Jeff and Susan discuss how Radical Decency’s values based approach can more effectively unite our change efforts.
I have learned a lot in my years as a couple’s counselor – and as a husband. Among the most important lessons: When is comes to making things better, the most constructive choices are the ones that tend to your partner.
This is not the norm. Instead, in the typical couples fight, he listens but in a special way, alert to every inaccuracy or unwarranted attack, waiting impatiently for her lips to stop moving so he can renew his attack, augmented of course by the additional ammunition she’s just provided. And, needles to say, she is does the same in reverse. And round and round it goes. And the years go by.
The alternative? Avoid this defend/counter-attack approach and, instead listen; affirm your partner’s feelings; and, then, notice and build on areas of agreement. Doing so, we take leadership in facilitating a return to a calmer, more progressed state where in can sort through our differences in a reasoned way, attending as best we can to the emotional and practical needs of each.
Why I am spelling this out in a Reflection that discusses a different, hopefully more effective approach in politics? Because this perspective is so strikingly absent – and so desperately needed – in this area as well.
Without regard to who we supported, the recent Presidential election deeply unsettled so many of us, like none other in recent memory. And this points to a breakdown in our public conversation – decades in the making – that goes far beyond the personalities and figural issues of this election.
If the goal is to nurture a more constructive politics, one that more effectively moves us toward a more humane, just and equitable world, Radical Decency offers an orienting perspective on what ails us and, in addition, a pathway forward that while not exclusive is, I believe, foundationally important.
That is the subject of this Reflection.
Thinking about Donald and Hillary from a Radical Decency perspective, here’s where I come out.
Donald gets high marks on the 4 values that predominate in the mainstream culture: Compete and win, dominate and control. When is comes to decency’s 7 values, however, the situation is different. He gets a passing grade on “understanding,” given his native shrewdness, and, perhaps, on “fairness” and “justice” in the limited area that encompasses the white, working class constituency he purports to represent. However, he shows virtually no inclination to embrace decency’s other 4 values: Respect, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation.
When is comes to Hillary, things are more complicated. Smart and an enormously hard worker, I give her high grades on understanding. And she has, in many of her activities, demonstrated a sincere interest/inclination toward decency’s other 6 values. But, like Donald, she has also shown a steady, indeed passionate commitment to the culture’s mainstream, compete and win values; a commitment manifest in her zealous pursuit of private wealth and political advancement.
Thus, the crucial question about Hillary is this: What is her priority, decency or conventional success? For me, a fair reading of her history suggests that the mainstream’s compete and win values take precedence. Thus, for example, her:
- Close association with her husband’s politically motivated dismantling of the welfare system and repeal of Glass-Steagall’s financial regulatory protections;
- “Smart politics” vote for the invasion of Iraq; and,
- Failure to take on Wall Street in the recent campaign.
For all of us, Presidential candidates included, the real test of decency comes in those “rubber hits the road” moments when decency’s values conflict with our mainstream ambitions. And by that measure Hillary, in my opinion, falls short.
You may or may not find this analysis persuasive. But the more basic and crucial point is this: This sort of sustained values-based discussion of our candidates is strikingly absent from the dominant political conversation. To the contrary, Donald and Hillary – reflecting a conventional wisdom that has dominated our electoral politics for decades – focused the great majority of their resources on tearing each other down: Lying, bought and sold Hillary vs. an incompetent, corrupt, temperamentally unfit misogynist.
To my mind, fully coming to grips with the striking absence of “values” as a category used to evaluate our potential leaders – and a strategy to correct that – is vitally important if we hope to create a more decent world. Moving the needle toward greater decency, especially at a societal level, is an immensely complicated challenge. We will never make meaningful progress toward that goal if, accepting the invitation of our mainstream politicians, we never even talk about.
Needless to say, a values oriented political conversation would require an enormous shift in our “business as usual” politics. For that reason, the change we seek is unlikely to come from the top since, by the time someone runs for high elective
office, their investment in the mainstream’s compete/win ways is far too high. Thus, the likelihood that, once elected, they will dramatically reorient their priorities, becoming leaders in creating this shift in outlook is surpassingly small.
But below the confusion and fear that our current system so masterfully creates and exploits is this hopeful reality: Most people are fundamentally decent, wanting to love their families and friends and to live in peace. For this reason, the more sensible approach is to focus on the grass roots. Indeed, since most of our elected politicians are not leaders but are, instead, simply polltakers and panderers, a growing public insistence on decency would increasingly be reflected in their behavior as well.
What we need to recognize, however, is that this grass roots approach thoroughly implicates all of us. The “problem,” simply put, is not with some other person or group. We are all very much a part of it.
Why do I say this? Because we all – with the rarest of exceptions – are significantly infected with the culture’s dominant, compete and win mindset. It shows up in our drive for grades and money, in the win-obsessed mindset we bring to the games we watch and play and, as noted earlier, even in the ways that we treat our most intimate partner in life. So, it is not at all surprising that it shows up in the mindset we bring to our political engagements as well.
In that regard, as a Hillary supporter, ask yourself this: Was the great bulk of your emotional energy consumed by your animus toward Donald and, with it, an impatient “paper over the flaws” defense of Hillary? And, if you were a Donald supporter, ask yourself the same question in reverse. Though there are always exceptions, I suspect the great majority of us – me included – would agree that this defend/attack mentality dominated our thoughts and actions. And, viewed from this perspective, the deeper truth about the candidates is that they were simply reflecting – and to their shame as would-be leaders – magnifying a disease that infects most all of us.
So what needs to happen? We need to fundamentally re-think how we engage politically beginning, very fundamentally, with how to talk with one another.
And it is here that the lessons I have learned in my work with couples come to the fore.
In our political engagements as well, we need to wean ourselves from our reflexive defend/counter-attack approach, cultivating instead a more generous mindset in which we see those on the “other side” as people who, like us, are trying to do the right thing in an incredibly complicated world. And, importantly, we need to remember that neither side “owns” decency’s 7 values. Except for the most rabid ideologues (with whom dialogue is not possible in any event), we all, in our way, want to be respectful, empathic, fair, just, and so on.
Steadily cultivating this perspective – and abandoning it only as a last reluctant option – we will then be primed:
- To far more fully listen to the “other” side’s very different perspective, and to share our perspective in a way that, diverging from strident defense, acknowledges our doubts, confusions, and uncertainties as well;
- To notice, affirm and expand areas of agreement including, very importantly, the ways in which decency’s values show up for each of us though often in very different ways; and
- To develop a more nuanced and respectful understanding of differences.
This approach has been thoroughly explored in the work of many fine thinkers including, for example, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, Philip Lichtenberg’s Encountering Bigotry, and Miki Kashtan’s groundbreaking work with Convergent Facilitation. And, see, Reflections 75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2.
Our job is give these ideas the attention they so desperately deserve. And while the work is hard and uncertain, persistence is the key. We need to resist the temptation, when the other person fails to respond in kind, to see him as a jerk; reverting, in that moment, to our old, dismissive, partisan ways. In Gandhi’s words, we need to be the change we hope to create.
Note, finally, this important contextual caveat: Without in any way diminishing the foundational importance of this work, we need to remember that it is not meant to, nor should it, supplant other types of political initiatives. They are many people in the public sphere who are what I call permanently stuck in their indecency. These people can be dangerous and need to be aggressively countered. But if that is all that we do – if we fail to make this values based substrata an explicit, visible, ongoing priority – our efforts to create a better world will, I fear, never sustain themselves or gain lasting momentum.
In closing, I offer an example of the different kind of dialogue that will become with time – it is my hope – our new norm.
The day after the election I had an unexpected conversation with a man in my office waiting room, named Steve. Knowing I was a Hillary supporter, he told me how relieved his was that that “liar” wasn’t going to be President. In response I told him that, while I didn’t agree with the liar label, I did think that his discomfort pointed to something real; that she was calculating, controlled and, at times, slippery with her words.
Steve’s next words were equally partisan: “When Hillary was in office, she sold the government to enrich herself.” Here, too, I disagreed but worked to avoid an impatient dismissive response and/or a pivot to how awful his guy was.
I began instead by saying that, as I saw it, instances of quid quo pros were few or nonexistent. But I then offered this thought: People with power and wealth constantly interact with one another and fully understand that they need each other to get ahead. As a result, people like Hillary (and, implicitly, Donald as well) take care of one another’s needs without every being asked; that for smart, successful players like them no quid quo pros are necessary.
At that point, Steve – in unchartered territory – paused, seeming to digest my unexpected responses. Then, after a brief interlude, he sought me out, saying, “you know, when I comes to guns I, like you, think we need to control who gets them.” My final words, drawn out of me by our surprising sense of connection: “You know, if we had the time, I bet we could come up with a good solution to that problem!”
This was, needless to say, just one small conversation. And other, similar attempts I’ve made with people in the “other” side have quickly deteriorated into the partisan point/counterpoint to which I, too, am so susceptible. But these are the kinds of initiatives we all – Trump and Clinton supporters alike – can and need to take.
Indeed, my most hopeful conversation since the election was with Maureen, a woman I know well, who understands and embodies decency in her in life – and who voted for Trump. She and I agreed that we both hope her greater optimism about Donald’s decency proves to be correct, that we both intend to use decency’s values to measure his Presidency – and that we both look forward to continuing our conversation about our shared political future.
This is the last of three Reflections dealing with how to create mechanisms to better bring together the many reform-minded people, currently doing largely unconnected, issues-specific work; magnifying the efforts of each; creating, in this way, a more inclusive and effective movement for change.
My answer: Expanded and invigorated communal engagements and collaborative commitments, driven by a far more explicit recognition of the deeper, values-based unity of purpose that the best of these issues-specific initiatives share.
Reflection #89 offered a framework for expanding and deepening our communal commitments. Reflection #90 contrasted our current collaborative mindsets with the far more expansive framework that Radical Decency’s values dictate.
In this Reflection, I offer a vision for how these collaborative ideas might look in practice, using as an illustrative example the “ethics” – that is, the values – that inform the activities of our mainstream professions.
In my 40 plus years as a professional – attorney and social worker – most all of my “ethics” courses have worked to locate the point at which our normal ways of doing business cross an ethical line – and, then, how to stay on the “right side” of that line. But if you stop and think about, this approach makes no sense.
It is no different, really, than an attorney who asks his law partners to identify the minimum amount he needs to do to stay on the “right side” of the profitability line. Needless to say, the response of that attorney’s partners’ would be stunned disbelief:
“When it comes to profitability, you shouldn’t be looking for the minimal acceptable bar. To the contrary, your job, each and every day, is to find ways to expand your profitability in new and creative ways.”
So why are these two activities – profitability and ethics – viewed so differently? Because profitability fully aligns with the culture’s compete and win values while a fulsome embrace of ethics would inhibit them. And so, our ethical explorations are straightjacketed by these (unawares, but deeply engrained) assumptions, each designed to allow our mainstream values to operate without serious challenge:
- “Of course,” we should strive to make more and more money, limited by ethics only when these restraints are unavoidable; and
- “Of course,” self-protection should take precedence above everything else (except, possibly, profitability).
Limited in this way, our ethical explorations focus on the small-bore choices that survive in this narrow context.
- As “ethical” attorneys, are our fee arrangements and potential conflicts fully disclosed? And not: How can we eliminate the conflicts inherent in our standard cost-plus hourly billing rates?
- As “ethical” social workers, have we avoided dual relationships – attendance at a client’s family funeral, $20 so he can eat dinner, a hug? And not: Is this the decent thing to do? Is it a manageable risk that might help our client and, potentially, strengthen the therapeutic relationship?
Notice, importantly, how this limited view of ethics keeps us consigned within our separate areas of expertise. The intricacies of the disclosures in an attorney’s engagement letter – to make a lucrative new client’s “knowing waiver” of conflicts with an existing client possible – will be of no interest to a psychotherapist. And conversely, an attorney will have no interest in a detailed discussion about how a psychotherapist can artfully deflect a client’s question about his personal life.
However, when Radical Decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – are the focus of our ethical aspirations, and are pursued with the same expansive zeal with which we now pursue profitability and safety, everything is different.
Our professionals will now be focused on the wisdom-stretching task of being decent to others and the world, even as they seek to create and maintain a profitable economic entity (decency to self). The result? They will be impelled to grapple with issues that, in contrast to the small bore issues described above, go to heart of what it truly means to be a values-based professional:
- Do my services and products speak to my clients’ interests, broadly defined. Am I offering a quality product that, at the same time, does not compromise their broader economic, emotional, physical, and aspirational life interests?
- Are my pricing policies fair and transparent – and, to the extent reasonably possible, aligned with my clients’ economic interests?
- Do my sales/marketing strategies honestly represent my capabilities?
- Does the institution of which I am a part avoid the ever-present temptation to over compensate those at the top, unreasonably compromising in this way the wages and benefits offered to lower level employees?
- Is our institution’s work environment reasonably accommodating to the larger life goals of employees at every level (ownership included)?
- Have we created – and are we maintaining – an institutional culture in which decency’s 7 values are the taken for granted norm, informing our interactions not just with co-workers, but also with clients, vendors, competitors, and the public at large?
- Are we contributing to the communities of which they are a part in ways that, given our financial capability and technical skills, make us responsible partners in the larger effort to create a more decent and humane world?
Note, moreover, that one of the key lessons of Radical Decency is that seeking to segregate and compartmentalize our work and personal lives is a failed strategy. Who we are at work deeply bleeds into and affects who we are at home (and vice versa). For this reason, a priority focus on Radical Decency will deeply inform the choices our hypothetical professionals will make in their private lives as well:
- Am I interacting with family, friends and others in ways that reflect decency’s 7 values?
- Am I investing an appropriate amount of personal time, expertise, and money in the communities of which I am a part?
- Am I finding adequate time to be with those I love, and for rest, play, and the pursuit of my private passions?
With this shift in perspective – from compete and win to decency – what, then, of our instinct to collaborate with one another?
Here, too, every thing would be different.
Needless to say, the values-based issues, listed above, are not the specialized concern of lawyers and social workers. To the contrary, when Radical Decency supplants compete and win as our motivating mindset, these same (or entirely analogous) issues will also be the pre-occupying focus of academics, journalists, people with religious vocations, reform-minded workers and business people and, indeed, anyone else intent on making decency their priority pursuit
Moreover, operationalizing Radical Decency’s complex and, at times, seemingly inconsistent goals – e.g. how to be decent to others and the world, even as I maintain decency to self – will continually perplex and challenge their wisdom. For this reason, they will feel impelled to reach out to people with knowledge and experience in areas where theirs falls short. Indeed, the need to make these choices with increasing focus and persistent, will become self-evidently necessary – if, that is, they we hope to make the many creative, “outside the mainstream” choices that their vocation of decency demands.
Business people will reach out and thoroughly involve themselves in the initiatives of mission driven activists knowing that, with their years of thought and practice, these people are their indispensible teachers when is come to translating communal responsibilities into action. And, on their side, mission-driven people will be eager students of the many decency-minded business people who know so much about raising capital, generating income, and organizing large numbers of people in pursuit of a common goal; vitally important skills if they hope to bring their mission driven initiatives up to a scale that can truly make a difference.
Think also about the wide variety of people offering creative ways of inhabiting our minds, bodies, and hearts, and interacting with one another. Some of these people are healers, coaches, and consultants. Others are spiritual people, both traditional and nontraditional. Still others are artists and performers.
Values-based people with these vocations have a lot to teach us about being more decent to ourselves, others, and the world including, importantly, in the visual, energetic and kinesthetic areas that exist beyond the logical/verbal modalities so dominant in the mainstream culture. Our commitment to across-the-board decency will impel us to more fully understand and incorporate the wisdom and life changing possibilities, offered by these people, into our more mainstream ways of operating – even as our more mainstream interests and skills inform theirs.
And, the areas of extended collaboration will go far beyond these examples. Indeed, with decency is our informing motive, the list of now, self-evidently important initiatives, involving other, equally committed people with diverse interests and skills, would be endless:
- Fully committed to dealing with quality of life issues, business owners and operators would heavily involve ministers, psychotherapists, and health and fitness experts in their priority setting and day-by-day choices;
- Radically decent organizational leaders from every sector would seek out those special people who, without regard to their area of activity, have developed – and sustained, over time – more decent and nourishing organizational environments;
- Recognizing the dismal state of their profession, decency-committed mainstream media people would work closely with the many people – academics, therapists, and so on – who have spent years understanding and teaching communication techniques that foster respect, authenticity and mutuality;
- Accountants and financial people with a decency priority would be indispensible allies in crafting fair, transparent and equitable wage and product pricing strategies – as well as new standard metrics that, instead of measuring profitability and nothing more, contextualize bottom line concerns within broader decency-measuring metrics;
- And so, on and on . . . .
Still another aspect of this expanded collaborative vision would be an end to the unspoken assumption that the values/ethics that inform our work lives are to be determined only by people within our profession or specialized area of activity; thus, the complete absence from every ethics course I have ever taken, as a lawyer or social worker, of clients or members of the general public.
We would no longer huddle up as lawyers, accountants, business people, academics, and so on, assuming that we know what is best when it comes to our professional ethics. To the contrary, seeking to do justice to the endless challenges inherent being decent to self, others, and the world, our deliberations would thoroughly involve representatives from every sector of the public, materially impacted by our activities.
Finally – and crucially – we need to remember that a re-invigorated network of communities, more fully aligned with decency’s 7 values, is an essential building block in our efforts to create a more decent world. See Reflection #89, A Call to Action, Part 1: Community. For this reason, our expanded collaborative vision needs to go beyond our individual choices and be translated, as well, into initiatives that bring our diverse communities into this ever-deepening web of collaborative connections.
Like so many other decency-driven scenarios that I have spun out in the Reflections, there is a natural tendency to step back and ask this question: What is the likelihood that this can really happen? And I have to concede that, here too, it is hard to imagine how we get from here to there, given the state of the world in which we live.
But we need to remember, always, that every pathway to meaningful change is a long shot. And, the value-based approach I promote does have a compelling logic that speaks to its potential effectiveness:
Radical Decency is not just the right thing to do. Without regard to ultimate outcomes in the larger world, it is also a far more vital and plausible pathway toward a nourishing, spirit-affirming life than any that is offered by our heedless pursuit of compete and win, dominate and control.
So, remembering that the future is inherently uncertain – for better or for worse – what better way to spend our days?
This is the second of three Reflections that deal with this key question:
Living in a world, structured to funnel reform-minded people into largely unconnected, issues-specific work – climate change or personal growth; health and nutrition or business ethics – are there mechanisms that can bring us together; magnifying the efforts of each; creating, in this way, a more inclusive and effective movement for change?
My answer: A movement, built upon expanded and invigorated communal engagements and collaborative commitments, that is, in turn, driven by a far more explicit recognition of a deeper unity of purpose that the best of these issues-specific initiatives share around decency’s 7 values.
Elaborating on this thesis:
- Reflection #89 (the first in the series) offered a framework for expanding and deepening our communal commitments.
- This Reflection #90 contrasts our current collaborative mindsets with the far more expansive framework that Radical Decency’s values dictate.
- The final Reflection, #91, will offer a vision for how these collaborative ideas might look in practice.
When it comes to our change oriented activities, everybody can’t do everything. Some reform-minded people will elaborate their Radical Decency ideals in the context of their ethnic communities, others within their church or mosque, still others where they work or in less traditional communities. And, of course, a large number of people will continue to pursue these values in their unique, go it alone way – a very sizable group, given our engrained individualistic habits of living.
Given this reality, the deeper communal engagements, described in Reflection #89, while vitally important, are not enough. We also need to create an environment in which reform-minded people, now far more typically engaged in uncoordinated initiatives, can be brought into more fruitful connection with one another, both at an individual level and, importantly, through deeper, more persistent communal alignments.
In other words, we need to re-think what it means to be collaborative.
Unfortunately, endemic confusion about the values-based disease that ails us has deeply inhibited meaningful movement in that direction. And it has done so through structures that are so embedded within our predominant “compete and win” culture as to be virtually invisible – and, for that reason, breathtakingly effective.
It begins with a stunning dichotomy in our culturally sanctioned, mainstream view of what ails us.
While our points of emphasis differ, depending on our political orientation, our endemic indecency is widely recognized and commented upon. By contrast, the fact that these many, varied and deepening manifestations of indecency are rooted in the culture’s wildly out of control compete and win mindset – that that is the underlying cause of so much of what is wrong – is seldom recognized or discussed.
The result: Reflecting the obscurity that shrouds this fundamental values issue, would-be reformers are channeled in vocations and organizational structures that allow them to challenge particular manifestations of indecency – poverty, tyranny, wars of aggression, racism, and so on – but not the underlying values system from which these indecencies arise.
This phenomenon is massively effective – if the goal is to marginalize reform energy. It allows the status quo system to maintain and extend its power by creating the current perplexing, and deeply discouraging, reform landscape in which:
- There are so many creative and admirable reform efforts that, nevertheless,
- Never seem to cohere into an initiative with the ability to bend our culture toward a more decent trajectory.
Because it is so deeply engrained, most all of us, instead of challenging this do your own thing mindset, seek to do our best within in. And when is comes to our prospects for more meaningful collaboration, the effect is dramatic – and deeply consequential.
Everywhere we look there is indecency: At work; in politics; in the world of commerce; in our day-by-day interactions with others; in the ways in which we push and judge our selves. Seeing indecency in so many seemingly unconnected acts and ways of operating, a feasible strategy – that addresses the larger, overarching “how we live” issue – feels like a giant, futile game of whack-a-mole in which progress might be made on one issue, only to see new, even more disturbing manifestations of indecency pop up in multiple, new areas.
The result? Even those of us who don’t give up the fight altogether, tend to walk down this well-worn path:
- We focus on a particular issue we feel passionate about, usually reflecting our own life experience.
Then, further limiting the scope of our vision:
- We become specialists – academics, political activists, reform-minded workers and businessmen, service workers, therapist/healers – telling ourselves that, in other areas, we need to defer to the experts.
And then, finally, cementing our isolation from one another:
- Our interactions with people beyond our area of interest and expertise become passive and intermittent (at best).
With each of these factors reinforcing one another, the possibility for meaningful, ongoing collaboration across areas of interest and expertise is, at best, pushed to margins. Intent doing their (often entirely noble) thing, reformers see no compelling programmatic link with people whose focus is elsewhere. And there is, as a result, no reason – other than curiosity and a generalized sense of good will – to use their precious time and energy to seek out and collaborate, in an active and sustained way, with people whose initiatives are outside their area of activity.
And what, then, of the all-important values issue?
Our implicit, unarticulated hope is that, somehow, these disparate initiatives will magically and spontaneously knit together into a coherent whole that, as this process gathers momentum, will lead to a more decent world.
Unfortunately, when wishful thinking replaces strategizing and the hard work of organizing, we have, in my view, effectively conceded the issue.
In seeking to find our way to a more robust and meaningful form of collaboration, Radical Decency’s values-based approach can, potentially, play a formative and transformational role. Fully realized, it will bring, to each of our now, seemingly disparate reform initiatives, a shared vision of what it means to work toward a more decent and humane world; a vision with the power to knit these initiatives together into a unified, energized, and far more effective force for change.
While Radical Decency does not seek to supplant and replace the vitally important, issue-specific work that is our current focus, it does seek to crucially expand the context in which it takes place – to include the vitally important values issues that is the underlying cause of so much of the indecency and injustice with which we are confronted.
A premise, fundamental to Radical Decency, is that – hoping to create a different and better world – we all, all of us, need to integrate into our issues-specific orientations and, equally, our day by day, on the ground tactics a decisive shift:
— Away from the culture’s compete and win, dominate and control values; and
— Toward decency’s 7 values.
Fully taking account of the utterly symbiotic relationship between personal growth and social change work, discussed in last week’s Reflection, Radical Decency also emphasizes the need to practice these values in every area of our lives – if, that is, we hope to create meaningful, sustained momentum in the direction of decency to self, others, and the world.
When it comes to collaboration, these premises dictate – and, for that reason will, hopefully, impel us toward – an expanded and far more inclusive collaborative approach. Seeking out people who share our commitment to change but have different interests and capabilities – instead of being an interesting add-on to our “real” work – will become a compelling necessity.
The reason? Since the success of change in one area of living is entirely bound up with change efforts in every other area, a hunkered down, narrow engagement with others – one, for example, that ignores strategies for individual change (if you are a social reformer) or efforts to route out social and economic injustice (if your mission is personal growth) – no makes sense. To the contrary, that approach is, by any reasonable reckoning, a pathway toward change that is partial, episodic, and evanescent; a lesson sadly confirmed by the fate of most every recent, reform movement.
In the final Reflection in this series, I discuss how this expanded view of collaboration would work in practice, using as an illustrative example the “ethics” – that is, the values – that inform the activities of our mainstream professions. In that Reflection, I will explain how:
- The culture’s predominant compete and win values have thoroughly infiltrated our professions’ ethical outlook, dictating ways of operating that, in line with the mainstream ways of operating, discussed above, are narrow and uncollaborative;
And, by way of contrast:
- The greatly expanded vision of collaboration that a fulsome embrace of Radical Decency’s 7 values dictates; a vision that, in its breadth and depth, is strikingly different from our taken-for-granted mainstream ways.
