efforts; eroding the mainstream mindset that divides change initiatives into separate silos; so effectively diminishing their overall, collective impact.


The other foundational term I have been using for the last decade is, of course “radical.” Not long ago, I had another eureka moment and, this time, it involved our taken for granted use of that term.

This new moment of insight occurred when one of our Radical Decency activists sought to articulate a compelling reason for adopting inconvenient, but obviously constructive environmental practices in her life – purchasing green products; buying organic, locally grown foods; using public transportation; and so on.

Her answer? Even though I am just one person, I need to act “as if” my choices will vitally affect the world.

This answer is frequently offered and, like the commonly accepted definition of social justice, is implicitly condoned and legitimatized by the mainstream culture. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same defect: Far from motivating people to act, it affirmatively (and, once again, not accidentally) dissipates reform energy.

The first problem with this “as if” answer lies in the fact that – while the choices of each individual really does matter – the impact of any single individual’s private choices on the other 7 billion of us is, inevitably, imperceptible. Understanding this, it is all too easy, even those of us with the best of intentions – to say, again and again:

“I know I should be more environmentally conscious but I’m just too busy right now. So even though I feel a slight twinge of guilt, I will stop by the Safeway on my way home and pick up frozen steaks. In the end, it really won’t make a difference.”

Indeed, the hard truth is this: It is difficult, in the extreme, to effectively respond to a call to action, on a sustained basis, if it offers little in the way of a personal pay-off AND implicitly stands in judgment over so many of our daily habits of living.

This “as if” response’s second defect lies in the fact that it invites the following, all too human line of thinking, even from the most committed among us:

“I understand the environment is “the” issue about which you are most passionate, but my priority is poverty – or unjust wars – or the exploitation of women. I know I should act “as if” our future depends on my environmental choices but I just don’t have the energy to do so on “this” issue as well – to say nothing all of the other compelling issues, different from mine, that also require “as if” choices.

And, more darkly, this additional thought is likely to creep in:

“Why is it that you, even as you implicitly judge my lack of initiative on environmental issues, fail to make “as if” choices in the area I am most passionate about?”

In other words, at its most insidious, our activist’s answer to the crucial “why do it” question, far from facilitating a coming together of the most committed among us, can actually promote a fracturing of reform efforts and, with it, a competition for scarce resources.

The hopeful news, on this last point, is that so many good people work hard to mute and overcome these tendencies. But the deeper point is this: Our habitual mindsets should not set in motion thought processes that require a consistent act of will to overcome. To the contrary, they should affirmatively support, and add to, the momentum of our change efforts.


Here are the mainstream definitions of “radical” and “radicalism”:

  • Radical: Going to the source or foundation or, more specifically, favoring basic change in social or economic structures; and
  • Radicalism: Someone who embraces radical principles, methods, or practices .

Once again, as was the case with my understanding of the mainstream definition of social justice at an earlier time, I have grown to believe that these definitions are limiting and distracting to our purposes.

A key strength of my social justice definition is that it is process rather than result oriented. Instead of inviting us – as the mainstream definition does – to judge whether our actions have improved things, it directs us to this more pertinent, in the moment question:

In the choices I am making, right now, I am doing the best I can?

When we think about radicalism we would, it seems to me, be far better served by a definition that likewise emphasizes process and, with it, the effectiveness of our day-by-day choices. Unfortunately, the mainstream definitions, quoted above, confuse and obscure this issue. And in our judgment driven/outcomes obsessed culture, this simple act of obfuscation – in a way that is eerily analogous to the mainstream definition of social justice – greatly diminishes their ability to orient toward more effective change strategies.

Far better would be a definition of “radical” – or, more realistically, an understanding of the term in its application – that retains an emphasis on transformative change but, then, explicitly adds a second prong: An ongoing commitment to making these goals our operative priority in life.

A key indicator of the value of this conceptual addition is that it quickly discredits the many coercive and murderous movements, political and religious, that in our mainstream understanding of the term have been viewed as radical. And it does so, not by reiterating the traditional “they were evil” judgment that history levels against them. To the contrary, it also adds this essential criticism: Their change strategies were wholly misguided. People can never be coerced into living differently and better.

Even more important, however, is the positive, forward looking aspect that this expanded understanding of the term brings with it: Being process oriented, it fully integrates means and ends. And, in doing so, it insists on a full embrace of the vital and mind-meltingly difficult task of crafting change strategies that are calculated to be both transformative in their effect and sustainable, as a priority, over time.


Radical Decency offers one answer to this key question, first, by articulating an entirely positive program for change: The systematic implementation of an alternative set of values.

In addition, it rejects the proselytory/coercive, judgmental approach to change that has in the past failed so tragically, so often. In its place, it offers a wholly invitational philosophy.

Finally, and crucially, it continually emphasizes this essential fact. Being radically decent is not just the right thing to do if we hope to meaningfully contribute to a better world. It is also the surest path toward living a different and better life. See Reflection 13 Radical Decency is its Own Reward.

What all of this adds up to is a transformative approach to change that promises as well to be sustainable, over time, as a life orienting priority; a change program that fits my expanded view of what it means to be radical.


Given these premises here, then, is my alternative answer to our activist’s crucial “why do it” question.

A Radical Decency practice cultivates a whole series of life affirming mindsets:

  • Living in the present;
  • Habitually being more empathic to yourself and others;
  • Clarity about your priorities in life;
  • An ennobling sense of purpose.

However, given the relentless pull of our mainstream compete and win ways of operating, we need to practice theses new mindsets at all times, in every context, and without exception – if we hope to make them our new, habitual ways of living.