One of the wonderful byproducts, wholly unexpected when I started the weekly Reflections series 6 years ago, has been the wide variety of remarkable people with whom I come in contact each, in their own way, seeking to contribute to the creation of better lives and a better world. But this experience, so positive in so many ways, also regularly highlights the extent to which these people operate independently of one another. And this, in turn, is a troubling reminder of the extent to which the mainstream culture’s individualistic orientation permeates even the work of the most creative and dynamic among us.
Our world is structured to support single bore, issues specific initiatives rather than inclusive approaches:
- Climate change – or anxiety and depression;
- Health and nutrition – or poverty;
- Spiritual growth – or business ethics.
The result? With so much energy poured into (the monumental task of) maximizing the effectiveness of these efforts, too little attention is paid to the larger, vitally important question that begs to be asked:
How can this diverse array of people, each devoted in his or her own way to creating a more decent and humane world, work together, reinforcing and magnifying the efforts of each; becoming, in this way, more effective agents for change?
In this Reflection, and the two that will follow, I offer a vision how a shared, across-the-board commitment to decency’s values can expand and invigorate our communal engagements and collaborative efforts becoming, in this way, the key building blocks in creating a unified and, hence, far more effective change movement.
What we know is heavily influenced by where we have been in life. And, in truth, I have created a life built largely on the culture’s individualistic model. As a lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist much of my work has been in one-on-one situations in which my advice and counsel, while supported by the expertise of others, has largely been the result of my individual efforts. And while I have, over the years, been involved in a series of communal and collaborative initiatives, they have never been my central focus.
For this reason, my writing focuses is on how to re-direct our individual choices in ways that allow us to create more decent lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world. That is what I know best
But the message, in this Reflection and the two that follow, is this: While Radical Decency requires a fundamental re-orientation in the ways in which we create our individual lives, that is not enough. We also need to align and merge our efforts with those of other like-minded people.
The reason: These two initiatives – personal growth and societal change – are symbiotic.
On the societal change side, this symbiosis is driven by the fact that, absent sustained work at an individual level, we are far too vulnerable to the endless cues, incentives, and sanctions – many surpassingly subtle – that pull us back toward the culture’s fundamentally indecent, compete and win norms. For this reason, skipping over our personal growth work – jumping directly into the “more important” work of changing the world – is unrealistic. Taking this path, the culture’s mainstream ways will, in all but the rarest of cases, infect our outlook and day-by-day choices; progressively blurring, compromising, and diminishing our larger vision of a more decent world.
Equally, however, the context in which we exist massively and fundamentally shapes who we are and what we do. So if we are doing our personal work solely with family and friends, failing to actively affiliate with broader efforts to re-shape the culture, our mainstream compete and win ways of being – the very water in which we swim – will bring us, inch by imperceptible inch, back toward its indecent ways, deeply compromising our individual decency aspirations.
Sustained attention to decency to the world is integral to Radical Decency’s approach to living – and is the right thing to do. But fully understanding this personal/political symbiosis, the ideas presented in this series of Reflections become (I hope and believe) far more real, immediate and personal.
In this “call to action,” I am suggesting that is each of us translate our personal decency commitment into choices that, as they accumulate, hold the promise of:
- A re-invigorated network of communities, more fully aligned with decency’s 7 values (this Reflection #89); and
- Collaborative activities, far more expansive and mutually supportive than is the current norm (Reflections #90 and #91).
If you see merit in these ideas, my hope is that you will make concrete choices that make these ways of operating a growing reality in your life.
The Vital Importance of Community
More and more, I am struck by this thought: We humans are fiercely tribal.
Think, for example, about the many people so deeply wedded to their alma mater, favorite sports team, religious movement, or political party or faction. Here in Philadelphia, the level of psychic pain I observe when the Eagles lose is truly remarkable. And when was the last time you, as a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, were able to convince someone on the other side that you were right (or vice versa)?
In Moral Tribes: Emotions, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013), Joshua Greene describes a study that sought to understand how climate change deniers were affected by increased scientific knowledge. The expectation: With more facts, their views would moderate.
The actual result, however, was very different. While there was no meaningful change in outlook, the arguments they brought to their side of the issue became far more sophisticated.
When we think in terms of our fierce tribalism, this outcome makes complete sense. Becoming a voice for climate change would alienate these budding experts from their political tribe, a major emotional loss. So the more sensible move, in psychological terms, was to do exactly what they did – and what the empirical evidence documented.
A key takeaway? Precisely because we aspire to be more effective change agents, we cannot ignore this pivotal reality. For our efforts to be effective, they need to find a vital voice in and through our “tribes”; that is, the communities of which we are a part.
Change programs, like Radical Decency, knowingly seek to upset the status quo. And as the many examples discussed in the Reflection series demonstrate, most every institution or movement of any size and duration is deeply infected by the very mainstream values we are seeking to supplant and supersede.
As a result, many reform-minded people – predictably and inevitably – feel some level of alienation from their “home base” church, political party, ethnic group, or other communal organization (unions, veterans organizations, professional associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, AMA, or ABA, and so on). Then, what frequently happens next is this: Reflexively motivated by the individualistic outlook the mainstream culture so incessantly promotes, they dial back, or entirely abandon, their communal engagements.
This outcome is very unfortunate. When the reform-minded among us lessen and abandon their communal involvements, the status quo-oriented people in these movements are, by default, empowered to consolidate and expand their influence and control; a process that repeats itself, over and over, with depressing predictability:
- The American Jewish community’s massive retreat from its social justice roots;
- The domestication of mainstream labor unions;
- The rapid erosion of the egalitarian governing visions of Gandhi in India, and Mandela South Africa;
- The transformation of Jesus’ insurgent vision into church-based bureaucratic entities, in the service of those with entrenched power.
With this in mind, a key part of the work for many of us – who want to more meaningfully contribute to a more decent world – is to re-orient away from our individualistic, go-it-alone instincts and toward a renewed commitment to community; work that will, depending on the individual, proceed in one or more of the contexts described below.
First, those of us with the inclination to do so need to reclaim leadership in our traditional ethnic, religious, political, worker, and professional communities, remembering always that our decency agenda, far from being alien to their traditions, represent the best within them.
The importance of these involvements bears special emphasis. These communities are deeply resonant for so many and, in many cases, have been for centuries. For millions and millions of people, they are at the core of their identity.
For this reason, our goals are badly served if we ignore them, thinking we can simply start new movements and communities. We should work, instead, to unleash their enormous power in service of our decency values.
Toward that goal, we need to renew our involvement with the Sunday services and church socials, union meetings, and neighborhood 4th of July celebrations that are the binding rituals of our traditional communities. In addition, we need to fully participate in the many tasks, large and small, which allow them to survive and thrive. Then, as active and empowered members, we will be far better able to advocate for the change we seek – not separate and apart from, but from within, these movements.
Reconnecting with our traditional communal roots, in a radically decent way, will challenge us to interact, far more deeply with different-thinking people; that is, the many people within these communities that reflect the culture’s compete and win mindset. But operating out of our radically decent mindset, we will do so: (1) With curiosity – that is, with understanding and empathy, and (2) with acceptance and appreciation – for their humanness apart from their attitudes and beliefs.
In other words, we will be weaning our selves away from any tendency we might have to dismiss these people, and the community itself, as ignorant, intolerant, and/or corrupt. And, more deeply, a heartening upside, inherent in this process, is this: Far from being an uncomfortable, unwanted chore, our renewed involvements, infused with this radically decent outlook, promises to revitalize our sense of shared community even as we become more effective advocates for policies and programs that reflect the best in these traditions.
As important as this process of reclaiming and re-vitalizing our traditional communities is, our communal initiatives need to operate at a second level as well. Understanding the extraordinary power of our tribal loyalties and the strong centrifugal pull of the culture’s mainstream values within these traditional communities, we also need to nurture wholly new communities that reflect our values-based objectives.
The Essential Experience Workshop Community, here in Philadelphia, is a good example. An active participant for 23 years, “EE” has offered me irreplaceable support in my personal journey; an emotional home that has given me the courage to diverge from a mainstream life that, until then, seemed to be my inescapable fate.
Another, better known example is Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that has provided essential communal support to countless individuals seeking to re-orient their lives in a more values-based ways. What is so interesting about the AA model is that, with its de-centralized structure, it seems to have retained its vitality and sense of mission throughout its 80-year history.
Finally, there are our places of business.
While not commonly viewed in this way, our workplaces are in fact communities to which, like it or not, we are powerfully bound since we depend upon them for our livelihood. Indeed, for so many of us, this community consumes far more time and psychic energy than any other community of which we are a part.
If we ignore this reality – and continue to see work as “merely” the place where we make our money – the business sector will continue to be a force for the perpetuation of our status quo ways.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Radical Decency and profitability are not inconsistent concepts. To the contrary, steadily applied over time, its values-based approach will, more predictably, enhance profitability by attracting extraordinarily capable employees and loyal customers even as it improves the day-to-day lives of everyone involved, to and including senior management.
My hope, therefore, is that an increasing number of business owners and empowered executives – understanding this hopeful reality and, with it, their enormous potential as change agents – will offer the leadership needed to create a very different culture and way of operating, within their entities, allowing them to become key communal building blocks in the larger struggle to create a more decent and humane world.
From time to time, I am exposed to a thinker who reminds me, once again, that ideas matter – at lot. A recent example: Robert Reich whose latest book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (Alfred A. Knopf 2015), is the subject of this Reflection and the inspiration for the one I’ll be sharing next week.
Saving Capitalism begins with an anecdote.
Reich, a well-known economics professor and former Secretary of Labor, regularly speaks to a wide variety of audiences about economic inequality, the book’s subject. To his great frustration, the first question with which he must deal, almost invariably, is this: Do you favor the free market or greater governmental regulation?
Since this question has, for decades, framed our left/right, conservative/liberal political debate, why (you might ask) does Reich find it so frustrating? Because, in his view – far from being THE key issue of our times – it is, instead, a chillingly effective distraction from a far more pertinent debate about the policy choices that so deeply affect our economic future.
Transfixed by this issue, people on the right passionately argue that the free market’s competitive efficiencies allow everyone to prosper and that, conversely, most all governmental intervention inhibits this process. Those on the left argue, with equal fervor, that the free market produces far too many distortions, resulting in unacceptable levels of suffering and that, as a result, governmental intervention is essential.
Reich, however, stands entirely apart from this standard liberal/conservative debate, premising all that follows on these essential points:
- There is no such thing as a “free market;” that is, a mechanism that un-interfered with can – for better (the conservative view) – or worse (the liberal view) – be relied upon to regulate our economic activities.
To the contrary,
- All that exists is an intricate, ever evolving web of rules that determine how we interact with one another as economic entities; rules that, always and inevitably, are created, enforced and, as circumstances change, modified and further elaborated by public/governmental institutions – legislators, public executives, courts, and agencies.
In other words, “the market” and “government” are thoroughly and completely symbiotic – and always have been. The market, as it exists at any point in time, is the result of an accumulated set of choices, made over time, by our governing institutions.
When it comes to defining the challenges we face, and crafting strategies to deal with them, Reich’s perspective dictates a dramatic shift in focus. Instead of arguing for more government or less, Reich begins his analysis with a detailed discussion of the policy choices, made over the last 40 years, that have had the greatest effect on the economy’s operative rules.
His conclusion: The dominant economic theme, in this period of our history, is the effectiveness with which people at the top have been able to change these rules in ways that have dramatically increased their ability to add to their wealth. And, he is at pains to point out, most of these changes have had very little to do with rewarding productivity. To the contrary, they reflect instead the ever-increasing ability of the extremely wealthy to use their power to “fix” key aspects of the game in ways that allow them expand their wealth even further.
Reich’s narrative is far-reaching and filled with examples that give vital specificity to this overarching narrative. One particularly stunning example is the massive shift in CEO and senior management compensation, in the last 15 years, from salary to stock options and, with it, an equally massive increase in stock buy backs.
If income maximization is a CEO’s goal, using these two strategies in tandem is an obvious move. The reason: The increase in the company’s stock price that a buy back predictably provokes will – if timed to coincide with the cash-in date for CEO’s option – result in a far more lucrative payday. So, you might ask, why did massive adoption of this strategy only occur in the last 15 years? The answer – fully in line with Reich’s thesis – is that before it could be effectively implemented key rule changes, sought by big business, had to be put in place.
And that is exactly what happened.
In 1982, the SEC (1) removed all limitations on the size and timing of stock buy backs, even as it (2) ensured CEO anonymity by keeping in place (anemic) disclosure rules that require public announcement of a buy back, but not of the date on which it occurs or the date on which the CEO and other executives cash in their stock options.
Then, in 1993, the Clinton administration dramatically incentivized these transactions by allowing, for the first time, tax deductions by companies for executive pay in excess of $1 million – so long as it was linked to corporate performance; in other words, if it came in the form of stock options and awards that, in theory, are linked to performance.
With these changes in place, the stage was set for a massive money grab by some of the richest among us – and, with dismal predictability, CEOs have done exactly that.
Indeed, the figures are just stunning. Between 2001 and 2013, stock buy-backs accounted for $3.6 TRILLION in outlays by companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500 index – and, in 2013 alone, for $500 million in outlays by those companies; fully a third of their cash flow – money that could otherwise have been spent on research and development, price reductions, new jobs, additional pay for workers, or other more productive activities.
Unfortunately, but predictably, Reich has many other stories to tell – stories that persuasively support his thesis – including the following:
- The enormous economic benefit, bestowed on the very rich, when the recent rise in the estate tax exemption (from $2 to $10 million), is combined with the little known fact that – in contrast, say, to the taxes paid by middle class folks who sell their houses at a profit – people who inherit stocks, bonds and other capital assets do not pay any capital gains tax at all on the increase in asset value that occurred during the decedent’s life.
- The fact that each Princeton student (by way of illustrative example) effectively receives a public subsidy of $54,000 – as compared to just $6,000 for the average public university student – a result explained by fact that: (1) A third of every dollar donated to nonprofit universities, such as Princeton, comes from the government, in the form of donor tax deductions; and (2) the massive amounts of money, earned by these university’s endowments, that are exempt from taxation.
- Bankruptcy code revisions that: (1) allow companies in Chapter 11 to the re-write union contracts and, with bankruptcy court approval, to impose them unions; and, by way of stark contrast, (2) exempt student loans from bankruptcy relief (even as colleges – the direct beneficiaries of these loans – enjoy the enormous hidden subsidies described in the last bullet point).
- The massive increase in mandatory arbitration clauses, that severely limit consumer companies’ liability and require the use of biased arbitrators; a movement made possible by Supreme Court decisions that make escape or, even appeal from, these tribunals a practical impossibility.
A final example, too important to omit, is in the area of patents and intellectual property. In the last few years, in response to pressure from pharmaceutical companies:
- Patent rights have been expanded to include processes used to manufacture vaccines and other products from nature; an expansion that allowed Pfizer (for example), as the sole manufacturer of the now-patentable Prevnar 13 vaccine, to earn nearly $4 billion in 2013, alone.
- Patents are now being renewed on the basis of insignificant product changes; a shift that allowed Forest Laboratories, by substituting Namenda XR (extended release) for Namenda, to maintain monopoly control over this widely used Alzheimer drug for an additional 14 years.
To the same point is the repeated expansion, in recent years, of intellectual property rights (11 times since 1960 vs. 2 times in the preceding 160 years). Not coincidentally, this dramatic expansion has occurred precisely at a time when our exploding digital economy has made these rights exponentially more valuable.
Reich’s analysis is remarkable in this breadth and specificity – and vitally important. If we don’t understand what’s going on, our chances of changing it will be very small indeed.
In the end, however, the really important question is this: What do we do about it? And in this area Reich makes an important, analytic contribution as well.
Most attempts to deal with this “what to do about it” issue are, unfortunately, hamstrung by a (typically unawares) mindset – a by-product of the free market/ government dichotomy – that goes like this:
When it comes to making things better, the free market will, inevitably, do its own thing. Thus, the events described by Reich must, however reluctantly, be accepted as “free market” maneuvers by “private parties;” unavoidable by-products of our otherwise treasured, and highly functional, free market system.
Given this reality, our only viable reform option is to move in, after the fact, with governmental programs that, funded by our tax dollars, patch up, as best they can, the many and varied economic wounds that are caused by the inevitable excesses of the free market.
Locked into this perspective, the hard truth about our reform efforts is this: They will never work. Despite the governments’ best efforts, the current system will create more and more inequality – which will require more and more tax dollars – to fund more and more, after the fact, “patch up the wounds” governmental programs.
But because inequality is growing at an ever-accelerating rate, these programs will inevitably fall further and further behind, failing ultimately in their purposes. And this, in turn, will lend further credence to the belief that “government is the problem and not the solution” – the mindset that perversely, ironically, is the precise political cover the current system needs, and uses so effectively, to defeat reform efforts!!
Recognizing this, Reich offers an expanded, and far more helpful, frame of reference within which to understand how the economy operates and where we need to intervene – if we hope to effectively deal with our growing inequality.
In his view, most all of the processes he describes – the shifts in CEO compensation strategies, the tax avoiding maneuvers of the rich, the patent and copyright extending moves of pharmaceutical and internet companies – are all manifestations of a phenomenon he calls “upward pre-distributions.”
As Reich explains it, upward pre-distributions are processes that, preceding any governmental activity, shifts wealth “upward” to the rich. In his view, these “pre” distributions stand side by side with the “post” distributions that governments make when they use tax money, after the fact, to re-allocate wealth downward (social security disability and retirement payments, unemployment insurance, etc.).
Needless to say, Reich advocates a shift in emphasis away from our (deeply flawed) efforts to relieve inequality through “post” distributions and toward efforts to curb and reverse upward pre-distributions. We vitally need laws and regulations that, instead of enabling these maneuvers – the current norm – discourage and prevent them.
The subtle and varied changes to our economic/political the system that Reich describes – so instrumental in the massive shift in wealth to the rich – are also a suggestive and useful summary of the laws and regulations we need change if we hope to undo the effects of the last 40 years.
But how to we get from “here” to “there”?
Addressing this issue, Reich brings us back to the concept of “countervailing power,” described by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s. This is the process through which institutions such as unions, farms cooperatives, local and regional banks, and local (small business oriented) chambers of commerce pushed against Wall Street, big business and the wealthy, limiting in this way their ability to fix the game.
In that era, as Galbraith describes it, people with diverse economic interests – operating, crucially, through entities with the organizational and political muscle to promote their interests – balanced each other out, producing a more equitable economic system in the process.
The last 50 years have witnessed a dramatic decline in the power of the countervailing institutions that Galbraith described. Reich, while acknowledging this, argues nevertheless that “the only way back toward a democracy and economy that work for the majority is for the majority to become politically active once again, establishing a new countervailing power.” Saving Capitalism, at 182.
I am sympathetic with Reich’s argument. Millions of good-hearted people, acting alone, will never magically coalesce into a movement for meaningful change. What we need instead are robust institutions and communities who, through their cumulative choices, create a larger movement that leads the way in creating the change we seek. And, a 21st century version of the kinds of countervailing institutions that existed on the 1950s may well be among the most viable communal building blocks from which such a movement could emerge.
But, for me, a deeper question remains unanswered: Where will the motive force to create these countervailing institutions come from? As I see it, the answer to this question points directly to the underlying values issues that Radical Decency seeks to highlight and address. That will be the subject of next week’s Reflection. I hope you find it interesting and helpful.
The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson. Jeremy is an associate with the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 71, Dad As An Exception, and Reflection 83, Listening to the “Bad” Guys.
You can direct comments and reactions to Jeremy at jeremy. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Being “average” has very negative connotations in our society. It is, at worst, synonymous with failure and, at best, viewed as a safety net of sorts that allows us to be complacent about our abilities. Google confirms these connotations by offering, primarily, links on how to either (1) rise above averageness or (2) not put so much pressure on your self. A short time ago, I realized that I have a different, hopefully more helpful, perspective on averageness, which I describe in this Reflection.
My experience in attempting to pass my drivers license test, as a 16 year old, offers a context for my definition of averageness. In Pennsylvania, you can take the test three times in a row but, then, you have to wait six months to take it again. Thus, the pressure to pass increases greatly if you fail.
And fail I did. The first time I took the test, I ran a red light. More specifically, I was making a left turn and waited until the cars coming from the other direction were gone before I went. Unfortunately, those cars had an extended green; something I didn’t realize until the test was over.
Damn! Suddenly I only had two more opportunities to pass – or else be stuck taking the bus for the rest of the school year. I had to pass the next time.
Getting ready for test 2, I injected myself with confidence using this simple idea: I’m probably at least average and, therefore, can pass. Put differently, I thought about the millions of U.S. citizens who have taken the driver’s test and passed. These citizens included people of all ability levels, including many who are not very good drivers. If those people could pass the test, surely I could as well. I must be as good as at least a decent chunk of those people, so this is a hurdle I can overcome.
This same bit of self-talk has helped me to overcome many other challenges in the years since. Whether it’s finishing a major paper, preparing for an interview, or taking the bar exam, I make myself remember the millions that have done it before me and the millions that will do it after me. If they did it, so can I!
What I have come to realize is that this way of thinking replaces the mainstream culture’s negative connotation around “average” with one that is positive, empowering and, actually, far more realistic. Because we humans are so extraordinary as a species, being average can mean achieving our goals without overwhelming pressure. We are highly intelligent creatures who can plan out our paths and figure out what we need to do to get where we want to go. Most of the obstacles along these paths are ones that have been met and overcome by countless people before us. They may vary in the details but, for the most part, our struggles are not unique.
To give another example, when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I knew that I had to do well on the LSAT, apply to different law schools, take classes, pass various tests, and pass the bar exam. Since almost every lawyer in the U.S. has taken on these same obstacles and gotten past them, I knew I could as well. Some of my friends had extra obstacles (like finances which are, obviously, a huge obstacle). But the same overarching message applied to them as well. Others did it, so they could as well.
As I write this Reflection I realize that I risk falling into a major trap of our society: the idea that, since success is reasonably within our grasp, there is no excuse for falling short and that, if we do, we have “failed.” In the capitalist society in which we live, we are either “winners” in the rat race – or “losers” to be looked down upon. This is decidedly indecent.
Fully understood, the approach to averageness I am describing differs dramatically from this winner/loser, succeed or fail mindset. Indeed, from this perspective, experiencing a setback is fine! In fact, it may be for the best since it may lead to an even better outcome than the one we originally aimed for. (I can easily think of several situations in which I came up short of my original goal, only to experience a better outcome in the end). It is all part of the average human experience.
At this point, I want to discuss the fear of failure. This fear is a large impediment that stops many of us in our tracks. If I attempt to accomplish a goal where many others have succeeded, but I fail, what does that say about me? Something very negative, correct?
This is the flipside of my tool. Because so many people have succeeded, we are afraid of failure; a fear that can bring debilitating, even paralyzing anxiety in its wake.
People who struggle with this fear – me included – need to keep two things in mind. First, since we live in a world of probabilities, setbacks are inevitable. As my Father likes to say, the best baseball players in history fail 2/3rds of the time. To expand on this idea, the best free throw shooters in NBA history make 90% their shots. So when they go to the foul line, all they need to do is repeat a motion that they have done countless times before. Even so, they miss 10% of the time – at a task that is literally the same every single time.
Second, and more importantly, setbacks do not occur in a vacuum. As mentioned above, a setback can result in a better outcome down the road.
And even if a “better outcome” is not achieved, the setback will itself have its positives. As average human beings, we learn from our experiences, good and bad. When things go badly for us, we have – as highly evolved creatures – the ability to reflect on what happened and what we might do differently in the future. This amazing ability equips us to improve our future outcomes, and those future outcomes equip us to improve upon outcomes in the even more distant future. It’s all part of the average human experience.
Thus, viewed from my perspective on “averageness,” equating setbacks with failure is a false construct.
In closing, I offer this final thought: Success is very normal in your life. You have succeeded at learning to read, to drive a car, to navigate an email system, etc. We don’t tend to think of these achievements as successes because most everyone accomplishes them, but that’s precisely my point. Most people succeed at most of the things they do. And because you are like most people, you are likely to succeed at your next challenge, whether you realize it is a challenge or not.
The key is to bring this mindset to life’s more intimidating challenges, and to use it as a confidence booster. If you can do that, you are more likely to overcome the fear of failure (which many people have done) and to overcome the challenges presented by the task in front of you (which many people have also done).
These successes are very average — and that is pretty great.
Fully realized, Radical Decency brings with it a decisive divergence from the “compete and win, dominate and control” mindset that permeates our culture, systemically replacing it with an alternative set of values. The fundamental reason for making this shift is positive and forward-looking: Radical Decency is a vital and workable pathway toward a more meaningful and nourishing life. See Reflection #13, Radical Decency is its Own Reward.
Equally compelling, however, is the argument against complicity with the values of the mainstream culture. A compete and win way of operating fails to support us in being decent to our self – or to others – or to the world. In other words, it has created, by any fair reckoning, a failed culture. See Reflection #27, The Case for Radical Decency.
Its practical effects, moreover, prove the point. With “winning” as the default setting to which we unthinkingly aspire, someone is always doing better. Indeed, even our “wins” are a temporary phenomenon followed, almost inevitably, by future “losses.” The result: A pandemic of lives in which anxiety, self-judgment, and chronic dissatisfaction are our intimate companions.
At a deeper and, ultimately, more consequential level, however, we need to understand how “compete and win” obscures what is most important in life beginning with this all important, life sustaining fact:
Because I am human, I am loved.
In this Reflection, I discuss the consequences that result when this perspective is lost – and the life altering possibilities that emerge when we are able to fully embrace it.
From a Radical Decency perspective, “I am loved” is not some Kumbaya rallying cry of the tree hugging set. To the contrary, it results from a hardheaded assessment of the realities of our existence and the implications that flow from it.
A grim reality envelops our lives and everything we do.
- We exist, and don’t know why. We’re here through no choice of our own.
- We (and everyone we love) will leave at time not of our choosing. Our physical decline and death is a certainty.
- Despite the pronouncements of an endless stream of prophets and gurus, throughout history, we don’t understand why we’re here or what we’re supposed to do, while we are.
And crucially, we humans, unlike any other species we know of, understand all this.
Whether consciously or not, these existential realities are with us every day of our lives and fundamentally mold our relationships with one another. Because these realities will always prevail, we are like soldiers sharing a foxhole in a never-ending, unwinnable war. And our natural, instinctual reaction – when it isn’t subverted by the cultural processes described below – is no different than the reaction that most soldiers, returning from the front line trenches, report: An intense solidarity with, and love for, our comrades in arms.
We are, in truth, literally surrounded by beings, instinctually ready – out of the shared communion that our desperate, unalterable reality creates – to love and support us. And we don’t have to do anything to be its beneficiary. It is our birthright as a human.
One of life’s unchanging necessities is to somehow, in some way, come to grips with these existential realities. And our predominant win/lose culture does offer a way out: Pay lip service to them but, in your day by day outlook and choices, act as though they (like everything else) can be confronted and defeated.
“Yes I will die, of course. . . . . But given a positive and determined spirit and the right diet, exercise, and spiritual practice, it will always be out there in the future; never a current reality. And even when my final illness arrives, I – steeped in the culture’s “compete and win” worldview – will “beat” my cancer, heart disease, or dementia.”
Rejecting this approach is essential, not because of its irrationality but, instead, because, engaging in this reality denying shell game, we lose sight of the love and solidarity that is our birthright.
Here is how the process works.
Implicitly making myself an exception to life’s unalterable rules, I will necessarily separate myself from the great majority of other humans. After all, we can’t all be exceptions. I will, instead, seek out the handful of others who, in my (mistaken) view, share my exceptional path – and turn away from the solidarity, mutual understanding, and love that I could otherwise so easily and naturally share with the multitude of others, who aren’t exceptional.
Sadly, however, since the relationships I build with the few I chose will be based on this ultimately unsustainable myth of exceptionalism they will, in all likelihood, fail me in my times of greatest need. They will instinctually distance themselves from this searing reminder of their own vulnerability. And in any event – through a life-time of denial and avoidance – they will lack the ability to effectively be with me.
In other words, embracing the mainstream culture’s dance of denial, my access to the nourishment and love of others will be deeply diminished.
Another important consequence of our “compete and win” way of living is the deficit mentality it fosters when it comes to our relationships. How sadly commonplace is it to hear someone complain that his grown children don’t call often enough – or that his spouse paid more attention to a dinner companion than to him – or that a co-worker got more credit for the success of the project?
In each case, the person’s win/lose mindset has eclipsed the fact that he is a dearly loved parent and spouse, and valued employee. With perceived losses as his obsessive focus, he has forfeited the comfort that would otherwise flow from the love and respect that is the larger, overarching reality in each of these relationships; the love that is his birthright.
Note, importantly, that weaning yourself from these mainstream mindsets does not mean that everyone will love you – or vice versa. You will, of course, continue to run in to many people who are uninterested in, or react badly, to you – and vice versa. However, knowing how strong our affiliative instincts are, you can interact with others certain in knowledge that you are inherently lovable and that, as a result, there is an excess of appreciation and love, out there for you, if not from this particular person, then, from many others.
Avoiding the outcomes, described above, requires a decisive shift away from our mainstream ways. And Radical Decency provides a vital pathway toward that goal. As your decency practice deepens, your focus will necessarily shift from “compete and win ” to a habit of mind that I call “possibility and process”: An increasing pre-occupation with (1) an unfolding vision of the “decent” life you seek to live, and (2) the choices you will need to make, to make that vision an increasing day by day, moment by moment reality.
With this shift, good outcomes will no longer be your central pre-occupation. They will, instead, be seen more and more as a by-product of your intention (possibility) and choices (process); something to notice and learn from, certainly, but not to get overly invested in.
And as your need to win – and, with it, to dominate and control – diminishes, so too will your compulsion to push life’s existential realities to the margins of your awareness. You will be empowered to fully accept your fate and that of your fellow humans with increasing empathy and equanimity.
The end result?
With nothing to distract you from your birthright, there will be a natural and deepening reconnection with the love that can so naturally flow between you and others by the very fact of your humanity. And if my experience is a reliable guide, the gratitude you feel for the depth of love that is yours will grow and grow.
The simple fact that “I am loved” will, increasingly, become a settled reality in your life.
A husband and wife are lying in bed. She says, with some tension in her voice:
“You work too much. You’re always busy and pre-occupied. I want you to spend more time with me.”
His reply, laced with barely suppressed annoyance and impatience:
“That’s just the kind of business I’m in. There’s nothing I can do about it. Give me a break”
What happens next? They retreat into a silence that leaves both of them bruised and disconnected. Or, a fight ensues in which the partners, with increasing shrillness, reiterate their positions – with an equally unsatisfactory ending.
In this, and so many other moments like it, each partner longs for intimacy: To be seen, heard, valued, and met. But, sadly, the goal seems hopelessly out of reach. These unsatisfactory incidents continue to accumulate. The years slip by.
In this Reflection, I offer a model for transforming these moments and, with it, our intimate romantic relationships.
The man and woman in our example think that they are 2 adults, engaging in a fight. But that is almost never the case.
The reason? Romantic love is not, at bottom, about finding a good companion: Someone who, like you, loves tennis, Mexican food, and travel to exotic places.
To the contrary, it is nature’s plan for bringing you together with a person who has the blueprint for (1) healing your childhood wounds, and (2) growing you into the emotionally masterful adult you are capable of becoming.
Here’s how it works.
When our couple met, the woman was irresistibly drawn to this man, not because was the smartest or best looking, but instead because she instinctually associated him with the people who raised her. And with that association came the unconscious fantasy of a relationship that would recreate the formative wounding scenarios from her childhood and, crucially, offer the possibility of a different ending.
In her instinctual brain, this man held the “promise” of recreating the painful dance with her distant, preoccupied father and, with it, the hope that her father (emotionally embodied in her new partner) would grow into the loving, attentive father she longed for.
This is the “bam” that she – and the rest of us – feel when we fall in love.
And, of course, in their coming together, the man is doing the same thing in reverse, instinctually enlisting her in his formative, childhood wound: An overly involved mother who implicitly demanded perfection and regularly crossed his boundaries.
Formative childhood wounds come on line when we are very young and, by their nature, are more than our still developing emotional and cognitive systems can handle. For this reason, they are encoded in the fight or flight part of our brain.
Understanding this fact – and its implications – is crucial if we hope to fundamentally alter the course of our hypothetical couple’s bedtime conversation.
Because fight/flight is our survival brain, it has a number of unique qualities.
- Since we need it – RIGHT NOW, WHEN DANGER POPS UP – it is fast, very fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain; and
- It is more powerful than our thinking brain, only going off line when IT decides that the danger has past; a reality we all experience when try, in vain, “just stop” being anxious or angry; and
- It is highly infectious, almost invariably provoking a fight/flight response from the person to whom it is directed.
Finally, our fight/flight brain experiences time in a very different way. Designed to ensure survival, it never forgets, reacting quickly and decisively a crouching tiger just as we did 5, 15 or 30 years earlier. For it time, stands still (hence the reaction of PTSD sufferers).
So when our couple interacts in a tense moment there are, unbeknownst to them, 4 voices jostling for airtime:
- Her progressed, rational, adult voice;
- The fight or flight voice of her childhood wound, ever ready to be activated when this most important – and therefore potentially highly dangerous – person, she is in bed with, triggers her into the traumatic pattern that was her painful reality with her distant, pre-occupied father;
- His progressed voice; and
- The fight or flight voice of his childhood wound.
Lying in bed, here is what’s happening.
When she says, “you’re preoccupied and overly focused on work, I want more of your time” she thinks she is making a rational, emotionally unexceptional request. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact her child has co-opted her “adult’” voice. Behind her quiet, measured tone is a wounded child screaming for daddy’s attention.
And because we are so instinctually attuned to each other’s emotions he, sensing the “fight or flight” urgency behind her words, is (infectiously) triggered into his own childhood wound, reacting with annoyance and impatience, hallmarks of a “fight” reaction. This, in turn, triggers an escalated fight or flight reaction in her, followed by his further escalated response, and so on, until they each retreat into their stalemated and painful neutral corners.
If our couple fully understood the 4 voices, however, think how different their bedtime talk might be.
Step 1 (Her):Understanding the emotional link between her father and husband, she might lead, not with a demand for different behavior, but instead with an acknowledgment of the pain she feels when disconnected from her husband: “When you get busy and pre-occupied at work, I feel sad and alone.”
Step 2 (Him): Equally aware of her childhood wound – and his – he might: (1) Enlist his progressed self to manage and soothe his wounded child’s instinctual reaction – triggered by the emotionally embedded memory of his over bearing, demanding mother; and, then, able to stay in his progressed, adult brain, (2) forego the need to defend and counterattack – simply acknowledging her pain instead.
Step 3 (Her): With her childhood brain soothed and quieted by his acknowledgment of its pain (and very existence), she would then be able to reach for a response that, like his, comes not from her wounded child but from her progressed, adult brain: “Your understanding how emotionally loaded this subject is for me means a lot. I imagine its tough for you as well.”
Step 4 (Both): With their childhood wounds acknowledged and under control, they would both be able to problem-solve as progressed adults – tending, always, to their core emotional wounds as well as to the important practical issues that need to be dealt with.
In seeking to deal with the 4 voices, a key point to remember is this: In the course of any discussion, there are many moments in which one partner or the other can veer away from the old pattern.
So, for example, if our hypothetical husband reacted to his wife’s initial comment with unvarnished reactivity, she could still take the lead at that later point in the conversation, foregoing her instinct to push harder for an acknowledgment of her demand, moving instead to a place of sensitivity toward his childhood wound: “I know the pressure you’re under. Thanks for listening.”
This last point is especially important. The work involved in acknowledging and accommodating the 4 voices is difficult. It requires sustained clarity and persistence since we need to both (1) wean our selves from our culturally engrained ways of interacting and, at the same time, (2) work to rein in the daunting, biologically wired power of our fight/flight brain. For this reason, we need to be forgiving when our partner (or we) falls short, and be ever ready to be the one who takes the lead.
Finally, we need to remember – always – that while the work is hard, the potential pay-off for you and your partner, in doing the work, is truly life altering.
The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson, a Millennial born in 1987. Jeremy is an associate with the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 71, Dad As An Exception, and Reflection 86, Having Confidence You’re Average.
You can direct comments and reactions to Jeremy at email@example.com.
Listening to the “Bad” Guys
I am a Millennial, and like many Millennials, I spend a decent amount of time on YouTube. I rarely record videos. Instead, I like following certain “channels” that are funny, interesting, etc. One of the channels I have followed for awhile now belongs to a young man who calls himself Captain Sparklez.
Captain Sparklez is in his early 20’s and has made a name by recording himself playing online games. It may seem like a weird idea to watch other people playing games (though I have enjoyed doing this since I was young), but that’s a discussion for another day. What’s important is that most of these games are adversarial. Sparklez is playing against other people and trying to defeat them.
Last night, I watched Sparklez play in the championship game of a “Team Fortress” tournament. Team Fortress is basically a five-on-five cartoonish war game where each player is a soldier character and the two teams try to destroy each other. In this particular tournament, the first team to win seven games won the match.
As a fan of Sparklez, I was naturally rooting for his team to win. The other team was named “7-0” (implying that they wouldn’t lose a single game), and I took that as a sign of arrogance. I watched from Sparklez’ perspective as they slowly, but methodically, pulled out a 7-5 victory. Sparklez and his teammates would comment on the other team’s strategies and try to counteract them. The other team seemed calculating to me. I made up during the course of the match that they had a specific game plan in mind for each round, and that Team Sparklez was the underdog trying to find weaknesses. In the end, the good guys won and all was well.
Out of curiosity, however, I looked at the description under the video and saw that Captain Sparklez had posted a link to “the other team’s perspective.” I had just watched the entire match, so I already knew the outcome. But I was interested to see how it played out for the “other team.” So I clicked.
It turned out that the “other team” hadn’t actually intended for their name to be “7-0.” Additionally, one of their players was having trouble with the controls. They talked about strategy somewhat, but not much. In fact, most of their discussion was focused on Team Sparklez’ strategy.
What was most interesting to me, though, was my visceral reaction to the video. While I wasn’t rooting for them to win (I already knew the outcome and still like Sparklez), I did sympathize with them when things went bad, and I enjoyed watching them keep things competitive. In other words, the perspective switch led to a very real emotional switch as well. They were no longer “the bad guys” but, simply, another team of 20-somethings trying to win a video game.
This type of perspective switch is – in theory – relatively easy to achieve in the modern world, including in the political arena. Turn on the TV and you can watch Fox News or MSNBC. Go to a newspaper stand and you will have the choice of the Washington Post or Washington Times. Go on the Internet and you will have an almost unlimited selection of perspectives on all topics.
However, it seems like people rarely take advantage. Either they only pay attention to their preferred provider, or they selectively listen to the other side’s most “offensive” comments.
This latter strategy is especially ineffective for achieving a true perspective switch. Most people are reasonable most of the time. However, if you put a camera and mike on a person every day, they will eventually say something stupid. It doesn’t mean they don’t hold that opinion, but it’s not their entire story. Unfortunately, my Facebook newsfeed is often filled with liberal and conservative friends posting articles about some stupid thing that a conservative or liberal commentator said recently (and not just a Millennial!).
Those articles make the “other side” seem stupid, ignorant, full of bad intention, and [insert other negative adjective]. While certain commentators do seem to be actual morons, most are likely decent people who just happen to have different opinions on a few select topics.
The problem: Understanding people takes time, especially when you disagree with them on issues that are important to you (unlike computer games). While the information age has made the other perspective available to us easily and quickly, we still only have 24 hours in a day.
As any adult knows (and as I’m learning very quickly), time is a precious commodity. Therefore, when given the chance to listen to somebody with whom you vehemently disagree or do something that is either necessary or gives you pleasure, the logical thing to do is not to listen. It makes perfect sense. Why waste your time on some jackass who is going to give you heartburn when there is no immediate payoff?
So how do we solve this dilemma? We know it has to be solved – at least to some extent – because the problems we face in this world are too large to confront without cooperation, and cooperation requires understanding. A large part of the solution lies within the confines of Radical Decency and specifically relates to the need to treat others decently.
As my father has said, understanding and decency goes hand-in-hand. If you refuse to listen to me, that is being indecent. You don’t have to agree with what I’m saying, but I expect you to hear me out. Unfortunately, for the reasons outlined above, it’s very easy to pay lip service to this mandate. It’s not listening if you are preparing your counter-points while I’m still talking. It’s also not listening to take a single thing I said out of context and blast me for it.
Instead, listening is to see the world from another’s point of view. When I watched Team Sibby (Captain Sparklez’ opponent), I heard their thought process in each battle and I watched the battle take place from their perspective. While I still don’t know Sibby very well, I took 20 minutes to view him as he chose to be viewed – and without responding.
I do the same thing when I listen to my conservative friends talk politics (or at least I try to). I get a feel for their value system and I ask them questions to translate their perspective into something that I can comprehend. I often get upset, but I try my damndest to find the bedrock principles that form the foundation of their philosophy, because I usually have a shared value system to some significant extent.
When a friend tells me that welfare makes people lazy (I have had these conversations), I don’t accuse them of hating poor people. Instead, I ask them what they mean and what they would propose doing differently. I find out that they want a system that incentivizes people to contribute to society, which I think most people would agree is a great goal. I may not agree with the approach they would take, but that isn’t the point. The point is understanding – which can lead to cooperation.
As I wind my way through this Reflection, I realize that the best solution has nothing to do with listening to the Rachel Maddows or Bill O’Reillys of the world. Those people are on the air as personalities to sell and market, which isn’t a bad thing (it is their job). Instead, engage with your friends and/or family members that you disagree with. Find out what makes them tick without trying to convert them. Pretend that, like me, you are watching them on a YouTube channel. Try to see the world as they see it. Ask them where they got their information so that you can look at it yourself.
I promise you this will be difficult. If you are like me, you will begin to have a visceral reaction if you truly disagree with the person and you will want to respond. But don’t. Let the person explain where their head is and only ask questions to clarify what they mean.
If you do this, not only will you be able to strengthen your point of view (because you will learn the other side’s arguments and values), but – and MUCH more importantly – your relationship with the person will be strengthened. It is a compliment to hear somebody and respect them enough to take the time, effort, and patience to understand them. And once you do, they may be more willing to listen to and understand you, which, as mentioned before, can lead to cooperation.
This, then, is the overarching message of this piece: Cooperation STARTS WITH YOU. Don’t expect people to come to you because your side is more logical. First, listen. Second, understand. Third, show them you understand. Only at that point can cooperation begin. Otherwise, you are just watching your own YouTube channel, and that’s going to get repetitive very quickly.
Make no mistake about it. The mainstream culture’s way out of balance emphasis on the values I call “compete and win, dominate and control” thoroughly infiltrates our most intimate relationships.
At one level, this reality is reasonably well acknowledged, with most of us recognizing its manifestation in patriarchal patterns or in highly conflictual, “War of the Roses” type relationships. But the infiltration of compete and win values into our intimate relationships, go far deeper than is commonly recognized.
This Reflection provides a key example, examining:
- Our culturally reinforced habit of reflexively changing the subject, even in our intimate conversations;
- The price we pay as a result; and
- The powerful positive effects that result when we commit ourselves to breaking this unfortunate habit.
Despite years of work with couples – and on my own marriage – this congenital “change the subject” reality never occurred to me until recently. The reason, I think, is because of our deep, culture-wide confusion about what intimate relationship is all about; a confusion that, not surprisingly, has slowed my own growth since, as one of my formative teachers, Vikki Reynolds, once memorably said, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”
Intimate relationships are different – very different – from the more “strategic” relationships that are the norm “out there, in the real world.” See Reflection #44, Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships.
In a typical strategic interaction, a department head convenes a staff meeting at 1 pm and a vigorous exchange ensues. Now, at 2:59, the department head ends the discussion, makes her decision, and the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.
In an intimate interaction, by contrast, a husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now, at 2:59, with no meeting of the minds, what happens? The decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.
The difference? The priority, in the first scenario, is on achieving a goal – getting something done. And the relationship is authoritarian: What the boss says goes. For these reasons, it is fully in tune with the culture’s predominant compete and win values.
The second scenario, however, is very different. Here, the highest priority is on the relationship itself, on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship. And there is no boss, no subordinate, no winners, no losers. In other words, done right, an intimate relationship is antithetical to and, ultiumately, deeply subversive of the culture’s predominant values.
Unfortunately, high schools and colleges don’t teach us how to conduct the intimate relationships around which most all of us organize our lives, focusing instead on what they (presumably) see as the more important stuff. And so, expected to “just know” how to do it, we seldom reflect on how different our intimate relationships are from our other, “out there, in the real world” relationships – or on the implications of those differences.
The result? We muddle through. And muddling through, we import into our interactions with our loved ones the compete and win values in which, living in our culture, we are so deeply immersed.
One very pertinent example of this phenomenon is our tendency, even in our most intimate relationships, to change the subject, quickly and repeatedly; a habit of mind that, because it is so engrained in our taken for granted ways of being, more typically operates entirely outside our awareness.
To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical keeping in mind that, while I am dealing with a married couple, the principles I describe are applicable in any intimate relationship.
A woman comes home after a busy day at work and, noticing the dirty breakfast dishes, still in the sink, says to her partner in an irritated voice: “Why can’t you clean the dishes?”
Here are some of the typical responses that have been reported, over and over again, by women in my practice (and, regrettably, have come out of my own mouth as well):
- “Those aren’t my dishes. I cleaned mine”; or
- “Its no big deal. Why do you have to criticize me?”; or
- “You’re one to talk, how many times have I had to clean up your messes”; or
- With body language that reeks of annoyance, silent attendance to the chore.
And, needless to say, similar scenarios regularly unfold in reverse as well, with the woman in the reactive role.
With a moment’s reflection, most of us will realize that these responses are unlikely to promote loving interactions as the evening proceeds. But few of us understand the fundamental trap that we have fallen into: We have unwittingly replicated the culture’s compete and win values in this, their most intimate relationship.
The woman’s irritation brings with it an implicit assertion of domination and control. And he, rising to this provocation, seeks to turn back her perceived bid for control by:
- Avoiding responsibility (responses 1 and 2);
- Invalidating her right to feel the way she does (response 3); or
- Signaling a refusal to submit with reluctant compliance (response 4).
In an intimate relationship, the ultimate goal is not to dominate, control, or win. It is, instead, to create nourishing and mutually supportive intimacy; that is, to fully see your partner and to be fully seen; to have all that you are, lovingly held by your partner (and vice versa).
In furtherance of this goal, your initial, highest priority as you talk with your partner should be on taking in all that he or she is saying – that is, on listening. And this understanding leads directly to this simple, but vital guideline:
When he or she speaks, never change the subject.
Instead, stick to the issue your partner raises – in our example, getting the morning dishes cleaned. Listen fully. And, importantly, let your partner know that he or she has been fully heard. Then, and only then, think about adding a thought of your own (and then, perhaps, if the issue is a sensitive one, only after you have asked if a change of subject is ok).
So, while a mea culpa (“I’m sorry”) or the offer of corrective action (“I’ll to get them right away”) would certainly be constructive, the essence of the “never change the subject” is this simple statement: “You’re right, I didn’t get to them.”
Note, moreover, that this directive needs to be applied especially when your partner’s words are somewhat provocative, as in our example. Doing so offers the prospect of a meaningful healing moment for your partner since, underneath her annoyance, is almost always a deeper emotional wound – fear of not being appreciated, seen, or heard by you, a panicky sense that with so many things to do she’s losing control, etc.
What is so cool about this “don’t change the subject” guideline is that, as the listener, you don’t have to analyze or, even, understand your partner’s deeper emotions. All you have to do is give yourself over, fully and warmly, to the issue your partner has raised trusting that, in making that choice, you are likely to be soothing his or her deeper needs and longings.
On the flip side, notice how the more typical compete and win reactions, outlined in our example, are the very opposite of our “never change the topic” injunction. Instead of discussing the issue she has raised, the partner in our example shifts to another topic entirely, by either:
- Talking about what he did that morning (response 1):
- Critiquing her current behavior (responses 2 and 3): or
- Trumping her subject of choice by raising (nonverbally) a topic of his own, namely his annoyance with her (response 4).
So, the good news about “never change the subject” is that it does double duty:
- Firmly redirecting us toward a more intimate way of relating to our partner; and, at the same time,
- Pulling us decisively away from problematic behaviors that our mainstream habits of mind can so easily evoke.
In closing, here are a few caveats to keep in mind as you apply this guideline.
First, “never change the subject” works best when it isn’t deployed in a tit for tat way; that is, where your willingness to persist is not dependent on your partner doing so in return. On the other hand, intimate relationships thrive on mutuality. So if your partner in intimacy persists in this (and, possibly, other) behaviors that are destructive of intimacy, you may need to rethink, not the wisdom of the injunction but, rather, the wisdom of pursuing deeper levels of intimacy with this person.
Remember, also, that “never change the subject” is not a magic cure for all that ails our intimate relationships. To the contrary, it needs to be appropriately applied in a complex context that includes many other important considerations.
This qualifier is especially true when it comes to the choices women make in their relationships with men. While we have made important strides when it comes to patriarchy, these patterns – themselves an important manifestation of our culture’s compete and win mindset – remain deeply imbedded in our relationships.
For this reason, if a man’s commitment to “never change the subject” is tepid or non-existent, a woman’s unilateral persistence may simply enable his patriarchal ways. At that point, others strategies or, even, a re-evaluation of the relationship may be called for. For a more general discussion of this vitally important topic, see Reflection #61 Woman, Boundaries, and Sex; and Reflection #69, Moving Beyond Patriarchy.
More broadly, intimacy works best when what I call the four pillars of a successful relationship are in place: (1) trust, (2) shared values, (3) a priority commitment to your self and your partner, and (4) an ability and willingness to work on the relationship. Reflection #33 Couples Work – What It Is, Why It’s Important. Limitations in one or more of these areas will, in turn, qualify the ability of a couple to follow through on this “never change the subject” guideline or, if they do, to reap its rewards.