So why should I stretch to buy green products? Or to leave my car at home and take public transportation? Because being decent to the world is still another way in which I can deepen and extent my decency practice, trusting that as these choices accumulate I am not just doing the right thing. I am also traveling the surest path to a more vibrant and nourishing life.

Reflection 80: Derailing Change — Domestication and Marginalization

When it comes to social change work in the larger culture, one thing I have noticed over the years is a process that I call domestication and marginalization.

Here’s how it works.

Really good people, concerned about an important issue, create an organization to implement a meaningful change strategy. At times, I have been one of those people. At other times, I have been a member of the organizer’s core group of activists.

At the beginning, hopes are high.

“This can work. We have a great idea and a terrific group of supporters.”

But then, all too soon and with depressing predictability, the process I refer to as domestication and marginalization begins to take hold and deepen:

  • A softening of the message to make it palatable to more mainstream funders;
  • New Board members – “non-ideological” experts – who counsel “smart” mainstream strategies that any savvy organization would “of course” adopt to ensure more money, media attention, and access to those in power.
  • An ebbing of the original, bold mission as jobs at the organization become careers and their occupants income, benefits, and marketability to potential future employees increasingly infect their choices.

Domestication and marginalization are thoroughly embedded in our taken for granted ways of operating and, precisely for this reason, the depth and power of their impact is all too easy to overlook. The reality? These processes are hiding out in plain sight, so to speak; the special province of the reasonable, measured, articulate and “sincerely concerned” people who (often unawares) are crafting the strategies and choices that create these outcomes.

In past writings I have argued this process has increasingly become the preferred tool for derailing potentially transformative change efforts. And that is precisely because them seem so benign, especially as compared to more overt forms of repression. But make no mistake about it. As tools to keep us rooted in our status quo ways of operating, they are chillingly effective.

In her brilliant and passionate book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2013), Naomi Klein does the hard work of teasing out the specific, detailed mechanisms that have resulted in so much domestication and marginalization within the climate change movement.

Here are key examples of her analysis, quoted at length from her book. As you read them, please keep in mind that these same processes are at work – in the media; in our religious institution; in our colleges and universities; indeed, in virtually every sector of the culture that seeks to influence the conversation and choices that, cumulatively, will mold our future.


“The Environmental Defense Fund has always insisted that it does not take donations from the companies with which it forms partnerships— that, writes EDF senior vice president for strategy and communications Eric Pooley, ‘would undermine our independence and integrity.’ But the policy doesn’t bear much scrutiny.

For instance, one of the EDF’s flagship partnerships is with Walmart, with whom it collaborates to ‘make the company more sustainable.’ And it’s true that Walmart doesn’t donate to the EDF directly. However, the Walton Family Foundation, which is entirely controlled by members of the family that founded Walmart, gave the EDF $65 million between 2009 and 2013. In 2011, the foundation provided the group with nearly 15 percent of its funding.

Meanwhile, Sam Rawlings Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, sits on the EDF’s board of trustees (identified merely as ‘Boatman, Philanthropist, Entrepreneur’ on the organization’s website). The EDF claims that it ‘holds Walmart to the same standards we would any other company.’ Which, judging by Walmart’s rather dismal environmental record since this partnership began— from its central role in fueling urban sprawl to its steadily increasing emissions—is not a very high standard at all.

The heart of the issue is not simply that a group that gets a large portion of its budget from the Walton family fortune is unlikely to be highly critical of Walmart. The 1990s was the key decade when the contours of the climate battle were being drawn— when a collective strategy for rising to the challenge was developed and when the first wave of supposed solutions was presented to the public.

It was also the period when Big Green became most enthusiastically pro-corporate, most committed to a low-friction model of social change in which everything had to be ‘win- win.’ And in the same period many of the corporate partners of groups like the EDF and the Nature Conservancy— Walmart, FedEx, GM— were pushing hard for the global deregulatory framework that has done so much to send emissions soaring.

This alignment of economic interests— combined with the ever powerful desire to be seen as ‘serious’ in circles where seriousness is equated with toeing the pro-market line — fundamentally shaped how these green groups conceived of the climate challenge from the start. Global warming was not defined as a crisis being fueled by overconsumption, or by high emissions industrial agriculture, or by car culture, or by a trade system that insists that vast geographical distances do not matter — root causes that would have demanded changes in how we live, work, eat, and shop. Instead, climate change was presented as a narrow technical problem with no end of profitable solutions within the market system, many of which were available for sale at Walmart.”


“A growing number of communications specialists now argue that because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem.

After all, if climate change really was as dire as Al Gore argued it was in An Inconvenient Truth, wouldn’t the environmental movement be asking the public to do more than switch brands of cleaning liquid, occasionally walk to work, and send money? Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?

Imagine that someone came up with a brilliant new campaign against smoking. It would show graphic images of people dying of lung cancer followed by the punch line: It’s easy to be healthy— smoke one less cigarette a month. ‘We know without a moment’s reflection that this campaign would fail,’ wrote British climate activist and author George Marshall. ‘The target is so ludicrous, and the disconnection between the images and the message is so great, that most smokers would just laugh it off.’ ”

Radical Decency’s seemingly simple prescription – to be decent to self, other, and the world; and do so at all times, in every context, and without exception – leads us to all sorts of unexpected challenges. Recognition of domestication and marginalization as well as a forthright embrace of explicit and well thought through strategies designed to neutralize and counter their effects, is a prime example.

We need to understand that decency implicates everything. Not just our substantive mission, but also the ways in which fund and run our organizations, the people with whom collaborate, and the intensely personal day by day choices that will, inevitably, mold our effectiveness as agents of change.