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.
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.
Occasionally, but far too infrequently, I am able to share a Reflection – written by someone else – that highlights an important aspect of Radical Decency in a special way. This week, I am pleased to offer the following piece by Alan Jones, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and the author of several books on spirituality and psychology of religion, including “Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality.”
Central to Radical Decency is the vital necessity of collaborating across the political, religious, class, and ethnic categories that so deeply divide us. In the area of religion, I have expressed this thought in the following way:
“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.”
Reflection 56: Religion – Debasement, Inspiration, Lessons Learned.
This Reflection offers a passionate statement of this same sentiment from the perspective of a leading Christian thinker.
One of the most powerful and provocative lines in this Reflection, for me, is this:
“Issues of truth are central but it makes a difference how we bear witness to the truths we espouse.”
This sentiment is, I think, wonderfully exemplified by the piece itself. Alan speaks forthrightly and unapologetically from particular Christian perspective he embraces and is equally direct and vivid in expressing his frustrations with the situation in which we find ourselves – even as he eloquently invites the kind of open and engaged dialogue so vital to our hopes for a more humane and decent world.
“Lord, I Do Believe! Help My Unbelief!”: The Lust for Certainty vs. the Risk of Trust
This text doesn’t exactly describe my condition. It’s more, “Lord, I don’t believe this stuff anymore, at least not in the old way, yet I believe. Where do I go from here?” I’m caught between “believers” who seem crazy and a new tribe of “cultured despisers of Christianity” who think that they are “rational” and have all the best arguments? Yet I’m not willing to give up just yet. My protest about belief isn’t quite right either, in that I take comfort in a way of believing which is as ancient as it is deep. In responding to the plague of fundamentalism and literalism in the world I could be easily misunderstood. Liberals, atheists, progressives, Jungians (the list is endless) have their fundamentalists and literalists too. It’s not just Bible thumpers and Islamic fanatics.
The problem? The triumph of scientific language as the privileged language. The late Joseph Campbell phrased the problem this way:
“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
I’m not alone. I have some good companions among the unbelievers as well as the believers (in many cases, this isn’t a matter of real difference). Where I find myself has more to do with tone, attitude and style than believing things as if they were hard data.
What concerns me, then, is something that sounds, at first, rather weak. It’s all a matter of tone, of cadence, in communication. The old adage “Truth lies in the interpretation” comes to mind as does Charles Williams’s insight in his appreciating the genius of Dante’s great poem. We can say true things falsely.
There’s a lot of emotion bubbling up in me too. It feels rotten to have something you treasure trashed and caricatured largely in ignorance. It’s an old trick: to take the worst of theirs and set it alongside the best of yours. So it is with me with regard to the “cultured despisers of Christianity”. Mind you many of the believers don’t help. And it’s small comfort to know that an unbeliever can be as big an idiot as a believer. Maybe it’s a human trait impossible to eradicate? Liberal Christians make fun of Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists condemn progressives to the outer-darkness. Self-satisfied atheists consign all believers to the loony bin. MSNBC ridicules members of the Tea Party. FOX News sees a socialist under every bed. We are a culture into anger and alienation. The tone is all wrong. Issues of truth are central but it makes a difference how we bear witness to the truths we espouse. And it’s serious business not least because this cult of polarization is played out in Congress. Who do you want to cast into the outer darkness? Why do you want to cut off the conversation?
Jonathan Reé concludes his review of Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An anthropology of the moderns with these words: “Latour speaks with urgency when he asks us all to set aside the script of secular modernity – to stop insulting each other and learn to pluralize, apologize and ecologize. We must prepare ourselves for diplomacy, he says: we must talk to one another or die.” This is something of what I mean by the centrality and importance of tone and cadence. It’s not that the achievements of the modern scientifically minded aren’t impressive. They can justifiably
“take pride in their discoveries and innovations, but they should stop presenting themselves as embodiments of pure objectivity, or prefigurations of the future of humanity . . . They should accept that they are just one idiosyncratic human grouping among many others, and recognize that they may have as much to learn from the rest as the rest could ever learn from them.”
Listening more carefully to one another might help us all to get off the high horse of moralism. Morality, as Latour defines it, is “a constant anxiety over practical dilemmas, and an inexhaustible sense of being in the wrong.” People posing as moralists don’t seem to understand this. That’s why art is central to this journey of the heart and mind because it brings doubt and delight, heartache and hope. All of which inevitably leads us into politics. As retired Senator Al Simpson puts it,
“In politics there are no right answers, only a continuing series of compromises between groups resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions, where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom. That’s politics.”
The late Jacob Bronowski (Simon Critchley reminds us) warned of “the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts or tortured ghosts.” Bronowski “thought that the uncertainty principle should . . . be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with “zero tolerance,” as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.”
So, where are we? Adam Gopnik’s essay in the New Yorker, (February 17 and 24, 2014), “Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fail?” identifies two separate issues: “The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement.” He also identifies two groups – the Super-Naturalists (there is something that holds everything in being) and the Self-Makers (“materialism” demands that life has no intrinsic meaning. You have to make it up for yourself).
Gopnik points out, “people don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning” — all those who show up at Midnight Mass “to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.” Which brings me back to the cultured despisers with whom I want to be in conversation. As Bruno Latour reminds us, “We have to touch people.” We should slow down and learn to appreciate the diversity of human intelligence; and we should forgo the exhilarating brutality of “straight talk” in favor of the diffident generosity of listening, considering and conversing – in short, of “speaking well”. “We must prepare ourselves for diplomacy: we must talk to one another or die.”
Fully understanding the implications of Radical Decency requires us to continually re-visit three issues:
1. The seemingly endless ways in which the values of the mainstream culture –compete and win, dominate and control – insinuate themselves into the fabric of our lives; that is, the “here” from which we need to wean ourselves;
2. What a life based on a Radical Decency practice, fully realized, looks likes; the “there” to which we hope to migrate; and
3. The all-important question of how to get from “here” to “there.”
My experience across 12 years of thinking and writing about Radical Decency is that, practically speaking, there is no definitive answer to any of these three questions. There is instead a continuing, and ever deepening, unfolding of the philosophy’s implications.
This Reflection – addressing the second, what does the “there” look like question – exemplifies this process.
Harville Hendrix, one of our most thoughtful relationship theorists (and with his wife, Helen Hunt, the co-founder of Relationships First) recently offered me the following insight, drawing on his understanding of Martin Buber’s work: While relationship always involves more than one person, its essence does not lie in the sum of its parts:
Your thoughts, feelings and actions + My thoughts, actions, and feelings = Our relationship.
Instead, its essence lies “in the space between.”
Harville then takes this idea one step further arguing, very importantly, that relationality – and the space between – are not a choice but are, instead, a simple, unalterable fact of being human.
In the discussion that follows, I explore these insights not in intimate relationship – its more obvious area of application – but in the professional spheres in which I have operated first as an attorney and, then, as a psychotherapist. The reason? To make the case that Harville is right: That relationality and, more particularly, the “space between” are foundational principles of being human and, thus, operate in every area of living.
I then discuss the implications of “the space between” for the way in which we envision the “there” to which Radical Decency aspires.
The steady message we get “out there, in the real world” – through a myriad of cultural cues and incentives – is that successful people are logical and rational: People who define a goal, craft a means to reach it and, then, execute that plan with focus and determination. That is what we are tested on throughout our schooling and what we are told to do in the mainstream jobs and careers into which we are funneled.
As a student and, then, for 25 years as a practicing attorney, this is environment in which I existed.
Even in those years, however, I always sensed that something more was going on. At business meetings, I would notice “that person,” the one who seemed to have a knack for commanding the other participants’ attention and respect. And often, that person was not the smartest or most knowledgeable individual in the room.
This quality did not go unnoticed. I regularly heard (or made) reference to someone’s charisma, presence, or natural leadership qualities. But notwithstanding its powerful impact on the course of events, this thing – intangible and elusive – remained curiously at the periphery of our collective consciousness as attorneys and business people; acknowledged but largely unexamined.
In retrospect, I can see that one of the great gifts of my second career, as a psychotherapist, is the insight it has given my into what was going in at those meetings. Like other mainstream professions, psychotherapy teaches and promotes rational approaches to its craft: Psychodynamic theory, cognitive/behavioral therapy, attachment theory, narrative therapy, and so on. And these techniques, like the analytic tools that received so much attention in my years as an attorney, are a necessary and valuable part of my professional arsenal.
But as a therapist I am urgently asked to facilitate my clients’ emotional healing and growth. So in contrast to my far more limited role as an attorney, I am being challenged, day by day, to understand what is really going on in my clients’ relationship with themselves; with others; and, necessarily, with me.
What I have learned, through long hours, striving to make a meaningful difference in clients’ lives, is that the key to our relationship – and by extension, to their relationships in general – is a kind of energetic resonance that is most apparent in our body language and looks, pauses and silences; an embodied familiarity and trust that, patiently nurtured, grows and deepens with time. While words, ideas and acknowledged emotions matter in the therapeutic process – a lot – they are, in the end, in the service of this deeper relational process. This is, I believe, the “space between;” the thing that separates “that person,” from others, in a business setting; the quality upon which Harville places so much emphasis
This understanding about the essence of relationship has important implications when it comes to understanding the “there” to which a committed Radical Decency practice aspires. My standard formula for operationalizing Radical Decency is this: Be decent to your self, others, and the world, at all times, in every context and without exception; with decency being defined as:
· Understanding and Empathy;
· Acceptance and Appreciation;
· Fairness and Justice.
Note that, while this formulation challenges us to do certain things in our relationships, it does not offer specific guidance for creating and nurturing the space between.
Does this mean that it needs to be revised to account for Harville’s insight? My answer is no – for the following reasons.
Harville’s space between does not define every aspect of relationality. Instead, it provides a definitional marker for relationality’s look and feel, when fully realized. And the values that Radical Decency promotes are complimentary, offering the essential building blocks from which this ultimate state of mind can emerge and, very importantly, be sustained.
The biggest challenge we face, as we seek transformational change, is not our ability to dissect all that is wrong with the world in which we live (the “here”), or in envision a better world (the “there’). It is, instead, the massively complicated task of getting from here to there.
Viewed in this context, it is hard to overstate the importance of practicing the building block values of relationality that Radical Decency promotes. The reason? Because the “here” – the jumping off point for our work – is our current compete and win culture; a culture that, far from promoting relationalilty, pushes us in the opposite direction: Toward seeing others as objects, to be manipulated in ways that further our desires.
For this reason – and because we are so thoroughly creatures of habit – a fulsome commitment to these values is essential if we hope to wean ourselves from the mainstream habits of living that are so thoroughly embedded in the environments in which we exist. At the same time, however, we need to embrace the reality of Harville’s space between, understanding that a heightened awareness of this phenomenon will allow us to practice these building block values in a more attuned, patient and, ultimately, wise way.
Harville’s insight also reminds us to be alive to more energetic and embodied techniques that will allow us to experience the space between more directly through, for example, dance, participatory theatre, or ecstatic religious experiences. Done well, these techniques can deepen our awareness of the space between and, in this way, jumpstart the process of getting from here to there.
Doing so, however, we need always to remember that these energetic and ecstatic states are not a secret, pain-free shortcut to the better lives and world we seek. If we hope to get from here to there, there is no substitute for the hard, day by day, moment by moment work of striving to make more decent choices, with each person and each community with whom we interact.
We live in a society in which we are drenched in, and defined by, labels – both by others and by our selves. We are white, black, or Hispanic; upper, middle or working class; Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical, or Jewish; liberal, conservative, or libertarian; cool kid, jock, nerd, or slut; smart or dull; educated or uneducated; a success or a failure; soft and sensitive, or hard and determined.
The list is almost endless.
At one level, this labeling and categorizing is useful. It is a short hand way to understand people. If this person is white, working class and Catholic I can – hopefully in a preliminary and contingent way – fill in some of the blanks, thus getting a head start on knowing who she is.
In our culture, however, this tendency is way overstated and seldom challenged in any systematic way. The reason? Labeling is a superbly effective mechanism for extending and deepening the values that predominate in the mainstream culture: Compete and win; dominate and control.
Here’s how it works.
Unless it is used thoughtfully and with great care, labeling freezes time and diminishes our sensitivity and creativity in dealing with our self and others. Then, with these effects in place, it becomes the perfect prelude to the fundamental judgment that drives our “compete and win” culture: Is this person – or are these people – better or worse than me?
When “what” a person is becomes “who” he is, a set of perceptions are activated that, because of their long history in the culture, will not be changed in this moment. In “this” encounter, with “this” person, a knee-jerk liberal, or a jock, or a rural, Mid-western housewife, is a fixed and unchangeable concept. If our labels unthinkingly predominate, no new history will be written, in this interaction, with this person. Time will stand still.
At a more personal level, our labeling habits also deaden our ability to see others – and ourselves – as we really are.
Imagine, for example, a conversation about politics with a new person? Very early on, with subtle (or not so subtle) cues, each person will reveal his position on a current, hot button issue – abortion or Obama care, for example. At that moment, the other person will “know” with whom she is dealing: “He is a fellow social conservative,” or “she is libertarian ideologue.” From that point forward, more times than not, an argument, rather than a discussion, will ensue that flattens the other’s position back to positions that typify people who fit that label.
And, in the typical case, it is not just the other person who reduces us to a stereotype. We, too, are fully complicit engaging, with little or no awareness, in the following thought process: Since the person I am talking to is an ideologue on the “other” side, I need to assert – in defense – the arguments that best support “my” position. What is lost in this process is any instinct to share or even, in the moment, to be aware of:
- The ambiguities that color my support for my side’s bottom line positions; or
- Any sympathies I might feel, if not for this other person’s ultimate positions then, at least, for the values that inform them.
Reflecting the win/lose instincts so deeply embedded in all of us by the mainstream culture’s competitive mindset, I feel impelled to avoid these complexities, believing that – if I acknowledge them – I will “lose” the partisan argument that this labeling process has set up.
Needless to say, labeling and self-labeling is not limited to political discussions. So, for example, she wants to clean up to prepare for guests and he wants to watch the ball game. Think how quickly he becomes a selfish jerk (in her eyes) and she becomes a controlling bitch (in his). And then, all too often, these labels – through sheer repetition – are internalized, becoming part of how the husband and wife view themselves as well.
This process shows up with special poignancy in my psychotherapy practice. It is amazing to me how many people will tell me, in our first conversation, that they are an obsessive-compulsive, or an abused spouse, or a social misfit.
Notice how, with this simple, culturally engrained act, this person has reduced himself to a self-labeling symptom? While the bad things that the label identifies are undoubtedly important, you can be sure that – having been labeled in this way – our social misfit (for example) spends far more psychic energy noticing the behaviors that confirm her diagnosis than she does on those that contradict it: The upside of the emotional sensitivity that also causes her social anxiety; or the many moments of intimacy that she shares with herself and others, notwithstanding the label she has learned to accept and live with,.
To resist and counteract this endemic labeling tendency, what is required is a fundamental reorientation in the way we view ourselves.
Labeling turns us into things or, at best, a series of things. I am (or you are) a college educated, middle class, church-going lawyer who is married, lives in a suburb of Houston, and loves to play tennis. (To confirm the power of labeling, change one or several of these variables and notice how quickly your image of this person changes).
So if we are not a series of things what, then, are we?
My answer: We are biological beings constantly in the process of becoming. From birth, we are exposed – and react – to an endless variety of events. And who we are now, in this moment, reflects the accumulation of these events to this point in time.
This does not mean we are free to become whatever we chose to be. To the contrary, because we are hard wired to be creatures of habit, the past powerfully affects what we might hope to become. But while the work is hard, change – even fundamental change – can take place.
And this is where possibility comes in. The future is uncertain. Many things, known and unknown, planned and cosmically unexpected, will determine who we become. But we can be active agents in this process, developing an ongoing vision of the person we hope to become and, then, with this vision before us, acting – trying this, trying that.
Then, we can repeat this process, reaffirming or modifying our initial vision and making our next choices on the basis of the realities – internal and external, emotional and practical – that define this new moment in time.
So who are we? We are a process that, over time, is “moving in possibility,” a wonderful phrase first offered to me by one of my important life teachers, David Crump.
I close with an example of the downside of labeling – and how this habitual way of viewing ours self and others can be turned around when we focus on process and possibility.
Here is a typical description of narcissism, a label that is regularly applied to people both clinically and in ordinary conversation:
It is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy; a pattern of self-centered or egotistical behavior that shows up in thinking and behavior. Narcissistic people won’t (or can’t) change their behavior even when it causes problems at work or when other people complain about the way they act, or when their behavior causes a lot of emotional distress to others. And narcissists will never admit to being distressed by their own behavior. They always blame others for any problems.
This relentlessly negative description of a narcissist plucks very little that is positive from the accumulated life experience of the person who is given the label. But, in each instance, there are reasons of disposition and circumstance that would, if fully known, explain why these why these patterns emerged.
Needles to say, these explanatory reasons will vary greatly from individual to individual. We are complicated beings. But what is always true is that these entirely negative “symptoms” don’t tell the full story.
So, for example, one reality I have noticed with more than one narcissist is that he can be fairly viewed as a person with a very robust relationship with his own brain and who, on the flip side, has left his relationships with others undernourished.
Notice how, with this perspective in place, we have replaced the confrontational, negative, and possibility deflating narcissist label with a more hopeful story that offers “movement in possibility.” Embracing this nonjudgmental description of his “process,” our narcissist will be far better able to create a vision for the future – and make the day-by-day choices – that can lead to more mutually nourishing relationships with the people in his life.
This is the second part of a two-part essay that sets forth a program for creating a more civil political dialogue, across partisan lines. The first part, Reflection #75, offered goals for the work, and a series of premises and orienting mindsets upon which the specific communication strategies I suggest — the subject of this week’s Reflection — are based.
1. Resist partisan labels and the push to discuss emblematic tribal issues.
Political partisans will instinctively seek to hijack any explicitly political conversation by labeling and pigeonholing each participant, putting them in an appropriate “partisan tribe” (e.g., liberal, conservative, libertarian). Once that perspective is baked into the process, the overwhelming tendency will be for participants to view the ideas of those on the “other” side as partisan arguments – to be countered; rather than as ideas from a different perspective – that might enrich and expand the conversation.
If we hope to pursue our broader agenda, our first job will be to avoid this instinctual highlighting of partisan labels and, with it, a rapid retreat in a discussion of the emblematic issues that define tribal membership.
2. Listen with curiosity and empathy.
Whether they acknowledge it or not, people always have an emotional agenda that, in most cases, is their dominant agenda. Thus, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), Jonathan Haidt, with overwhelming neurobiological support, describes our thinking brain as a rider on an emotion-based elephant.
Why an elephant and not a horse? Because the emotional brain is very big and very smart.
Haidt also emphasizes that the rider is a lawyer and not a judge. In other words, it doesn’t calmly weigh the merits of the needs that the elephant communicates to it and, then, do the logically right thing. Instead, its far more powerful tendency is to make up “logical” arguments to justify whatever it is the emotion-based elephant wants.
One of our most basic emotional needs is to be seen, heard, and appreciated. And that is why active listening is central to the approach of so many couples’ theorists and why, in the business context, in Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989, 2013), one of Stephen Covey’s 7 keys to success is: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
These neurological realities and emotional truths apply will equal force in a political context. So, simply reflecting back what others say is a highly effective tool. So, also, are follow-up questions of curiosity.
But beware. We are very intuitive beings. In terms of establishing rapport, real listening works. On the other hand, people can easily sense when your listening is pre-textual – a polite, calculated prelude to the main event: The moment when you can start asserting your ideas. And, equally, make sure your questions are not editorial comments masquerading as questions.
3. Focus on participants’ underlying motivations for being politically engaged, their personal stories, and the values implicit in each – and share yours as well.
As fundamentally emotional beings, we need to remember that in politics – as in every other sphere of living – our beliefs are a function of our life experiences. And these experiences can lead us in very different directions.
Given this reality, why do I gravitate toward personal sharing as the vital ground out of which a more fruitful political dialogue can emerge?
The answer is that, in addition to being emotional beings, we are profoundly affiliative, hard-wired to be in intimate contact with one another. When asked what dogs really want, the immediate response of the world’s reputed canine expert was, simply, “dogs want to be with other dogs” – and, so too, with us.
In politics, however, this natural tendency for people to coalesce around their common humanity is deeply suppressed. Why? Because we live in a culture that encourages us to think that “out there, in real world” we have to be tough and cynical to get by. So we reflexively put these instincts aside in our political engagements, reserving them (in theory at least) for family and friends – where these mainstream pressures are less compelling.
But as any number of deep and abiding friendships across partisan lines – from Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, to Joe Biden and John McCain – remind us, our fundamental, affiliative wiring can, in the right circumstances, trump our politics. And that is the process we’re seeking to promote and expand upon.
So, ask other participants in a political conversation:
- How did you get interested in politics in the first place?
- What do you hope to accomplish?
- What is the better world you are hoping to create with your involvement?
With well intentioned people – those in our target audience – the answers to these questions are likely to get back to the kinds of values that thinkers like Rosenberg and Haidt – discussed on part 1 of this essay – articulate: Concern for others, fairness, loyalty, security, respect for authority and tradition, the freedom to create the life of our dreams, etc.
As Haidt points out, areas of emphasis are likely to vary with, for example, liberals tending to emphasize care and fairness, and conservatives more strongly focused on loyalty and respect for authority. My belief, however, is that well intentioned participants from across the political spectrum will come to see that, in the great majority of cases, their fellow participants, on the “other” side, are also motivated by entirely valid and, indeed, commendable values.
As the conversation we are seeking to nurture evolves, remember as well not to shy away from getting personal. We all have our stories – and our pain and fear, hopes and triumphs are central to who we are. As participants feel safe enough to disclose these intimate details, their sense of a shared, common humanity will grow and grow – and, with it, their ability to engage in a more meaningful and civil political dialogue.
Finally, your willingness to share your own story is an essential part of the equation. Resist the instinct to stand above or apart from the process. One of the most important ways in which you can promote and support this very different sort of political dialogue is to model it in your own behaviors.
4. Identify and expand on underlying areas of agreement – and acknowledge areas of difference in ways that avoid judgment.
Very often, our extreme partisanship masks significant areas of agreement. So, for example, the common view is that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are completely at odds with one another. And yet, one could argue that they are united in their opposition to the abuses of power, perpetuated by large institutions – with the Tea Party focusing on the excesses of big government, and Occupy Wall Street emphasizing the excesses of big business.
An important aspect of our work is to point out and expand on these areas of underlying agreement.
Notwithstanding these efforts, differences will inevitably emerge. When they do, our job is to discourage reactions that are freighted with judgment and criticism. So, for example, when someone says something that seems misguided to you, begin your response with recognition of your areas of agreement:
- “I agree with you, when you say this”; or
- “I am sympathetic to your underlying premise that . . .”; or
- “I admire your instinct to protect this value or to ease the suffering of that group of people.”
Then, return to the balance of what he or she said – your area of disagreement – and explain your position, not in right/wrong terms, but as an expression of your greater emphasis on a different set of value propositions.
5. Look for ways of framing problems – and proposed solutions – that boil out partisan political assumptions.
Part of the art of politics, as it is currently practiced, is to thoroughly embed our partisan tribal prejudices into the very language we use. So, for example, a restructuring of the health care system is either the Affordable Care Act (for Democrats) or Obamacare, an act of partisan political aggression (for Republicans). And, in the hands of its political opponents, an inheritance tax becomes a death tax.
It is easy to underestimate the extent to which we all fall into this trap, unthinkingly using the coded partisan language of the political tribe that is our natural home.
So, for example, one of my closest professional colleagues, a business-oriented, Republican conservative and I sought to collaborate on a description of Radical Decency’s approach to politics.
One of the examples that came very easily to me described “the excesses of big business and the military/industrial complex.” But these words, drawn from my progressive political “home base” quickly separated us into our partisan political camps. It was only after careful and patient reflection that we realized that we were actually allies in our concern about the extent to which we “continue to excessively subsidize oil, defense and other politically influential industries.”
The lesson to be drawn from this episode? The language we use matters – a lot. And in our efforts to create a more constructive political dialogue, we need to work hard:
- To avoid slipping into the partisan shorthand that pervades the current political dialogue, and
- To create a counter-language that is more reflective of the underlying values that unite us.
6. Be clear headed about trust issues. As Stephen Covey points out, in any deal, one acceptable outcome is no deal.
We are operating in an environment where insincerity and deception are not only condoned but, in the more typical case, honored as “smart politics.” Don’t be taken in by false kumbaya moments.
On the other hand, we need to avoid cynicism. Politics is a tough game and people with a sincere interest in the different kind of conversation we are seeking to promote may slip into mainstream ways of operating out of habit — or because the feel they must to maintain credibility with their home tribe.
Walking the line between cynicism and kumbaya is really difficult: art and not science.
So, we need to be clear-headed and uncompromising with respect to our goal lest we become mainstream political practitioners, albeit with a kinder, gentler approach. We should never be afraid to end a conversation if the other participant, despite his nice words, is really only interested in pursuing a partisan agenda. At the same time, we need to be ready to work with true allies, even if their commitment to our approach is, at times, compromised – if, in our judgment, they are honestly seeking to do better.
This Reflection is part 1 of a two-part essay offering a program for creating a more civil political dialogue, across partisan lines. This Reflection provides a goal for the work, and a series of premises and orienting mindsets upon which my specific communication strategies – the subject of next week’s Reflection – are based.
- In the current hyper-partisan political environment, well-intentioned people are divided and disempowered.
We live in a culture in which we are powerfully inducted into partisan “tribes” – liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Evangelicals, etc. – and, then, reflexively define ourselves and others by positions taken on the current, emblematic issues that define tribal membership: Pro-choice vs. right to life; small government vs. government as social problem-solver; security vs. privacy, etc.
The result is that the mainstream political dialogue shrinks into a partisan, win/lose knife fight on these emblematic issues. And, since that dialogue tends to be dominated by the shrillest partisan voices, we wind up judging the “other side” by their worst examples.
My belief: If we are able to foster a dialogue that moves beyond this engrained, ossified pattern, a meaningful group of well-intentioned people can emerge, from across the political spectrum, interested in fostering a more civil and, thus, more meaningful political dialogue. The strategies I suggest, at their most visionary, envision a reshuffling the political deck; nurturing a “coalition of the well intentioned” across party and ideological lines.
- We can shrink the partisan divide – and foster a more civil dialogue – if we focus on the values that underlie our political positions.
Without regard to partisan political orientation, there are a series of values that underlie most seriously offered political positions. And while political partisans may place greater emphasis on one group of values over another, well-intentioned people – the people we seek to engage – are likely to agree that all of these values are positive and worthy of consideration.
A number of thoughtful people have attempted to enumerate these values. And while these efforts vary in their particulars, what’s encouraging is their similarity and the fact that they each articulate sensible and constructive needs, longings and aspirations – values around which we can unite. So, example:
- Jonathan Heidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) lists five values: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Sanctity (that is, respect and reverence for the rituals that embody our foundational principles);
- Marshall Rosenberg, in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003), lists eight Universal Human Needs: Autonomy, Connection, Integrity, Interdependence, Physical Well-Being, Play, Meaning, and Peace; and
- Radical Decency is premised on seven values: Respect, Understanding, Empathy, Acceptance, Appreciation, Fairness and Justice.
- Models for a more effective dialogue that exist in other contexts need to be applied in the political sphere.
In the last few decades, a number of highly effective models for facilitating more effective communication – between couples, at work, and in politics – have been developed with each, in their own way, seeking to create conversations that are more:
- Authentic – vivid and real; and
- Mutual – willingly engaged in by all parties.
See, for example, Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want: A Couples Guide (1988, 2010); Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work (2011); Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989, 2013) and, importantly, Lichtenberg, et al., Encountering Bigotry: Befriending Projecting People in Everyday Life (2002).
Models such as these can, and should, be applied far more systematically in the political sphere.
- A different and better political dialogue needs to be grounded in good relationships.
At first blush, this goal might seem unrealistic. After all, we live in a world in which Republics/conservatives demonize Barack Obama and Democrats/liberals do the same George W. Bush and, now Ted Cruz; where every word, every image of “that” person is like finger nails on a black board.
In my view, this demonizing mindset is an emotional distortion. Most people who are interested or involved in politics want to do something constructive. And, on the flip side, politically aware and active people who consciously seek to do bad things – or who are knowingly cynical or ignorant – are in the minority.
More deeply, I fully subscribe to this perspective, offered by Harville Hendrix in the couples context but applicable, it seems to me, in all areas of living: Every person makes complete sense if we just know enough about how he was raised, as well as his innate disposition, life experiences, and hopes and dreams for the future.
When we bring this mindset to the people on the “other” side, politically, our quick dismissal of them as perverse, cynical and/or immoral will be progressively replaced by genuine curiosity – about who they are and what makes them tick. And this, in turn, is the emotional gate-way that takes us down a path that, beginning with understanding, can flower into empathy and, even, respect, acceptance and appreciation for the personhood of those with whom we fundamentally disagree.
- Think long term.
The goal and specific strategies for transforming our typical political dialogue – discussed in part 2 (Reflection 76) – represent a dramatic shift from our usual ways of interacting. For this reason, efforts to implement this approach will meet the normal resistance that crops up when something new and different is introduced. In addition, because trust across partisan political lines is so low, prudent participants will have an additional reason to be cautious, lest their more authentic ways of sharing be used to undercut their credibility.
For this reason, we need to think long term.
Seeking to implement this new way of interacting is likely to require multiple contacts, the goal being to habituate others to a very different kind of conversation and, very importantly, to build trust.
Both of these orienting mindsets – relational and longitudinal – are beautifully reflected in the following comments from Elli Sparks, a political activist, quoted in Daley-Harris, Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government (1994, 2013):
My relationship model is different. I adore romantic relationships, so I use romance as my model. That first meeting with the editorial writer… it’s like a blind date, only you’ve decided beforehand you are going to marry this fellow. You are going to be sweet and interesting, but not too intense…. If it doesn’t work out with the editor, you are going to marry one of his friends at the newspaper – the business editor, environmental writer, or city editor. Someone at this paper will find you interesting and compelling – it’s just a matter of being persistent until you find the right connection.
In most political dialogues, the assumed goal is to persuade the other side that you are right and they are wrong. Rejecting that model, I am offering a 2-tiered approach in which an initial relational focus (Level 1) sets the stage for more specific policy discussions (Level 2).
Level 1: The political conversation we are seeking to encourage would have, as its initial goal, a better understanding of the wide variety of ways in which well intentioned people can translate their values and, with them, their hopes and dreams into public policy perspectives and specific programmatic positions.
In the course of this dialogue, participating political partisans would, it is hoped, deepen their respect and understanding for what the “other side” is about and develop an increased sense of empathy, acceptance and, even, respect and appreciation for people with whom they disagree.
Level 2: As Level 1 takes hold and deepens, the hope is that participants would be able to coalesce around currently less obvious policy initiatives, in one or more area, which express their shared values and, at the same time, are sensitive to the diverse policy and value perspectives, shared in their Level 1 discussion.
Note, importantly, that Level 2 is a very ambitious goal. Success does not depend on reaching this Level. A meaningful Level 1 dialogue, without more, would be a very positive result.
Radical Decency is an idea that began coming together, for me, in the summer of 2000.
With a long history of involvement with both social justice and personal growth activities – and too much time on my hands (I was between jobs) – I began to puzzle over this perplexing fact: Most social justice activists are unsympathetic with personal growth initiatives and, on the flip side, personal growth types are seldom among the committed few that made social justice a priority.
To unravel this mystery, my wife and I started a small public foundation, offering grants to organizations working at the intersection of social justice and personal growth. This 3-year adventure into grant-making led to this realization: At bottom, the best initiatives on each side of this divide seek to apply a single set of values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – the difference being that one is focused on the individual, the other on politics.
Armed with this realization, I began suggesting that fully empowered change initiatives need to apply these values across the board – to our selves, others, and the world – and to do so at all times and without exception; hence Radical Decency.
Since then I have been working out the implications of this approach to living, exemplified by Reflection series, now in its 6th year. What has emerged is series of principles and outlooks – implicit in Radical Decency – that are key to creating and sustaining a vibrant Radical Decency practice. This Reflection describes these practices.
1. Strive to understand the limits – and potentialities – of your biology.
Since decency to self is an essential aspect of Radical Decency, the idea of ignoring or quashing (as opposed to appropriately managing) key parts of your self – your anger, vulnerability, sadness, or fear of death and dying – is a non-starter. Decency to self demands respect for the limitations of your biology.
On the other side of the equation, however, Radical Decency practitioners need to be equally committed to testing their potentialities. One reality of our biology is that we can heal and grow, at times in amazing and unanticipated ways. And since we live in a culture in which the predominant values – compete and win, dominate and control – push us toward indecent choices, very few of us have explored the upper limit of our capacity for decency.
Thus, as practitioners of Radical Decency, we need to vigorously explore this potential for decency; the taken-for-granted (indecent) habits of living that, with focus and persistence, can be changed, even as we respect the limits our complex biology imposes on this process.
2. Embrace Radical Decency’s endless “wisdom-stretching” moments.
Striving to be simultaneously decent to your self, others and the world is a heck of a juggling act, even in the best of circumstances. And, unfortunately, we live in a world that values decisiveness and domination, and not reflection.
In this environment, you will find very little support for patiently sitting in the many perplexing and uncomfortable situations in which, for example:
- Your needs and those of your spouse, friend or co-worker seem hopelessly at odds; or
- You are challenged to be empathic to – and, even, accepting and appreciative of – the humanity of a person whose political views are deeply at odds with yours.
And yet, Radical Decency demands a whole-hearted commitment to this process.
The really good news, however, is that the results of this commitment are magical, once you learn to tolerate (and, even, embrace with equanimity) its frustrations. Avoiding a rush to judgment, sitting in not knowing, you will deepen your insights and broaden the context in which you view these wisdom-stretching issues, all in effort to find common ground. This process is the essence of “wisdom-ing,” the activity whose expectable (though not inevitable) by-product is increasing discernment, balance and wisdom.
3. Be an avid student of how the world works.
The cues, incentives and sanctions that keep us rooted in the predominant culture’s compete and win, dominate and control mindset are deeply embedded in every aspect of our lives. Thus, one of Radical Decency’s key challenges is to break free from the seemingly endless habits of living that pull us back toward the culture’s behavioral norms – and away from the day-by-day choices that operationalize decency in our lives.
To do this well, we need to be students of the mainstream culture in all of its aspects. Our habitual attitudes and ways of being with our selves, and family and friends; our low expectations when it comes to politicians; our “grades are everything” approach to education – we need to understand how these and so many other mainstream ways of operating infiltrate and mold our lives – if we hope to free ourselves from their influence.
4. Practice decency across-the-board, and not on a pick and choose basis.
To be successful in changing our lives and making a meaningful contribution to a better world, we need to practice Radical Decency at all times, in every context, and without exception.
One very positive aspect of this across-the-board commitment to decency is that you begin to see Radical Decency’s possibilities in areas that might otherwise seem to be infertile soil or, even, enemy territory.
Here’s how this process works.
Radical Decency’s seven values provide a constant reminder that we all make sense given our history, innate disposition, and hopes and dreams for the future. Committed to bringing this understanding to each person with whom you interact – even “that” person who viscerally pushes all your buttons – you will dramatically increase your ability to stay present and to create a common ground of understanding.
But the more fundamental point about across-the-board decency is this:
- Biologically, we are intensely creatures of habit; wired, absent focused and sustained effort, to do in future what we have done in the past; and
- The values that predominate in our culture are deeply embedded in our taken for granted ways of being and in virtually all of the schools, businesses, media outlets and other organizations through which our lives are organized.
For these reasons, a pick and choose approach to decency – with our family and friends but not at work; in our spiritual community but not our politics – will never work. Faced with the mainstream culture’s relentless pressures, a part-time decency practice will inevitably recede back toward the culture’s business as usual ways of operating.
5. Remember, always, that Radical Decency is aspirational. No one is radically decent.
Vikki Reynolds said it best: We are all in the dirty bathtub. No one escapes the influence of the mainstream culture’s values in their lives. For this reason, Radical Decency is more sensibly seen, not as a stable state of being, but as an ongoing journey into the unknown.
Working from perspective, “being” radically decent is no longer the Holy Grail. Instead, success is measured by our willingness to make Radical Decency our highest priority and by the focus, persistence, imagination, and sheer guts with which we pursue it.
In this respect, meditation provides an excellent analogy. While long-term practitioners never eliminate their brain’s distractability, this does not mean they have failed. To the contrary, persisting in their practice over the years – trying and falling short, trying again and “failing” again – they fundamentally shift their outlook and way of living. In this way, a committed meditator chips away at engrained, biologically determined mindsets. And, in an analogous way, a dedicated Radical Decency practitioner chips away at our engrained, social determined ways of being.
6. Because Radical Decency is its own reward, never let your shortcomings and disappointments derail you.
If all this sounds like hard work, it should. Radical Decency is a demanding discipline. But here’s the thing. Because the day-by-day demands of a committed decency practice also nurture the attributes of vibrant and nourishing life, it is not just the right thing to do. It is also its own reward, cultivating an increased sense of:
Living in the present, which leads to less shame, guilt, and remorse about the past, and fear and anxiety about the future;
Appreciation, empathy, acceptance, and love for your self and others, which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control;
Clarity and coherence about your priorities and choices, which leads to less anxiety and an increased sense of ease in life; and
An ennobling sense of purpose, which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust and an increased sense of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.
Radical Decency focuses on replacing the value system, predominant in our culture – compete and win, dominate and control – with a new set of values: Respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and justice. To succeed in this daunting task, it also challenges us to apply these values in every relationship from the most intimate to the most public and political. Adopting this approach, things that are easy to overlook become more visible including, very importantly, the quality of more remote interactions that vitally affect our lives.
When this different values-based focus is directed toward the broadcast news media, it is just stunning to realize how dismal its “normal” ways of interacting are – if the goal, in Radical Decency terms, is to cultivate a meaningful and mutually respectful dialogue. Quite simply, listening and responding isn’t the goal. Instead, the participants are collecting ammunition so that, as soon as the other person stops talking – or sooner, since interruptions are chronic – they can fire back, reiterating why they are right and he or she is wrong.
Indeed, the typical “conversation” is so far gone that candidates eagerly seek coaching on how to dominate the agenda, ignoring questions and systematically returning to their pre-planned talking points. And, when it comes to “candidate debates,” an added goal is to interject carefully rehearsed zingers, designed to make the other candidate look like a loser. In other words, the self-conscious goal is to avoid any meaningful interaction at all.
It is easy to see why even the best-intentioned politicians would feel trapped within this system. Failing to play the game, the next election as well as their credibility as effective and reliable political operatives would be at great risk. So while I have deep misgivings about the choices our mainstream politicians make, I have some sympathy for the dilemma they would face if they sought to change the rules of the game.
When it comes to the media, however, the need to play by these rules is far less compelling and, thus, more difficult to understand. What would happen if CNN, CBS, and other news outlets that – at least publicly – aspire to independence and objectivity took meaningful steps to buck the system? They would probably lose some access: Fewer A listers on Meet the Press; not as many one-on-one interviews with “unnamed senior officials.” They might also lose some advertisers and viewers. But would they go out of business or cripple their bottom lines? Doubtful.
So what are some of the things that these news outlets might do if they got serious about gathering and reporting news in more radically decent ways? Here are a few possibilities.
1. Acknowledge what’s happening.
How would it be if a reporter, when his or her question is ignored, said so? “Just to be clear, you haven’t answered the question. No need to, but I want to be clear about that before we move on.” Another commonly occurring moment, when naming what is happening would help to create accountability, is when the response to a fellow guest’s point is an ad hominem attack: “I notice you didn’t address your opponent’s point. Are you content to limit your answer to an attack on his trustworthiness?
At first blush, these sorts of responses may seem jarring, even rude, but that is only because they diverge so dramatically from the dismal norms that are now so pervasive in broadcast journalism. To me, what is truly weird is when so-called moderators and interviewers accept our current charade, without comment.
Years ago, I heard an inspiring example of this approach. The hot issue, at that time, was whether President Reagan should visit a cemetery in Bitbourg, Germany where a number of SS officers were buried. Elie Weisl spoke against and was “rebutted” by attack on his credibility, based on statements he had made in unrelated writings. Weisl response: “Shame of you. There are important things that need to be said on your side of the argument and your response dishonors them.”
The effect of Weisl’s response was dramatic, completely altering the tone and arc of the conversation. So yes, this kind of initiative can take place and, used well, can have a powerful, positive effect on the quality of the dialogue that broadcasters are – or should be – seeking to foster.
2. Focus on facts.
I always wonder why, in the networks’ typical point/counterpoint format, a nonpartisan factual expert isn’t routinely made a part of the dialogue – or put on remote access.
Wouldn’t the quality of the conversation improve if the moderator, after a key factual assertion, referred to such a person for confirmation, refutation, or modification? Doing so, partisans would no longer have carte blanche to play fast and loose with the facts.
And, surely, in our star struck, media crazed culture, networks would be able to locate qualified experts, whatever the subject, who are also entertaining enough to hold the interest of the audience.
As I see it, not making such an obvious choice confirms the worst about the networks. Notwithstanding their fine words about professional integrity, entertaining television and ratings always come first. And any initiative that might have even the slightest negative effect on this goal seems to be off the table.
3. Offer leadership in setting the agenda.
There are complex and deeply consequential issues that cry out for sustained attention –embedded poverty and injustice; environmental degradation; the collateral damage caused by ever larger institutions, exploiting the public and the planet in the pursuit of private profit. The list of stories such as these – that need to be told and, then, retold in fresh and newly insightful ways – is endless.
But instead of being grounded in these kinds of stories, the news narrative is strikingly biased toward circuses, disasters, horse races, and feel good stories:
- Wall-to-wall coverage of the latest natural disaster – or political scandal – or high profile trial;
- Endless stories about how politicians and candidates are doing – who is up, who is down – a bias that even extends to issues, where the focus is not on substance, but on how candidates’ positions are playing with various constituencies; and
- A steady diet of feel good stories that, as they accumulate, leave the distorted sense that there is no systemic oppression; that good people simply overcome the odds, and, by implication, that anyone who doesn’t is somehow flawed.
For me, the degree to which even the more responsible networks have sold their soul to this audience pleasing agenda crystalized when I witnessed the following CNN moment, highlighted by John Stuart: Wolf Blitzer, about to cut away to a Nancy Pelosi press conference, presumably dealing with the Anthony Weiner scandal, piously apologized for “having to” to divert coverage from more important news. But when Pelosi unexpectedly announced that she would be talking about the current budget crisis, and not about Weiner, CNN’s coverage of the press conference was instantaneously terminated! Faced with the choice between the Democratic House leader’s comments on the economy and the latest “Weiner eruption,” the network’s priority couldn’t have been clearer.
Needless to say, my three proposals are suggestive and not exhaustive. In addition, I am not arguing for an immediate, dramatic divergence from the status quo since media companies need to be reasonably protective of their investment in their current ways of operating.
But I am urging leadership: A carefully planned but persistent push for more radically decent approaches. Creating a different and better world requires thoughtful initiatives in every area of our culture. And it is just not acceptable for media elites – or any other group of people with significant power – to fall back on the easy excuse that, since “everyone is doing it, we have to do it too, to remain competitive.”
We live in a world in which a specific set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – are greatly over emphasized. And the pattern of interacting that our obsession with these values sets up is authoritarian, with one person (or group of people) imposing their will on others.
At its root, this pattern is non-gendered. Given the endless variety of people and social roles that exist in the world, there are many situations in which women assume the dominant rote and men are subordinate. Even as we acknowledge this reality, however, we need to recognize how deeply gendered this authoritarian pattern is. Notwithstanding the very real progress we have made in the last 40, patriarchy remains deeply engrained in our psyches as men and women.
Radical Decency is rooted in the belief that the culture’s over-emphasis on these values – and the authoritarian systems it fosters – has out sized consequences for the ways in which we live. And given the extraordinary persistence of patriarchal patterns, its impact on men and women is markedly different. In this Reflection, I deal with the man’s side of this equation only, and do so in the context of a committed romantic relationship.
What I seldom see in my work as a couples counselor is the old “Father Knows Best”/”Mad Men” form of patriarchy. Dad coming home from work to a kiss and a martini, his expectation being that “of course” his wife will prepare dinner and takes care of the kids. But patriarchy persists nonetheless, deeply affecting the choices of both men and women. Focusing on the man’s side of the equation, the simple truth is this: Even as we have learned to “talk a more egalitarian talk,” our choices in so many circumstances – many of them automatic and unconscious – continue to belie our rhetoric.
After 40 years of feminism and with the great majority of women now working, most men agree in principle with the concept of equality. But it’s equality with an asterisk. Yes, her job is as important as mine – in theory – but if someone needs to be at a teacher’s conference, or go clothes shopping with our son, or leave a job for the sake of the family or the other’s career, the implicit default position is that she’ll do it. And, her late nights and weekends at the office tend to be far more optional than his.
When it comes to day by day living, what I often say to men is that their wives are not looking for a helper, a dutiful lieutenant who will do the dishes or take out the trash when asked. What they need instead is a co-general, a partner who understands what needs to be done and, then, does it without being asked. It is at this point, and this point only, that a couple is able to take a decisive turn away from our engrained patriarchal patterns.
Note that co-generalship is not an easy adjustment for either sex. In a true partnership, she is no longer the final arbiter of the proper level of cleanliness – or of the couples’ aesthetic choices – or of how to care for the baby. At the same time, however, the man needs to defer to her greater experience in these areas of living and, as appropriate, even as he progressively inhabits a more co-equal decision-making role, as his expertise grows with experience.
A second very important piece of work, for men, lies in our habitual disposition and tone. Groomed to be aggressive and assertive, we too often talk in authoritarian ways.
- Her: I am thinking about buying a new car. Him: No way. It’s not in our budget.
- Her: The movie seemed to be getting at X. Him: No, that’s not what it meant.
- Her: I left my keys at my friend’s house. Him: What’s your problem? Why are you so disorganized?
Crucial to our work in rooting out patriarchy is a forthright acknowledgement that this authoritative way of speaking is the native language of our mainstream patriarchal culture and that, when we men use it, we are falling short in our effort to move beyond our engrained patriarchal ways.
Interpreted in their worst light, each of these comments imply that the man he has a right to judge and control this partners’ thoughts and actions. But even when that is not his conscious intent, there is a underlying reality that we, as men, need to come to grips with: Far more often than we care to admit, comments such as these represent a leaking of emotions that are, in fact, patriarchal in their origin and, thus, reinforcing of these old patterns.
Thus, in each of the examples, the underlying music is decidedly not “here is my opinion, what’s yours?” It is, instead, an implicit demand for submission and agreement. And when she treats it as a mere opinion her response is often greeted, by him, with annoyance at being contradicted. And where does this annoyed reaction come from? From a deeply instinctual male assumption – the persistent residue of thousands of years of virulent patriarchy – that he is the final arbiter of what is right.
So here’s what we are dealing with: A authoritarian/patriarchal pattern of interacting that is so deeply engrained in our culture that even the most enlightened of us – men and women alike – continue to unwittingly replicate it in our intimate relationships.
And what is that we, as good men who want to do better, need to do? Here are some thoughts.
First, we need to come to grips with the depth of the problem. Because we tend to be thinkers and problem-solvers, many of us, implicitly or explicitly, say to our selves and our partners, “hey, now that I get it, I’ll stop doing it,” sincerely believing that a change in behavior will naturally flow out of our new understanding.
But, as the earlier discussion illustrates, we are seeking to overcome behavioral patterns that, are deeply engrained in our habitual ways of living. So while intellectual understanding is extremely helpful, it is just the beginning. We also need to enlist our intellect as an ally in a sustained, ongoing effort to uncover our many layers of patriarchy. Why? Because in the absence of this detective work, we will never to able to cultivate alternative ways of being that truly address and root out the many manifestation of patriarchy that have insinuated themselves into our habitual behaviors.
On the flip side, however, we cannot use the depth of the challenge as an excuse for not trying, telling ourselves, for example, that “she’s right; I don’t get it; this is just the way we men are.” This perspective is wrong on the facts. When it comes to healing and growth, men are every bit as capable as women. It’s just that, given the different ways in which we are socialized, we begin the work at a different place. See, Reflection 57: Men — We Make Complete Sense!
More deeply, we need to see this supposedly self-effacing mindset for what it really is: A manipulation of our partner’s frustration with her subordinated position – hence the anger and judgment in her comments – to maintain the status quo and, thus, our privileged position. As beneficiaries of a deeply exploitative system, we men bear a special responsibility to avoid these sorts of self-serving tactics; tactics so easily available to people – such as us – who have inherited culturally ascribed power and privilege.
The final piece of the equation I want to highlight – by far the most challenging and the most rewarding – is the need to act differently in the many moments in which all of our engrained, patriarchal instincts are pushing us in a very different direction. It is these moments that I refer to as men’s moments of truth.
When do they come up? All the time – and here are a few examples.
He has a long scheduled out of town business meeting, important but not make or break, that overlaps with her relatively routine knee operation. Emotionally, it is just so hard for him to cancel the meeting. So he asks her how she feels about him not going to the hospital with her.
Do you see the problem with this? He is, in effect, asking his partner – trained by patriarchy to be compliant with his requests – to sanction his patriarchal-tinged choice. Doing his work, this man would instead take responsibility for his choice, manage the discomfort of cancelling the trip, and go to the hospital with his partner, no questions asked.
A couple – in this case, my wife and I – is having a tense discussion. Sensing her resistance to the point he is making, his tone grows more and more strident. She interrupts the back and forth of the argument, saying she feels bullied. His immediate reaction is a rapid spike in frustration and an intense desire to react with these words: “Dammit, I’m not doing anything wrong. Why can’t you just listen to what I’m saying?”
Doing his work, however, he contains and manages his frustration – an internally painful process to be sure. Then, understanding his partner’s very understandable sensitivity to an authoritative/authoritarian tone, he interrupts this all too typical pattern. He lowers his voice, puts aside (for the moment) his advocacy for “his position,” and shifts into listening mode – understanding that loving his wife takes precedence over the issue du jour.
The new baby has arrived and, without being asked, he strives for parity. He becomes an active advocate at work for an 8-week leave – just like his wife. And, if that is not feasible, he strives to maintain a 50/50 division of labor when it comes to getting up with the baby. And his wife never hears these words: “I can’t do the 3 am shift with the baby. I need my sleep so I can get through my days at work.”
The message I hope to illustrate with these examples is this: When a man is doing his work, a singular moment of truth never arrives. Instead, these make or break moments just keep coming. Understanding our patriarchal patterns and progressively replacing them with new, more egalitarian habits of living is a day-by-day war of attrition.
The good news, however, is that if we, as men, fully commit to this work, the upside is truly life changing. Our tense, need to be in control habits will progressively be replaced by more relaxed, relational ways of being that invite the intimacy that we – like all humans – truly long for. And we need always to remember that the alternative, settling for the easy privileges that come our way as the beneficiaries of our patriarchal system, is life’s booby prize.
The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson. Jeremy is associate the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He wrote this Reflection, in 2013, when he was still a law student at the University of Michigan.
Jeremy is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 83, Listening to the “Bad Guys,” and Reflection 86, Having Confidence You’re Average.
Feel free to send reactions and comments to this Reflection to Jeremy, as well, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently stumbled across one of my father’s Reflections, which he had casually thrown onto the coffee table for a later look. It spoke about how we are taught in school to compete for the highest grade and to come out ahead, rather than to learn. This is true to an extent: The incentives are as he claims though I’m not sure he gives enough credit to teachers. But that isn’t what this reflection is about.
Rather, as I walked out of the room, I found myself reflecting on my father’s journey to where he is now. The only reason he is writing Reflections for you – his audience – is because, thoroughly dissatisfied with Big Law, he decided to make a career switch. However, the only reason he had the opportunity to be dissatisfied was because he had made it in Big Law for 25 years.
For the lawyers (and lawyers-in-training) among us, it is common knowledge that breaking into Big Law is difficult, even if you go to a top-tier school. Even in my father’s day when Big Law was booming, you didn’t get paid six-figure incomes for being an OK student. My dad was more than just an OK student. He was one of the top students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School (a highly prestigious institution) and was on Law Review (the top association for any law student). Therefore, Big Law was knocking on his door, inviting him in.
So what? Why am I talking about my dad’s accomplishments? Because I think his ability to succeed in the “real world” explains a lot of why he has created Radical Decency and is slowly becoming a voice for change.
My Dad was such a successful student and lawyer because – I suspect – he was constantly analyzing the information given to him and exploring its depths. It is easy enough to be good at “memorization and regurgitation,” as he put it in the “coffee table” Reflection, but it is far, far more difficult to really test what you are taught.
I remember talking with a Professor at my law school last year. I asked him how I could become a better student. He commented that I was too ready to accept the logic handed to me and not critical enough of it. I couldn’t disagree. However, at the same time, the student he cited as the model of what he was looking for was known by my peers as a genius beyond geniuses; the kind of student you didn’t hope to compete with but, rather, just were thankful his A+ didn’t throw the curve too much.
I suspect my Dad was the same way in law school. You didn’t compete with him. Instead, you picked his brain and asked to borrow his outlines. I also suspect that most of his readership is more like me; highly intelligent people who are very open to learning but don’t find themselves naturally inclined to dig beyond what would appear to be the hard soil.
Where am I going with this rant? I guess to ask his readership to challenge itself. My Dad is very smart, but as his son, with some intellectual muscle of my own, I occasionally see flaws in his logic. Don’t just embrace his ideas…attack them. See if they make sense to you. It isn’t an insult to a man like my father to question his ideas. It’s a compliment. It’s the reason he created Radical Decency in the first place.
My father will be the first to tell you that, as a lawyer, he was surrounded by brilliant minds. He still keeps in touch with many of his lawyer friends, and many of them are still active practitioners. As a result, he had to challenge those he looked up to and those he learned from in order to be where he is today. To do that required enormous effort and a constant urge to learn and pay attention to the signals his brilliant mind was giving him that “something wasn’t right here.”
Only a few exceptional people have the wherewithal to pay attention to those signals and develop them into a new concept with minimal encouragement from the world around them. And most them are too busy becoming the best in their chosen careers to tend to this task in a sustained way.
Fortunately, my father escaped this treadmill of conventional success. Even more fortunately, he now provides the encouragement and support to others to break out of society’s conventional paradigm; offering to others the support that he lacked in his journey. Unfortunately, there is nobody that I know of providing the encouragement he needs to expand and push beyond his new paradigm.
I guess that’s where I’m going with this line of thinking. What my Dad has provided to the world in the form of Radical Decency and all that he has done over the last 12 years is a paradigm unto itself. It is a preferable paradigm, but like anything “radical,” it is largely unchallenged.
Yes, there are people who push back and force my Dad to refine and further define his thoughts, but those people are like-minded. This doesn’t mean they engage in groupthink, but it does mean that they are less likely to see all the weaknesses in my father’s arguments.
Therefore, I ask you, his readership, to push back. Don’t just accept his ideas and try to incorporate them “as is,” but think about them critically. I’m sure that many of you do this already. After all, his ideas go against the conventional paradigm that most of us live in. But not, perhaps you are not doing this in the way I’m suggesting.
I am not saying you should try to find reasons to reject his ideas. Rather, as you immerse yourself in his thinking, I’m asking you to (1) find the weaknesses and push back, and (2) find the strengths and stretch them toward new conclusions and applications yet to be explored in his tiny, three-page reflections. This will help him – because any good philosopher needs people to force him to continue to think critically of himself. And, it will help you as well.
For every good idea he has, there are many others he has not thought of. There have to be. Only by taking hold of his thoughts and turning them over and finding every flaw in them and stretching them and viewing them with an experimental and critical eye will you discover what he has not and figure out how to apply his ideas in your own life.
Going off of this second idea, his ideas make sense in his world. But his world isn’t your world and his ideas won’t apply mechanically to yours.
I hear my dad sometimes speak of how people like his ideas but have trouble applying them in practice. Part of the problem is that, as with any new theory, it sounds good when said, but who is willing to make the jump?
Another difficulty in creating a “model,” as my Dad has tried to do, is that he only has one perspective – his own. He is Jeff Garson and not you. Thus, the only way to bridge the gap from Jeff Garson to you is: (1) to challenge the assumptions that govern your life, and (2) to think critically about how my Dad’s ideas apply to you (e.g., “this doesn’t work for me but maybe, if I think about it in this way, it will make more sense”).
I’m terrible at the former but am getting better. As for the latter, I implore you, the reader, to tell my Dad when you are re-crafting his ideas. He will be thrilled and you and he can have an intellectual party with cheese and crackers and all kinds of fancy snacks. At the very least, he will tell you one of his awful jokes.
The Reflection series has two overarching goals. The first is to understand where we are now – a goal grounded in the belief that effective prescriptions for change can only be crafted if we thoroughly understand the many forces that keep us rooted in the status quo. The second: To provide a vivid, detailed, and realistic roadmap for progressively replacing our current ways of operating with more a productive model.
The central role of Radical Decency in the Reflection series — hence inclusion of the phrase in its title — arises from this fundamental premise: Our current, unsatisfactory situation is rooted in a value system that makes competition and winning, domination and control, a priority in virtually every area of living. For this reason, we need to organize our prescription for change around an alternative set of values – Radical Decency – that, systematically applied, can progressively move us toward ways of operating that offer the prospect of better lives and a better world.
While Radical Decency finds its essential elaboration, and offers its greatest rewards, when the conversation shifts to the second, “what to do about it” goal, goal one is, nevertheless, crucial to the overall project. Many of the processes by which the culture’s predominant values infiltrate and take over our lives are so subtle and so thoroughly interwoven into our habitual ways of thinking that – absent a systematic effort to understand them – they are and will remain, quite literally, invisible. And being invisible, their profound effect on our lives and world will go unnoticed and unaddressed.
We need to be constantly on the alert for people who offer these deepening understandings; thinkers who, when we find them, provoke this reaction:
“Wow, I never thought of that but now that you explain it, it seems so obvious! It’s been hiding out, in plain site, my entire life, deeply influencing my outlook and choices. Thank you for expanding and altering my perspective. Now that it’s on my radar screen – now that exists – maybe I/we can do something about it.”
In this Reflection I offer three key ideas of one such thinker, Charles Eisenstein.
- Money as an idea and the role it plays in our lives.
In Reflection 25, The Vise of Money, I wrote about the power of money in and over our lives. In other Reflections, I discuss: (1) Our obsession with domination and control; (2) our obsessive pursuit of invulnerability and, implicitly, immortality (Reflection 14, Dying – And Our Epidemic of Immortality); and (3) our individualistic, go it alone outlook on life (Reflection 22, Consumerism – and the Passivity it Breeds; Reflection 29, Community; and Reflection 31, Perfectionism).
In Sacred Economics, Money, Gift, & Society in the Age of Transition, Eisenstein offers a vision of money that brings each of these three ideas together in a new and – for me – perspective altering synthesis.
Eisenstein’s key insight is that we have deeply internalized this unacknowledged, and massively influential, view of money:
The one thing that most closely resembles the divine is money. It is an invisible, immortal force that steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, an ‘invisible hand’ that, it is said, makes the world go round. Yet money today is an abstraction, usually mere bits in a computer, far removed from materiality and exempt from nature’s most important laws, for it does not decay and return to the soil as all other things do. Instead, it bears the properties of eternal preservation and everlasting increase.
Notice how profoundly in synch with, and reinforcing of, our disease of individual omnipotence, dominance and control this view of money is. The unspoken assumption, endemic in our culture, is that if I have enough money, it will surround me with a cloak of safety and indestructibility. And if I am tireless in its pursuit, and manage my egg nest in the “right way,” this shield of safety will grow and grow.
Needless to say, invulnerability in any guise is an unattainable fantasy. No amount of money can shield us from disappointment, fear, anxiety, aging and death. But when the story that propels our obsessive pursuit of financial security is implicit and unnamed, our ability to resist it is greatly reduced. For this reason, Eisenstein’s ability to name it and explain its consequences is a great gift: An essential, empowering prelude to action.
- Interest’s formative role in molding the world we live in.
Eisenstein’s next great insight, for me, is his deconstruction of interest. I have always assumed that, short of usurious excess, interest is a value free mechanism. “Of course,” if you lend or invest your money, you should receive a fair return. But, as Eisenstein points out, certain things inevitably result when interest is at the center of our conception of money and economics.
When an exchange of goods includes a supplier of money, entitled to receive value for his contribution (through payment of interest), two key elements are added that don’t exist in a money-free economic system. First, new wealth has to be created, over and above the value of the goods exchanged, in order to pay the lender or investor. In addition, this new wealth has to be “monetized;” that is, converted into a form that allows it to be transferred to the moneylender. And this can only occur when someone exercises control or ownership over the resource in question, so it can be transformed into a commodity, capable of being transferred for value in the marketplace.
As you can see, so long as interest is charged for the use of money, the pressure to create new monetized sources of value – to pay this third party, now injected into this “fair value for fair value” exchange between two parties – will be never ending. And the continual generation of new value results in an ever-growing economy that, in turn, requires the generation of more and more monetized wealth, to pay the interest owed on its ever-expanding pool of capital/money.
When this system first emerged – and for many centuries thereafter – this monetization process was largely limited to land, natural resources, and industrial and agricultural labor. But now that the system has grown to rule the world, the process has become all encompassing, monetizing even such inherently human gifts such as story telling and music – through copyright laws – and (even more perversely) friendship and emotional support – through the rise, in the 20th century, of professions such as psychotherapy and coaching.
As Eisenstein points out, this process is deeply destructive of our sense of community and connectedness. Buying something that was once freely given – like a song or a sympathetic ear – cripples our sense of mutuality. You have given me a commodity, not a gift, and having paid for it I owe you nothing more.
It also feeds an attitude of reckless indifference to our own well-being and that of others. Because the consuming imperative is to convert every resource into a saleable commodity, we mindlessly exploit each other and the environment, and work ever more demanding hours at spirit-deadening jobs.
Eisenstein argues, persuasively I think, that the obviously material rewards of this system – at least for those us who have relatively privileged positions within are – are not worth the price.
He also points out that it is unsustainable. Eventually, we will run out of new resources that can provide the added monetized value, needed to provide capital with the interest that is demanded for its use. Indeed, this moment could conceivably be near as we read about banks that, for several years now, have been sitting on vast pools of uninvested capital because sufficiently attractive investments are not available.
- The government’s monopoly over money and its consequences.
A final perspective expanding insight, offered by Eisenstein, is his discussion of currency; that is, the stuff we refer to as money. We take for granted that money is something that only national or supra-national governments can issue. And yet that too, like are assumptions about money and interest, is a social convention that seems inevitable and “right” only because it has been in place for so long.
In other societies, the standard medium of exchange has been beads, pelts or, in a barter-based system, nothing at all. And Eisenstein points to numerous, albeit isolated and short lived examples of alternative, local system’s of money that have cropped up at various times in our history, particularly during the Great Depression and in other times of economic stress.
Our current monetary system thoroughly ties us to the national and international economy. Like it or not, large nation/international institutions offer the most reliable and readily accessible sources of credit (national banks), goods (Walmart, Lowes, Exxon, Starbucks) and, increasingly, services as well (web-based repair services, national legal and accounting firms, LA Fitness and the Hair Cuttery).
This phenomenon is deeply consequential beginning, once again, with our sense of community. Our lives revolve around economic activity – work and consumption. And as things stand now, there are no practical, economic realities to bind us together with our neighbors. To the contrary, why do business locally when a national chain is right down the street or, increasingly, a few taps away on your computer? And, of course, the neighbor we ignore as a vendor is also far less likely to become a consumer of our products and services – or a friend.
The other enormous price we pay is in the control over our lives. There is no negotiating with a national bank or retail chain. Most everything is take it or leave it. And, equally, there is no place to go to seek effective redress for a missed delivery or a 40-minute wait on hold.
To his credit, Eisenstein fully embraces the challenge of offering a cure for the cultural diseases he identifies. So, for example, he suggests that things would be different if our economic system made room for local currencies, in addition, to a national one.
The theory? As a local vender, I would readily accept a local script that allows purchases from other local vendors only, since it would offer one more way to increase sales. And that would, in turn, impel me to find other local vendors willing to accept the “local dollars” I receive for the goods and services I need. In this way, a virtuous counter trend to our increasing globalization would take root and accelerate.
He also makes the following argument in favor of “negative interest”: If each dollar lost 5% of its value, each year, money would no longer be immortal. It would, instead, be aligned with the natural state of affairs in which all things decay and die. And with money in this more natural state, we would have no incentive to horde money – and insist on a positive return on its use – since our choice would be to use it or watch it disappear.
Our current economic structures – generally seen as unchanging and unchangeable – reinforce behaviors that are deeply exploitative of our selves, others and the world, all in a vain attempt to make us invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life. As Eisenstein see it, changes such as the ones he spells out are essential if we hope to create more connected and nourishing lives.
Eisenstein’s prescriptions for change are, for me, more problematic than his analysis of what ails us. To begin with, they fail to adequately account for values; the issue that Radical Decency puts at the center of its approach.
What I see over and over is that when we re-jigger the system, but fail to address the underlying values that drive it, these new systems are, more typically than not, perverted in ways that allow our “compete and win” ways to continue; e.g., the examples, that history offers, of locally based economies that – freed from the problematic economic structures Eisenstein describes – were nonetheless highly authoritarian and exploitative.
I also question his prognosis for the future: His view that macro trends are impelling us toward solutions that, in our present political environment, seem far-fetched and visionary. I only wish I shared his sense of certainty and optimism about where we are headed in this exceedingly complex world.
But these and other concerns notwithstanding, I close with these thoughts:
- It is easy to pick holes in prescriptions for change that tackle forces – in place for thousands of years – that are generally seen as unchanging and unchangeable; and
- Paradigm-shifting analyses of what’s wrong are profoundly important since they are an essential prelude to paradigm-shifting solutions.
Eisenberg’s is a formidable and original thinker. We need to be deeply attentive both to analysis and, not withstanding the all too easy ability to pick holes in them, to his prescriptions for change as well.
One of the mindsets, promoted by the mainstream culture to marginalize and disempower change efforts, is an emphasis on “diagnosis” of problems and a corresponding lack of attention to “cure.” Think for example about the basic architecture of our political dialogue. Both sides are very articulate in naming the problem as they see it: Too much government (for conservatives); an exploitative and under regulated business sector (for liberals). But when it comes to doing something different and better – a thought-though cure for our diagnosed disease – things get very murky, very fast.
Through three Republican presidencies over the course of the last 30 years, government spending has continued to grow. And on the Democratic side, Clinton sponsored a major de-regulation of the financial sector while Obama’s response to the most epic banking meltdown since the Great Depression was tepid and marginal. In other words, on all sides of our predominant public discourse, there is massive attention to diagnosis and a contrasting marginalization of any sustained and serious attempt at cure.
This strange state of affairs is no accident. Systems, by their nature, elaborate and perpetuate themselves. And an over emphasis on diagnosis is a wondrously effective way to do this. Groomed to focus on what is wrong and to let the “what to do about it” question atrophy through inattention, our mainstream ways of operating continue, without serious challenge.
This Reflection offers a roadmap for moving through and beyond diagnosis, and into the nitty-gritty of cure, as we seek to deal with one of the mainstream culture’s most engrained and corrosive patterns: Patriarchy.
Patriarchy is a subset of authoritarianism, a pattern of interaction in which the dominant person seeks to push his uncomfortable feelings off onto the subordinate. The boss barks at his secretary “where’s the Smith file” and the secretary, flooded with feelings of anxiety – that rightfully belong to the boss – scurries around, looking for the file.
From time immemorial, authoritarian relationships have been deeply (though not exclusively) gender based. For that reason, focusing on its manifestation in this form is vitally important if we hope to create more decent relationships and a more decent world.
In an authoritarian/patriarchal relationship, no one wins. In the case of the subordinate, the abuse is obvious. But, as Philip Lichtenberg points out in Getting Even (1988), psychological systems naturally move toward a state of equilibrium. So, in our example, the secretary will “get even,” if not with an explicit verbal counterattack, then through sullenness, withdrawal, sarcasm, and/or foot dragging. And, more fundamentally, the boss’ opportunity to enlist the secretary as an empowered, problem-solving partner – as opposed to a cautious, order following toady – will be irrevocably diminished.
Lichtenberg is not suggesting that the price paid by the dominant person is in any way comparable price paid by the subordinate. But the point he makes is a crucial one. Since all of us – even the powerful, bullying male – are net losers in these relationships, we all have a vital interest in their transformation.
In the last 50 years, we have made significant progress in naming patriarchy as a pervasive, fundamentally unhealthy pattern and in identifying its debilitating effects. But what is less apparent is our failure to adequately focus on cure; on how to successfully interact with one another, as men and women, in the territory beyond patriarchy. To the contrary, even the best intentioned among us tend to assume that naming the problem, we have largely solved it; that insight – diagnosis – easily and inevitably morphs into cure.
What I have observed over and over again in my therapy practice – and in my life – is that good intentions, while important, are just the beginning. To overcome patriarchy, we need to steadily attend to a whole series of deeply engrained, culturally reinforced habits of living that pull us back toward our gender-based authoritarian ways of operating.
One very large trap is to think that all or most of the work is on the woman’s side. “If she could just be as assertive about her needs as I am” – “If I could just be as outspoken as he is” – our patriarchal patterns would disappear.
The flaw in this approach? It assumes the problem is with the women’s role and not with the system itself. But the deeper truth is this: When a woman’s new found assertiveness is added to the equation, without more, our authoritarian ways of interacting persist with, at most, a reshuffling of roles:
- The woman replacing the man in the dominant role; or
- The partners locking horns in a chronic power struggle; or
- The relationship ending.
If we hope to move beyond patriarchy, real cure work requires so much more. And while the work is intensely interwoven, the challenges on each side of the gender divide are in many ways distinct.
In what follows I discuss key elements of the challenge, for men and for women.
One important reality that women need to deal with is a fundamental asymmetry in the way that men and women assert themselves. In discrete moments, many women are entirely capable of rising to the occasion, expressing their needs with commendable clarity. But these moments of assertiveness need to be viewed in the context of the typical man who will push for what he wants again – and again – and again. Like the tide, the proto-typical male is steady and, seemingly, relentless in his demands.
The net effect over time? While she may persist in asserting her needs a second or, even a third time, her culturally engrained instinct to defer to his needs will eventually creep back in, bringing with it a reassertion of the old pattern of patriarchal deferral.
Thus, in the typical case, the negotiation is inherently out of balance. With the woman asserting her needs 75% of the time and the man asserting his 100% of the time, the results are depressingly predictable.
So a vital piece of work, on the women’s side, is to cultivate a habit of assertion that is as comfortably and persistently assertive as his.
What makes this work so tricky is that tending to the other’s needs is a quality we want to nurture and encourage. As a result, a woman seeking to reverse patriarchal patterns will often – appropriately and wisely – feel pulled in two directions, seeking to balance her new assertiveness with her more natural nurturing instincts.
For this reason, a mutual commitment to the work is key. If the man isn’t as fully engaged as she is, a tension between these two goals is likely to persist. But when he embraces the work as well, this apparent contradiction disappears. She can tend to her partner without fear of victimization, knowing that he is working hard to greet her needs with curiosity and appreciation; as a roadmap for more effectively tending to her as a colleague, friend, or lover.
Another key point on the woman’s side is this hard truth: Bullying is a defining aspect of our patriarchal system. The dominant male isn’t just requesting conformance. He’s demanding it. And to compound the problem, the ways in which he does it are often very subtle – a tone, a look, an unstated assumption – that makes this habitual pattern that much harder to recognize and, thus, to root out.
As a result, a woman’s most readily available model for assertiveness – his – is not a good one; a fact that leads to a second key aspect of her work. In the typical case, women – drawing on her more sophisticated interpersonal skills – will be challenged to craft a new pattern of assertiveness, very different from our “normal” way of interacting.
Simply being more vocal about his failings will never work. As a demand for conformance, it is a bullying move that will only perpetuate the patriarchal system she is seeking to overcome.
Instead, she needs to be clear, consistent, and persistent in asking for what she wants and needs, and about the likely consequences if his response is inadequate. And she should be equally forthright in affirming his (often imperfect) efforts to meet her requests – so long as he is doing is best to respond differently and better to her creative initiatives.
On this point, Dana offers an inspiring example. Relocating to accommodate her partner, she watched in dismay as he progressively withdrew from the relationship. At first, her very understandable reaction was to complain and withdraw. But Dana found her power – and her voice – when she fully accepted the fact that, absent change, she’d need to leave the relationship. Since then her steady message has been this: “I love you. But if you can’t to give me what I want and need I’m leaving.” And while her partner’s initial response has been positive, the key point is that Dana’s new pattern of relating – if it persists – will make a return to patriarchal patterns impossible.
On the man’s side, the threshold challenge is to fully understand that patriarchy is his problem every bit as much as it is hers; that even though he is its net beneficiary, it stinks for him as well. Always remembering this, he is much more likely to avoid this disastrous, all too common mindset: If I placate her and wait “it” out, she’ll get over it and things will get back to “normal.”
Being in a culturally reinforced position of patriarchal power, the status quo deeply serves the man’s purposes – if his goal is to maintain his authority. For this reason, an ever-present temptation is to engage in foot dragging tactics that slow the work, avoid all the confusion and discomfort that comes with it, and pushes the partners back to the familiar and, for him, more comfortable place of male privilege.
In this area, the man needs to be particularly vigilant since, like any work that seeks to undo an engrained cultural norm, the initiatives she undertakes to reverse patriarchal patterns are all too easy to deflate and subvert by, for example, something as seemingly innocent as a “joke” that “teases” her about her “sensitivity.”
A second, essential step, for the typical man, is to embrace his internalized bully. This is – I can attest – an excruciatingly difficult step. For so many of men, patriarchal bullying is so habitual, so engrained.
So when a man seeks, in good faith, to do better, here’s how things typically go. First, patriarchy’s most overt manifestations are excised. This is followed, however, by a prolonged period of confusion and frustration as the man, with steady feedback from this partner, struggles to adapt away from its subtler forms: Terse directive words, cold stares of judgment, sarcastic responses to her unwelcome suggestions, the unspoken tension he exudes when things don’t go his way.
Working diligently to root out these vestiges of patriarchy is vitally important since the culture is always there, beckoning us back to our old authoritarian ways. Rooting out habits of a lifetime is hard work. And because women have been on the receiving end of these bullying ways for so long, it is vitally important for us men to remember this: The women in our lives our indispensible teachers and allies in this effort. We need to seek out and rely on their feedback. If it feels like bullying to them, it probably is – and needs to be addressed.
More fundamentally, we need to remember – always – that the brass ring we are aiming for is the more productive relational style that exists in the territory beyond patriarchy. And because of the different ways in which we were raised, women typically bring to this work more fully developed relational skills. For this reason, we men need to look to them as our indispensable guides as we seek to orient and immerse our selves in what is, for us, an underexplored area of living.
At the same time, however, we need to be unwavering in our belief that, contrary to mainstream stereotypes, we are not in the least defective when is comes to relating in more egalitarian and mutually supportive ways. It is just that – given the different ways in which we were socialized – we have less experience. So while we are likely to be on a steeper learning curve, especially in the early stages, we are apt and capable students who are – if we make the effort – capable of emerging as fully empowered partners in this difficult and creative work.
Finally, both sexes need to remember this: Beyond an initial phase of male growth, we are all a moving into new territory. A whole-hearted commitment to the possibilities that exist beyond patriarchy is, given the world we live in, a journey into the unknown. But it is also a journey whose expectable outcome – and greatest reward – is an amazing sense of solidarity and mutual respect; a new reality that can, with time, utterly eclipse and replace the gender-based tensions that, in unexamined relationships, seem so frustratingly inevitable.
We live in a world of systems and systems, by their very nature, find ways to perpetuate themselves, and extend and deepen their reach.
Given the cultural reality in which we must operate, this fact takes on special significance if we hope to live more decently. Why? Because our culture is dominated by a highly coherent and dynamic system that places a priority on a set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – that is deeply at odds with the values Radical Decency embodies and promotes. As a result, any serious change effort needs to confront the many systemic mechanisms that so powerfully reinforce these very different mainstream values.
One of the culture’s more subtle – and effective – self-perpetuating mechanisms is its genius for leaving many of its most problematic aspects unnamed. Lacking a name, they become invisible and, for all practical purposes, cease to exist. We may sense that something is “off” in our lives but, unable to identify it, we are unable to deal with it in any effective way.
One key example of this negation by neglect – the subject of this Reflection – is what can only be described as a massive, culture-wide epidemic of boundary confusion. Simply put, we live in a world in which most of us are strikingly unaware, in our day-by-day choices, of where “I” end and another person begins. We are equally unaware of the internal boundaries that grow out of our inherent physical and emotional limitations.
For many, this last statement may seem implausible or, at a minimum, greatly overstated. And that may be true.
But a second possibility – the one to which I subscribe – is that this epidemic of boundary confusion, as well our surprise when it is called to our attention, is an entirely expectable byproduct of our singular pre-occupation with compete and win, dominate and control.
Here’s how I see it working.
In a world in which these values are pre-eminent, the default relationship of choice is authoritarian; one in which one person is dominant and the other controlled, with the goal being to “win.” In this sort of relationship, awareness of and respect for another person’s boundaries is, at best, an after-the-fact add-on, designed to moderate of a way of relating that is, in reality, governed by this habitual mindset:
“If I can overpower your will, dominating you to the point where you completing accept my perspective, so much the better. I win.”
This authoritarian mindset also pushes us to ride roughshod over our inherent biological limitations – our internal boundaries – so that we can be forever vigilant and in attack mode. The goal: To be a finely tuned instrument of success, the psychic and physical consequences of our choices be damned.
And where here does this epidemic of boundary confusion show up?
At work, for example, authoritarian relationships and their handmaiden, massive boundary confusion, are taken-for-granted ways of living.
In a typical workplace transaction, something doesn’t go right and the boss’s understandable reaction is one of disappointment, annoyance, or anxiety. Steeped in authoritarian power, however, his immediate response is a wholly unreflective boundary cross. Instead of owning his feelings and managing them internally, he lashes out at a subordinate demanding, in effect, that she take on and tend to his pain.
In response, there are steps the subordinate could take that would deflect the boss’ boundary crossing attack, beginning with a clear and steady defense of her emotional distance and integrity. But because she, too, is a product of our mainstream culture’s win/lose mentality and inattention to boundary issues, these steps rarely occur to her.
Instead, lacking a viable means of defense, the boss’ attack invades her psyche and takes over, leaving her with an unshakable the sense that, somehow, she did something wrong and is responsible for fixing the problem. Then, in her confusion and pain, she embarks on her own unfortunate round of reactive, boundary crossing acts.
Where does her boundary crossing process begin? With a shredding of her internal boundaries as shame, self-judgment, anxiety, and other inappropriately assumed feelings flood her body, often accompanied by lost sleep and other symptoms of physical distress. Then, to further complicate and confuse the situation, a second phase of boundary crossing is often added to the mix as the subordinate, unwittingly mirroring the boss’ initial boundary cross, seeks to push her bad feelings back onto him through sarcasm, sullenness, and/or foot dragging.
When we look at the non-work side of life, the situation in no better. The same authoritarian, win/lose mindset that drives our endemic boundary confusion at work also thoroughly infects our personal relationships:
- A problem comes up with a friend and I instinctually seek to win the “who caused it, blame game,” by putting responsibility for the breach on him.
- A discussion – about politics, or which car to buy, or what the movie really meant – imperceptibly shifts from a sharing of different viewpoints into an attempt by each person to impose his or her view on the other.
- A friend’s spontaneous outburst makes me uncomfortable and I respond with a cutting sarcastic remark that, masked as humor, is meant to embarrass him into silence.
Indeed, our confusion about boundaries even extends to our romantic relationships, the one place where most of us like to think we do better.
Take Susan and Jack, for example. They are “in love.” In other words, each of them has that wonderfully strong visceral/sexual attraction we all relish. But far too little attention is paid to the fact that this feeling is simply a state of mind – a fact on the ground, so to speak. It says very little about how Susan and Jack actually relate to one another, beyond the fact that they are very motivated to do so.
What is typically happening when this “in love” state predominates is a massive boundary cross. Jack makes up a story about Susan and spends his days with “that person.” Susan is perfect – clever, funny, wise, etc., etc. – and any flaws are simply swept away; Susan’s protests to the contrary notwithstanding.
“You’re not insecure. That’s ridiculous. Everybody loves you.”
And, of course, Susan is busy doing the same thing in reverse with Jack.
Standing alone, there is nothing wrong with this process. In fact, being “in love” is one of life’s great joys and is, in fact, nature’s way to get us attached to a potential life partner.
But this process needs to operate side by side with an unfolding process of intimate relational growth between two different and distinct people. What is so problematic in our culture is that, far too often, the couple’s true relational journey is wholly supplanted by this boundary obliterating, “in love” fantasy dance.
Living in a world in which boundary confusion is unnamed and unseen, what happens next – far too often – is this: As the drug of first love fades, the real Susan begins to intrude on Jack’s fantasy world (and vice versa). But instead of respecting and getting to know the real contours of her personality, Jack fights back.
Consistent with the culture’s dominate and control mindset, he responds to behaviors that contradict his original romanticized version of Susan with disbelieve, anger, and a demand for a return of the old Susan. With Susan responding in kind, a win/lose power struggle ensues that, all too often, either ends the relationship or leaves each partner in a permanent state of confusion, disappointment, hurt, and corrosive anger and resentment.
This story – an all too common outcome of our inattention to boundaries – has fostered a widespread sense of pessimism when it comes to romantic relationships: “Love never lasts.” “Our hard wiring makes infidelity and betrayal inevitable.” “In the end, we all have to settle.”
Fortunately, none of this is true. But what is true is that a successful marriage – as well as productive and mutually nourishing relationships in every other area of living – require a far greater understanding of what is “mine,” what is “yours” and, then, how to treat each with the sensitivity and respect they deserve.
More generally, we need to tease out and craft creative responses to the many other subtle and invisible processes that – like our epidemic of boundary confusion – so relentlessly pull us back toward the mainstream culture’s habitual ways of thinking and acting.
Craig Eisendrath – a close friend – is a scholar, social activist and author. Out of a lifetime of reflection and dedicated work at the front lines of social justice, a number of heroes have emerged for Craig, including Dag Hammarskjold and Jesus whose lives are honored in his signature novel, To Enter Jerusalem (2008). In the last few years Craig’s ongoing work has been informed by his journey with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
In this Reflection I share a short story that Craig recently wrote. In few brief and beautifully crafted lines, it expresses the essence of two ideas that are central both to his thinking and exemplary life:
- The universality – and, equally, the intense particularity – of the values-based work that Radical Decency aspires be is a part of; and
- The spirit affirming, even transcendent potential inherent in this work – and, equally, the excruciating and, at times, soul-wrenching challenges with which it inevitably co-exists.
One of the strengths of Radical Decency is that it is not unique. To the contrary, it is still another version of a set of values that have found expression for literally thousands of years.
On the other hand, it is (I like to think) thoroughly grounded in our current situation, which I describe in this way: We live in a world that is permeated to an historic degree – given our cultural history and current technologies – by a set of values largely at odds with Radical Decency’s values. Those values? Compete and win, dominate and control.
In an effort to do justice to the particularity of times in which we live, my writings attempt to answer these two questions: (1) What does a committed Radical Decency practice look like in every area of living? (2) How do you overcome the daunting challenge of implementing this philosophy in an environment that relentlessly pushes us toward the mainstream culture’s predominant, indecent values?
My further hope: That my writings, taken as a whole, persuasively express both the sobering realism, and energizing sense of hope and possibility, that inform my sense of the situation in which we find ourselves. In others words, that in a constructive and helpful way, my thinking and writing carries forward Craig’s second theme as well.
I am a prose writer. And while Craig is an accomplished essayist, he also has a poet’s gift. So here is a story from a gifted thinker and writer whose continued vitality and engagement with life in these difficult, last few years has been an inspiration to so many of us.
Jesus, by Craig Eisendrath
Two taps on my head, what she had done all our lives to initiate her teasing me. Now that joke was still between us as we walked through the streets of Jerusalem. All our lives – she was three years and four months older than me – she had teased me.
She finally told me she had been sexually abused by father – this explained her anger, but didn’t excuse it. When I saw her, I could feel myself tensing up as I had as a child. It didn’t matter what she was now. I could never forget how she made me miserable during most of our childhood.
I have to give her credit – she was very inventive in making me miserable. She would hit me twice on the head, and then say, “Toodle loo, little bro,” and then trip me, or then take away my toy, or tickle me in a way I would end up crying. Her inventiveness seemed endless.
Now she was saying, “Little bro, I think it’s time for lunch—you will treat me, of course. I’m looking for something better than rice and beans, if you can afford it.”
“Okay, I always do.”
“Who’s this person who seems to be making all kind of noise on the street?”
“Don’t you know – that’s Jesus?”
“He seems like one of those persons who never can shut up.”
“He can’t – that’s because he’s so full with God.”
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” – “After everyone is through with it.”
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” – “A kick in the ass.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” – “ Self-serving politicians!”
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”— “A true lawyer.”
“Listen to him. He has something to say.”
“Would a true lawyer listen to him? “
“I mean the kind of lawyer people hire to protect themselves, no matter what they did.”
“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, raca [a dismissive epithet], shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” – “It’s clear to me who’s the fool – It’s Jesus!!
“Listen to him.”
“Because he spoke the truth.”
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies…” – “It will only make it easier for them.”
“Listen to him. He’s telling the truth.”
“And the truth will make you free.” – “What nonsense!”
“I have to say, I’m deeply moved.”
“Are you going to become a follower of Jesus?”
“Maybe …. I’m deeply moved.”
“Go ahead – I’ll miss you.”
“I won’t be gone – only I will be more there. “
“I’ll miss you.”
“You said that!”
“I’m glad that you’re still capable of being angry.”
“That’s what Jesus would say – what would you say?”
“You’re driving me crazy.”
“Off to the asylum.”
“Are the followers of Jesus crazy?”
“Speak for yourself.”
We live in a culture in which “relationship” tends to be equated with “intimate relationship.” Thus, an array of family and couples therapies and an endless stream of self-help books, teach us how to more constructively interact with our spouse, children and friends. Needless to say, improving the quality of these relationships is a good thing. But our pre-occupation with the intricacies of intimate relationship brings with it this unfortunate side effect: We spend far too little time seeking to understanding how authoritarian relationships operate and how to make these relationships work better.
Why is this omission so important? Because authoritarian relationships are the uncritically accepted norm at work; the place where we spend the most productive hours of the great majority of our days. Moreover, we live in a world in which compete and win, dominate and control are the predominant values. As a result, these authoritarian patterns of interacting – via patriarchy or a bullying parent, for example – are entrenched in many of our intimate relationships as well.
The price we pay for our failure to seriously attend to these relationships is far too high. Our tendency – particularly at work – is to simply accept them as an unfortunate fact of life. With little or no thought or effort invested in making these relationships better, all of us – subordinates and bosses alike – wind up passively accepting all sorts of debilitating consequences.
On the subordinate’s side, these effects are fairly obvious. The prevailing view is that we are, for the most part, at the mercy of the boss. I work for a jerk but what can I do about it. Either make peace with the situation, or leave for a new job – where my new boss, armed with the exact same authoritarian power, might, perhaps, decide to treat me better. In other words, there is no solution, just good luck or bad luck – and, given the realities of the workplace, mostly the latter.
Equally unfortunate – but more subtle and invisible – is the price the boss pays. The prevailing view, in the mainstream culture, is that the boss has a good deal. He can say what he wants and get what he wants. But as Philip Lichtenberg points out in Getting Even, there is no free ride in relationship. The boss’ arbitrary or bullying behavior will inevitably provoke counter-measures, through foot dragging, sullenness, deviousness, or a myriad of other strategies. And, as the subordinate “gets even,” the boss winds up paying a very real psychic and interpersonal price as well.
Moreover, most all bosses are themselves subordinates in their dealings with the next level up in the company’s hierarchy. So failing to handle these relationships more effectively, they will be subject to the same discouraging equation when they are in the down, subordinate position.
The bottom line in all this? Our tendency to unreflectively accept authoritarian relationships as an unpleasant and unchangeable fact of life serves no one. If we are serious about creating more nourishing lives and contributing to a more humane world, we need to do better.
Set forth below are: (1) General considerations that offer a context for working on our authoritarian relationships; and (2) specific guidelines for operating more effectively – as a subordinate and as a boss.
- In contrast to our intimate relationships, trust is often an unrealistic goal in our authoritarian relationship. Withholding of information, manipulation, outright lying – these sorts of behaviors are far too readily condoned. For this reason, the issue of where set the appropriate boundary is, typically, of much greater importance in authoritarian relationships – for bosses and subordinates alike. Continuing attention to safety is essential.
- In certain extraordinary situations – where both the boss and the subordinate are committed to a common goal and understand its implications – an authoritarian relationship may evolve into one that is more co-equal and intimate. But these situations uncommon, exceptions to the rule. In the typical authoritarian relationship, the goal needs to be more limited: To create an environment in which common tasks can be attended to in a civil and mutually respectful way.
- On the other hand, working to make our authoritarian relationships function better does not mean that we should accept them as an inevitable, at work or in any other part of our lives. To the contrary, the larger goal – described in Lichtenberg’s Encountering Bigotry – is to create co-equal and democratic relationships in all areas of living. But even as we do this more transformational work, we need invest our current authoritarian reality – one that has existed for thousands of years – with more decency and respect. Properly conceived, this intermediate work – the subject of the guidelines set forth below – is an invaluable part of this larger change process.
Guidelines for Subordinates
- Set appropriate boundaries. Choose an appropriate level of intimacy. Tend to your emotional needs.
Explanation: Self- protection is job 1. If a boss is unsafe and dangerous, a firm boundary and little or no intimacy is called for. This is how you keep yourself safe. If you make this choice, remember that sharing any emotion – including anger and annoyance – is an act of intimacy. It should only be done if it serves your strategic purposes. Tending to your emotional needs may include techniques such a remembering to breathe, slowing down your communications, and so on.
- Express yourself with civility. Engage the boss where he or she is. Be respectful, understanding and sympathetic to his needs – both practical and emotional.
Explanation: A boss’ bullying, aggressive tone is likely to provoke annoyance, defensiveness, or an emotional shut down. But these reactions perpetuate the fight or flight dynamic that the boss’ attacking behavior invites. And this is the territory in which authoritarian relationships flower. The goal, therefore, is to defuse this fight/flight dynamic by dealing with the substance of the boss’ “request” calmly and with respect.
- If, and as, it becomes a realistic possibility, be open and vivid with your thoughts and feelings; forthrightly asking for what you want and need.
Explanation: This is an important step if, over time, you hope to establish a healthier, more egalitarian relationship with the boss. But it needs to be exercised with caution. Absent the rare, truly decent boss, you will first need to clearly establish your value to the organization and, even then, do it judiciously.
- Be alive to injustice and indecency, and to the possibility of seeking accountability for it – from yourself and others.
Explanation: Surviving and maintaining viability at work are vitally important goals. But we are people first and workers second. Sometimes you will feel the need to stand up to a bullying boss – to maintain the integrity of your life priorities (decency to self), or to be in solidarity with others. Because you are in an authoritarian relationship, however, you need to understand and be willing to accept potential consequences when such a step is taken.
Guidelines for Bosses
- Set appropriate boundaries. Choose an appropriate level of intimacy. Tend to your emotional needs.
Explanation: Given your power, you can often express your anger, frustration and judgment with seeming impunity. Don’t do it. Strive, instead, to communicate your message without sharing extraneous, bullying emotions. Seek to keep interactions emotionally safe by making knowing choices about what to share; and by politely discouraging a subordinate’s inappropriate or unsafe sharing of his or her emotions.
- Clearly and forthrightly ask for what you want and need but, at the same time, express yourself with respect and civility.
Explanation: As the boss it is all too easy to avoid a difficult conversation; to stay silent rather than asking for what you want and need. Doing so, however, reduces the possibility for constructive dialogue and, with it, a healthier relationship and more satisfactory solutions. At the same time you might, in a tense conversation, become terse, strident or judgmental. Your goal should be to deliver a clear message but to do with respect and civility.
- Listen fully to your subordinate. Attend as well to her nonverbal cues. Seek to understand her feelings. Help her to feel fully heard.
Explanation: A person who feels fully listened is more likely to receive your message in a non-defensive way and, therefore, to engage in constructive problem solving. So attend fully to the content of the subordinate’s message, nonverbal as well as verbal. And remember, hearing well isn’t enough. You also need to let him know that he has, indeed, been heard and understood.
- If the subordinate’s reaction is emotional, strive to remain open. If a breakdown in communication occurs, strive to do the necessary repair work.
Explanation: Your subordinate may well react emotionally; with anger, defensiveness, sullen silence, or tears. You are best served by being patient with such a reaction. Tend to these emotions first. If they can be soothed, the chances for a constructive dialogue will be greatly improved.
- Be accepting of areas of difference. Seek compromises that accommodate difference. Failing that, be clear about consequences.
Explanation: Dictating the result is seldom optimal. Morale is likely to suffer. Better to seek a workable solution that accommodates difference. But if that isn’t possible, be clear about what you want and the consequences that will follow if there is a failure to follow through.
I am 69 years old and have been an active observer and participant in the political process for 50 years. I think I know a lot – and maybe I do. But I recently read psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt’s analysis and my reaction to it raises a key issue, the subject of this Reflection.
Seeking to do better – to be a constructive force for change – we need to be humble before our chosen task. Why? Because every one of us is deeply immersed in the mainstream culture and, thus, in its problematic values. That is the water we swim in; the base line set of values we are weaned on as we move through our grade and test obsessed schools, and seek a vocational home in a world that honors, above all else, those who “win.”
An inevitable corollary to this deep and thorough embedding of the mainstream culture’s values is their tenacious pull in, and over, our lives. In a myriad of ways – some obvious, some surpassingly subtle – we have internalized the mainstream culture’s ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. And because we are creatures of habit, neurologically wired to do in the future what we’ve done in the past, weaning ourselves from these ways of being is enormously difficult. We push unwanted habits out the front door only to find that they have slipped back in through a side window.
That is why, when it comes to Radical Decency, one of my consistent mantras is this: We can never leave kindergarten. We need to constantly review the philosophy’s basics and always be open to seeing still another way in which the culture’s mainstream habits have reasserted themselves in our lives.
Haidt’s book reminded me of this crucial lesson in the following way.
Drawing on a massive body of empirical data, the author suggests that we humans are programmed, by evolution, to make moral judgment along six dimensions: (1) Care/harm; (2) liberty/oppression; (3) fairness/cheating; (4) loyalty/betrayal; (5) authority/subversion; (6) sanctity/degradation. He then goes on to theorize that, while liberally inclined people (like me) emphasize the first 2 areas conservatives are influenced by all 6, with a reduced emphasis on items 1 and 2.
Haidt’s analysis brought me up short. Continually exposed to the shrill, opportunistic and debased versions of conservatism (and liberalism) that dominate our politics, I too easily lose sight of the important moral considerations that motivate conservatives. My distressingly strong tendency is to dismiss the positions – even of thoughtful conservatives – as disingenuous makeweights, designed to manipulate the public’s ignorance and prejudices, so that unaccountable elites can accumulate ever-increasing amounts of power and wealth.
Haidt’s book didn’t shake my belief in a political agenda that stresses decency. To the contrary, living in a culture in which all 6 of Haidt’s moral dimensions are consistently marginalized to an ethic that rewards “winners” – those who, by whatever means, dominate and control others – Radical Decency is the strong medicine we need to effect fundamental change.
But it did remind me of how easily – like a good, card-carrying member of the mainstream culture – I judge and dismiss the beliefs of people who differ from me.
So, for example, Haidt reminds me that “sanctification” – rules and rituals such as those that enjoin Jews to eat kosher or limit their activities on Shabbat – reflects a deeply human instinct that is, at its best, a wonderfully creative way to make our chosen morality a living, day by day reality. With this understanding, I can better appreciate the reaction of fundamentalist Christians to policies that seem to disregard sanctified aspects of their lives, including celibacy before marriage, monogamy, and the holiness of procreation.
Haidt’s insights are a powerful “back to kindergarten” reminder of how easy it is to lose my decency focus; to honor its principles only with “people like me.” to say, in effect, to people I disagree with: Radical Decency is a vitally important life and world changing perspective – and as soon as you offer it to me, I will be sure to return the favor.
Needless to say, “back to kindergarten” reminders regularly come up in our more intimate relationships as well, often around our gender-trained roles.
Take Robert and Marge, for example. They totally get that they are partners – both working, raising the kids, creating a family and life. Given this understanding, Robert realizes that judging his wife’s performance is not a part of his job description. To the contrary, while their styles differ, they are both fully competent managers of the enterprise. In short, Robert (like Marge) understands the pitfalls of our cultural engrained patriarchal patterns and knows how to take effective countermeasures.
But despite their good efforts, situations such as this one occur with depressing regularity – even with Robert and Marge.
For months, the need to find a more economic phone plan had been one of those chores – on his list, in theory – which never quite getting done. Seizing the moment, she called the phone company, talked to the kids, and dealt with the problem. His response when she told him? A series of questions and suggestions: Did you think of this? Did you do that? Maybe you should have done it this way.
If we didn’t live in a patriarchal culture this interaction might be unexceptional. But notwithstanding all of the changes that have occurred over the last 40 years, gender-based authoritarian patterns reassert themselves with remarkable persistence. Raised as men, Robert (and I) slip unawares into authoritarian tones and perspectives. And when our spouses complain, we far too often plead innocence in an aggrieved tone that only perpetuates the pattern: “I was only making a suggestion.” “Why are you so sensitive?”
In other words, we men need always to remember how engrained these patterns are and how easily they can reassert themselves. On this issue, for most of us men, staying in kindergarten is vitally important.
And the women we love – equally products of our patriarchal culture – need to be humble kindergarteners as well.
If patriarchy were simply an artifact of the past, Marge wouldn’t feel oppressed by Robert’s comments. Instead, she would brush them aside as my friend did when, newly living with her romantic partner, she was given to do list as he left for work. Her response? To tear the list in two and return it to him with these words: “If you ever give me another list, I’ll be out of here so fast it will make you head spin.”
But things are seldom that simple for women. Groomed by our culture to tend to the needs of others, their gut emotional reaction to a partner’s sharp comments is, all too often, one of inadequacy. “I have fallen short.” “I have failed to meet his needs.” Consistently leaning against these engrained patriarchal reactions is important, ongoing kindergarten work for so many women.
And, for most all of us, there is the vital kindergarten work that needs to be done as we deal with the endless ways in which the culture pushes us to ride roughshod over our wants, needs and emotions:
- To hide and suppress every blemish and vulnerability – to be a winner;
- To shirk on sleep, leisure, and time with the kids – to get ahead;
- To slip into devastating self-judgment – when we fall short.
The lesson in all of this? We need – always – to remain humble before the extraordinarily difficult work of weaning ourselves from our culturally engrained habits; habits that, unawares, repeatedly pull us away from our practice of decency in our politics, our intimate relationships, our relationship with ourselves – indeed, in virtually every other area of living.
As we move through each of our days, one of Radical Decency’s great challenges is to notice the many situations in which the culture’s norms reassert themselves and, then, to lean hard against them even as we cultivate new habits of living that allow them to recede and wither.
With intention, imagination, persistence, and lots of support – who knows – we may even graduate from kindergarten. But don’t count on it!
Dale, my wife, and I were hiking the desert in Sedona, Arizona some years ago. Finding a cozy crevice in the rocks, we watched the sun set. Dale was enraptured, seemingly breathing in this glorious moment with every cell in her body. Me? I liked it. I noticed the beautiful colors and felt the soft desert breeze. Pretty soon, however, I was glancing at my watch, wondering when we would be leaving and where we’d go for dinner.
In a bookend scene, Dale and I are driving in the car and a song comes on – one of many that I carry around in my soul. Now, it is my turn to be transported. It seems to take over my very being, deeply soothing my body and brain. Every musical phrase is inside me. The words come pouring out of my mouth, not as remembered phrases, but from a deep place chiseled within my brain where they (like hundreds of other lyrics) seem ever ready to emerge as soon as this or that tune begins.
And Dale? She attends to the song – often at my urging – and does enjoy it. But with utter predictability, her attention wanders and she starts talking (a sacrilege in my world!) after the initial verse and chorus.
I share these stories because they point to a key, easily overlooked, aspect of who we are and, thus, of the challenge we face as we seek to grow into the person we hope to become.
In seeking to live differently and better, there are many things we need to learn. Thus, for example, I often point out that our seriously out of whack culture encourages up to think and act in ways that are plainly destructive to our sense of well-being: Perfectionism, an obsession with winning, fear of vulnerability, a compulsively acquisitive mindset, and so on. In a committed Radical Decency practice we are always learning more open, relational, loving, and self-loving ways of living and, in the process, weaning ourselves from these painful habits of mind.
For most of us as well, the things we need to learn also involve fairly obvious ways of interacting that interfere with our ability to create and sustain relationships and, more generally, to live well: The man with a hair trigger temper; the woman who experiences debilitating anxiety in social situations.
But there is a far less obvious, and vital, aspect of our growth work that the examples from my marriage illustrate – and that is coming to understand those parts of being that we profoundly don’t know; that is, learning to speak Mandarin when, for your entire life, you have only spoken English.
In my case, knowing what I don’t know – my particular brand of Mandarin – is in the visual and tactile realm. While I do, in my way, appreciate color, form, and the visceral texture of nature, there is something that goes on in Dale’s mind, body, and heart that I am unable to access. And in the auditory realm of music, there is an analogous part that is intuitive to me but not to Dale.
While these examples create no immediate pain or dysfunction, they are not in the least trivial. Living well very much requires us to address depression, anxiety and other spirit draining states of mind. But that work does define its limits. To the contrary, our minds and bodies offer a myriad of potentialities – intellectual and emotional, tactile and kinesthetic, intuitive and spiritual – and being open to all of them expands and enriches our possibilities in life.
When we develop an abiding curiosity about those areas of living that are beyond our intuitive understanding, we also expand our ability to relate a broader range of people – and to relate more fully to our most intimate companions in life since, like Dale, they will inevitably inhabit areas of living that are Mandarin to us.
The place where “knowing what you don’t know” takes on an extra sense of immediacy and consequence is when familiarity with that territory is deeply implicated in a person’s ability to overcome a dysfunctional pattern. When it stands in the way of her ability to live well.
Take Nick, for example. He loves his wife and, to him, she is just as attractive as she was when they got together 20 years ago. And yet their sex life has gone off the rails. His desire is down and, at times, performance issues have come up. He arrived in my psychotherapy office when his wife discovered his pre-occupation with online pornography.
When our work began, it focused quite naturally on the dysfunction in his sex life. But what emerged over time was a profound disconnect from his needs. When she would ask where they should go to dinner his invariable, automatic response was, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.” Similarly at work, where he is a valued employee, it never occurred to him to tell the boss that he preferred to focus on a particular aspect of their work.
In these, and in many other areas of living, Nick’s failure to speak up was not about fear or shyness. Indeed, at a conscious level, he wasn’t even frustrated. It’s just that expressing a need or desire never occurred to him.
This was, it turned out, profoundly a place where “he didn’t know what didn’t know;” his particular brand of Mandarin. And, what we came to see over time was that it was a key to understanding his sexual malfunction.
In the bedroom, while Nick could attend to her, he was wholly unable to ask for – or to take – what he wanted since, quite literally, he had no idea what it was. The result: Their sex life lacked the mutuality – the reciprocal passion and spontaneity – so essential to its long-term health.
Failing to understand this, his wife never complained. After all, he was so sweet to her and so attentive to her needs. And since, at a conscious level, he was utterly unaware of what his needs were, his body simply quit on him. The pay off from dutiful sex was tepid and going for what he wanted utterly foreign territory.
The key here is to distinguish Nick from a person who is afraid to ask for what he wants or stops doing so because his partner is indifferent or dismissive. In these situations the pattern that needs to be changed – once it is named — typically makes intuitive sense to both parties. In this environment, the necessary change work, hard as it is, can happen since each party has an intuitive understanding of what they need to change and how to do it.
In Nick’s case however – and in other cases where profound not knowing is at play – the revealed pattern typically seems theoretical and unreal until, that is, he is somehow able to develop some sense of the look and feel of Mandarin.
So what can be done in these situations to facilitate healing and growth?
This question frustrates me since in most cases – mine included – Mandarin will, at best, remain a second language; unintuitive and halting. So while there are many things Nick and his wife can do to improve their situation they will never, in all likelihood, “solve” this core issue.
But that does not mean the effort should not be made. Success in changing a more accessible behavioral pattern – an anger issue or social anxiety – is important and life affirming.
But the larger truth is this: There is something uniquely profound, soul and, ultimately, healing and transformational about the understandings, however, imperfect, that can come our way when we are genuinely curious about, and determinedly open to, the things in life that are beyond our initiative grasp. We do well to embrace them, not just in our immediate healing work as with Nick, but in our day by day ways of living as well.
And so it was when Dale and I recently visited an exhibit of Cezanne landscapes at the Barnes.
I have also had a special affinity for his work. But that day, at that exhibit, something very special happened. Part of it was the brilliance of the written commentary – something that clearly spoke to my native, analytic language. And some of it also had to do with the pictures chosen for the exhibit. Finally – I strongly suspect – my mood that day, and in that moment, played a pivotal role.
In any event, as I went through the exhibit, I accessed something that felt entirely new: A deeply intuitive appreciation of the breath, virtuosity and profundity of Cezanne’s’ visual expressions.
This aspect of living never will be available to me in the way it is to Dale. But, by remaining open to possibilities – and to Dale’s role as my teacher in this area of living – I am able to experience moments such of these. They are, truly, one of life’s precious gifts.
R.W. Miller, the author of this Reflection, is a transactional lawyer from New York. He is a conservative/libertarian leaning Mets and Jets fan. In other words, he likes to suffer. His Reflection eloquently exemplifies one of my strongest informing beliefs. In the political realm, Radical Decency is not the special preserve of progressives. Creating mechanisms that allow the many decent people, from across the political spectrum, to find one another and work together is vitally important aspect of our work.
Picture this: a baseball diamond in Anywhere, USA. The grass is green, the base paths are dirty brown and the kids are a mix of smiles and frowns. A little league baseball game has just ended. What comes next? Any former little leaguer can tell you: a handshake line. The winners and losers shake hands and congratulate each other on a good game.
Change the scene: we’re at a different sort of baseball diamond now. We’re at a big league park. It’s night time after a hard day of work for the adults and school for the kids. The home team has lost and it’s time for the handshake line. The victorious visitors line up…and shake each others’ hands.
What on earth was THAT about?
It’s easy to blame the decline in our nation’s value system on competitiveness. After all, the big leaguers are in the competition business. Nearly every day from the beginning of February until (the fans hope) the beginning of November, those guys go out to try to win a ballgame. They are playing for their livelihoods, their families, their teammates. Some even play for the fans who cheer their names and buy their jerseys. But by that theory, the local kids shouldn’t be too worried about their game. They’ll have food on the table, win or lose. Funny thing is, though, those kids are playing as hard as any big leaguer, if not harder. But we, as a society, have decided that kids should be taught to demonstrate good sportsmanship: to congratulate winners and losers alike for their efforts and to put competition aside at the end of the game.
Yet somehow we let those values slip away as those kids become adults. We allow ourselves to forget that our opponents are also human beings, deserving of respect, even if their values conflict with our own. Values are a lot more complex than a box score. The number of runs scored in a ballgame is objective; the proper balance between, for example, the rights of the religious and LGBT communities is not. Not long ago, some conservatives termed themselves “values voters” because they were casting votes in accordance with the teachings of their religions, which were not friendly to what they would refer to as the lifestyles of the LGBT community. Liberals, more supportive of groups like the LGBT community, were often hostile towards the expressions of “values.”
Looking at politics today, the tables have turned. Liberals aggressively assert their values while conservatives demand liberties and freedoms. The liberals and their values seem to be winning the culture wars while conservatives try to preserve their rights to be themselves. On the defensive, they have turned to leaders who offer the protections they seek, however personally offensive such officials may be.
In March of 2015, the New York Mets decided to invite Billy Bean, a former major league baseball player who “came out’ as gay after ending his career, to meet with the team to discuss his experiences and a future in which a player like Bean would not have to hide his sexual orientation. The Mets being a New York team, media attention followed. One player was particularly willing to discuss the event, a (then) little known second baseman named Daniel Murphy.
Murphy was a religious man with strong values. The previous year, he angered some fans by missing opening day for the birth of his first child. In spite of his defensive shortcomings (we Mets fans will never recover), he was viewed as a guy who “played the game right,” which generally means he played hard every day and acted like a professional and a good sport. Murphy informed a reporter that while he disagreed with Bean’s “lifestyle,” he would be amenable to having an openly gay teammate, that he could foresee accepting and learning to love such a teammate, just as he loved his wife despite disagreements with her, and that he was glad the Mets had invited Bean. The New York newspapers spoke the next day: Daniel Murphy was a homophobe.
To many conservatives, Murphy’s views were reasonable. Some viewed homosexuality as a sin, but sin is commonplace. To those with the most committed religious opposition and those who simply felt uncomfortable sharing a locker room with someone attracted to men (modesty being another value), Murphy seemed quite progressive. Those with “live and let live” attitudes (like myself) saw Murphy as accepting reality and working to reconcile his values with the recently updated ones of society at large. Seeing Murphy denounced as a homophobe because his statements of acceptance were not phrased according to the dictates of “political correctness” was jarring. It suggested that in the new liberal order, tolerance was intolerable and acceptance was unacceptable. Nothing less than positive affirmation would suffice, even at the cost of deeply and sincerely held values.
A few months later, confirmation of that fear arrived in the form of a federal appellate court decision. Jack Philips, a Christian baker, had broken the law when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, in a state that, at the time, did not recognize gay marriage. Philips, proprietor of the now-notorious Masterpiece Cakeshop, was no common bigot. He was a deeply religious man who refused to make a variety of cakes on the basis of his values: he did not bake cakes he thought promoted alcohol consumption (such as for a bachelor party), turned away valuable business for Halloween each year and refused to produce messages of racism. He did not turn away gay customers, agreeing to sell them anything that did not require him to violate his defined principles. When the state ordered him to produce cakes for gay weddings or get out of the business entirely, he opted for the latter, costing himself 40% of his profits.
To a conservative seeking to live a radically decent life, whether under that term or simply in accordance with his own values, the Murphy and Philips cases are deeply troubling. Both men did their best to reconcile their beliefs with the new world and both were punished when their efforts were deemed insufficient according to standards that felt about five minutes old. They did not close themselves off from others, nor did they push their views on those with whom they disagreed. Their attempts at compromise yielded only censure.
As a more libertarian conservative in the liberal “bubble” of New York, I am familiar with the constant threat of social ostracism or outright legal sanction felt by those whose values are not currently favored. While personally supportive of gay rights, I have no passion for the cause. I do not keep up with the latest PC terminology. I might, like Murphy, refer to the “gay lifestyle,” meaning no offense. I am, however, extremely protective of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Our rights to express ourselves and follow our religions are uniquely strong in the US. But they must be carefully guarded, lest those who do not fully appreciate their value undermine them in favor of the latest cause. That must include, however, those whose speech offends us and those whose religions conflict with our own beliefs.
To his credit, Billy Bean understood that Murphy’s openness was an encouraging sign for future gay athletes. Bean further reminded those who read his commentary that inclusion means everyone, including Murphy, who had been nothing but respectful to him (and with whom he would maintain an ongoing dialogue). To me, Bean and Murphy were both examples of men living radically decent lives, along with Jack Philips. Though their views may have been different, they did not shrink from those with whom they differed. Nor did they back down from their sincerely held beliefs, attempting, however imperfectly, to balance respect for themselves with acceptance of others.
As for the men who sued Philips, I find their actions fundamentally indecent. They chose to seek punishment for their disagreement, rather than respecting Philips’s commitment to his values and stated openness to doing business with them on non-conflicting terms.
If we want to have the kind of society envisioned by those who teach little leaguers to shake their opponents’ hands, we must commit ourselves to treating each other decently, especially in moments of conflict. As the proverb, both biblical and, partially, the title for a famous play about conflicts of religious and secular values, tells us “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Our national house is troubled. It is up to every one of us to ensure we inherit a thriving, united nation, instead of the proverbial wind.
Radical Decency was created to answer this question: Living in an endemically indecent world, how can we create better lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world? In response, it offers – not an answer – but a process: Of reflection, dialogue, support and collaboration, trial and error, guided always by our values-based approach to living.
This reflection exemplifies this ever-exploratory aspect of the philosophy. Being a psychotherapist, you never stop learning – and never know where the next area of insight and growth will be. Some time ago, now, I realized that my practice included a group of powerful, assertive women who had, what I call, curious power outages. Often, but not always, it was around men: The felt need to placate or put a romantic partner, father, or other significant male first. Working with these women has heightened my sense of how the culture’s gender-based stereotypes play out in the lives of women, the topic of this week’s Reflection.
I have run men’s groups and written about men for many years, and do so with some confidence. Writing about women, however, is different since in key areas I lack the “gut knowing” that comes from shared experience. But assuming an unbridgeable gap in understanding between the genders would defeat our larger purposes. A radically decent relationship requires respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, and acceptance. And these qualities can only emerge if we feel fully capable of understanding the other’s reality. So here are some of my insights about being a woman in this culture, gleaned from my journey of discovery, first of all, with my wife Dale – my teacher and partner in every sense of the word – and with the amazing group of women in my practice. I offer it with what is, I hope, appropriate deference.
Women are, without question, pushed by the culture toward care-taking dispositions. To illustrate this point, Terence Real and Carol Gilligan tell the following story. 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 ask, “what do you want?”
13-year-old girls – and 30-year-old women – don’t stop wanting their pizza with mushrooms and onions. But engrained in their habitual way of being is a reflexive instinct to compromise their needs to the perceived needs of others. So when it comes to setting appropriate boundaries in their relationships – boundaries that work for them – an inescapable conflict is created. Their wants and desires, often suppressed to the point of unconsciousness, are regularly at odds with their felt need to tend to others.
And even as girls are being socialized to be accommodating and compliant, a complementary process is pushing boys in the opposite direction: To be forceful and aggressive but to suppress their relational needs and desires.
When sex is added to the mix, this already confusing situation becomes even more complicated. Transacting the tricky business of sexual desire in this bifurcated world greatly exacerbates the conflict and confusion that women (and men) experience when is comes to setting appropriate relational boundaries.
Here’s how it works on the women’s side.
Teenage boys long for the relational closeness they are told they shouldn’t need. So starved for affection, touch and stroking, sex takes on inordinate importance – since it is the one place where they can get these needs met in a culturally condoned way.
Raised as men, they typically have no trouble asking for sex, often in deeply aggressive ways. The result? It is the rare women who, from her teenage years forward, hasn’t regularly faced significant male boundary crossing, much of it explicitly sexual.
Given this reality, here is the situation a teenage girl faces. Even as she struggles with her newly emerging sexual desire, she is required to deal with persistent male boundary crossing – and to do so in the context of an insistent, culturally groomed, internalized voice telling her to tend to her partner’s needs. This is a prescription for confusion and pain, not only for a teenage girl, but also for a 30-year-old woman, if she hasn’t cultivated the understanding and emotional tools needed to move beyond her engrained care-taking habits.
Note, very importantly, that this painful pattern plays out with equal force outside the bedroom as well. Men – engaging, unaware, in their part of this culturally dictated dance – regularly cross women’s boundaries in ways that are uninvited and overly aggressive: An unwanted sexualized look; a dirty joke; a rat-tat-tat of sarcastic comments that put the woman in her place; a fart followed by a smirking laugh. Given women’s boundary confusion, their ability to clearly and unambiguously respond to these sorts of behaviors is, all too often, compromised as well.
For women – and men – moving beyond this engrained cultural dance is a vital but tricky business. One significant obstacle is the fact that, while we internalize our gender roles, we are also deeply inducted into the pattern itself. So when women “turn the tables” – becoming sexual aggressors, skilled at emotionally dominating their partners – they do little to heal their boundary confusion. Instead, the pain of the culturally assigned woman’s role is exchanged for the confusion and pain of the man’s role – with the underlying pattern persisting with undiminished force.
The true path of healing requires disengagement from the pattern itself. Instead of fighting fire with fire – learning to be as aggressive and boundary crossing as men – women need to let go of their reflexive care taking habits. This does not mean that their nurturing acts of love should end. Instead, these acts need to become more and more volitional. She is should be able to warmly respond to her relational partner’s needs and longings but just as capably say no – to unwanted sex or to a pepperoni pizza.
What I see regularly see in my practice, even in the midst of my clients’ steady progress toward this new mindset, is a subtle and corrosive process that sucks them back toward their old ways.
So, for example, a woman, estranged but not separated from her husband, establishes a clear physical boundary and no sex rule. But instead of respecting her choices, the husband – in his instinctually male way – seeks to erode and push through her boundaries. He makes her morning coffee, offers unsolicited back rubs, and insinuates himself back into her bedroom and bed. She, in turn, groomed by the culture to be a caretaker, yields to this relentless pressure, inch by imperceptible inch. In the end, the physical and sexual distance she needs to feel safe is compromised.
Another women struggles with a sense of being judged by her husband as the dirty clothes accumulate in the hamper. He, like her, is aware of their gender-based patterns and seeks to do better: Making requests and not boundary crossing demands; pro-actively taking on house keeping chores. But despite their efforts, the old patterns persist and re-emerge. Why? Because his tone of voice and emotional energy communicate far more impatience than he thinks. And she, in turn, is primed to amplify whatever tone of insistence and judgment she perceives in his words and deeds: “My job is to tend to my husband, home and family and in his eyes – and mine – I am falling short.”
A third woman – my wife – is planning to spend Saturday with her girlfriends even though this is a time we usually reserve for each other. Not at my self-aware best, I slip into male boundary crossing behaviors: Annoyance and pouting.
When Dale (my wife) is on her emotional game she comfortably, and lovingly, maintains her autonomy and integrity leaving me with a reassuring hug and these words: “It’s nice to know that my leaving matters you, that I’ll be missed, that I’m loved so much.” But, at others times, my boundary pushing triggers her engrained care-giving habits of mind and – feeling guilty about her choice – she responds to my behaviors with defensiveness, anger, and withdrawal.
As these vignettes illustrate, women face an enormous challenge as they seek to move beyond their engrained care-taking habits of mind. The work requires new levels of understanding, awareness – and enormous persistence. It also requires the presence of mind and emotional bravery to make new, very different choices in the most trying of situations. But change is possible. Doing so, women can progressively let go of their old patterns, allowing their innate power and assertiveness to emerge.
Finally, because our gender roles are so enmeshed and reinforcing, we men need to recognize the vital role we can play in the growth work of the women in our lives. How? By tending to, and healing, our own gender-based ways of operating.
Indeed, aspiring to be the best possible husband, parent, friend and co-worker, nothing less will suffice.
If we hope to craft more effective change strategies, we need to come to grips with the dynamism of the predominant culture. A marvelously intricate and evolving system, it perpetuates and entrenches itself in so many ways.
Some of these processes are obvious: The aggressive, bullying, and self-aggrandizing attitudes and behaviors that pervade our culture. But many others are hidden and subtle, and we need to come to grips with these processes as well. Why? Because failing to do so, they operate unseen and without restraint in our lives, defeating by indirection our efforts to create a more decent life and world.
A number of these phenomena are discussed in earlier Reflections: # 8, Why We Aren’t Good Students; Why It Matters (the decline of critical thinking); # 22, Consumerism – and the Passivity it Breeds, #29, Losing Our Communal Roots; # 31, Perfectionism; and #51, Monumental Self-Absorption (our culturally distorted view of history).
In this Reflection, I discuss another of these processes: The ways in which we are deprived of public role models to guide and inspire us. In this area, as in so many others, there are multiple, mutually reinforcing cultural forces that lead to this result. Key aspects of this phenomenon are discussed below.
- Disqualifying potential leaders and role models.
This process flows directly out of the fact that we live in a culture permeated by a competitive, win/lose mindset: If someone else is up, I must be down.
Because we habitually view the world from this perspective – because we are in competition with everyone else – we reflexively judge others, looking for weaknesses and shortcomings. See Reflection 16, Mainstream Thinking – The Tyranny of Opinion and Judgment. As a result, we are experts, not at identifying and nurturing leaders, but at tearing them down.
When a person emerges as a potential leader, the mainstream media’s coverage is not saturated with stories that explore his or her strengths. Instead the hunt is on for disqualifying flaws and “gotcha” moments: Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my front porch;” Howard Dean’s scream; Bill Clinton’s sex life; Dan Quayle’s “you’re no John Kennedy” moment; Gary Hart’s illicit romp on the Monkey Business; Edmund Muskie’s tears in the snows of New Hampshire; and so on.
The result of this process is a debasement of the entire process of finding leaders and role models. Many of our best people avoid the public arena entirely. And those who don’t – and survive this cultural witch hunt – are, typically, cautious and deeply conventional people who have long since learned to hide, rather than share, their true humanity; hardly the sort of people who are capable of leading and inspiring by their example.
- Our confused understanding of the leaders we do have.
A second reason for the absence of inspiring role models lies in our confusion about the qualities we are looking for. We may think that we are seeking wise and decent leaders, but the truth is far more complicated. Over the last 40 years, a number of Presidents were seemingly decent men attempting to make thoughtful and responsible decisions including, for example, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush.
The fact that Ford, Carter, and the elder Bush each failed to get re-elected is not, it seems to me, a coincidence. Why? Because, in a culture that puts its highest priority on winning, moderation, reflection, and decency are associated with weakness and the lack of a killer instinct. The result? We have visceral doubts about leaders who exhibit these qualities.
Note, importantly, that the need to feel like a winner – and, with it, the tendency to associate decency with weakness – deeply infiltrates the worldview even of people who view themselves as progressive. It is not just conservatives who view Jimmy Carter as a failed President. And the reason, I think, has less to do with what he did or didn’t do and more to do with the fact that he “lost.”
Progressives may say they want leaders and role models who transcend the mainstream culture’s values. But, then, they judge our leaders by the very win/lose values they purport to condemn. So, for example, Obama was negatively judged for persisting in his efforts to nurture a fruitful dialogue during the budget crises that have marked his years in office. Why? Because he dominate, control, and “win.” And yet – granting that the compromises he agreed to had real consequences – isn’t the pursuit of a civil dialogue as, or more, important than Congress’ vote on the issue du jour?
Progressives seemed far more comfortable with Bill Clinton who “won” by triangulating the opposition – code for embracing dismantling the welfare system and financial deregulation. Thus, while he may have given away the store substantively, he allowed mainstream progressives feel like “winners” in their competition against the right.
- Domesticating and marginalizing our heroes.
When a leader who is the real deal does actually emerge, the mainstream culture’s first line of defense is the tearing down process described above. But when that fails, a more subtle process takes hold. The leader is “embraced” by the mainstream culture but is, in the process, transformed into a pale, domesticated version of himself. Over time, as increasingly mainstream stories are told and re-told about him, he is absorbed into a larger cultural narrative that supports and reinforces the very mainstream ways of operating he worked so hard to change.
The most vivid, recent example is Martin Luther King. Here is a man who was committed to fundamental change. He fought against inequity and injustice wherever he saw it; fearlessly risking his life and freedom for the cause; dying as he lived, working to bring economic justice to Memphis’ sanitation workers. His activism, tireless organizing, and nonviolent tactics offered a vivid roadmap for more effectively confronting entrenched privilege and power.
But, now, 40 years after his death, we are left with a safely domesticated, hollowed out version of the man. In our collective, mainstream memory he is remembered, and celebrated, as the leader of the movement – now a fading historical artifact – to end de jure segregation in the South.
De-emphasized to the point of invisibility are the broader, more enduring aspects of his legacy: His campaigns against systemic racism, economic injustice, and American imperialism, as well as his legacy of activism, organizing, and nonviolent confrontation. In other words, the culture has obscured the very things that could make him a vital role model for those of us who long to create a better world.
Historically, the most significant example of this domestication process is Jesus. In The First Coming, a book that exhaustively teases out the known details of his life, the philosopher, Thomas Sheehan, describes a man who was wholly committed to challenging power and fundamentally changing the world in which he lived. But Sheehan then describes a process that, within 60 years of his death, relegated his radical “here and now” vision to the relative margins of the movement, created in his name.
In Sheehan’s telling, as each gospel was written, Jesus was progressively transformed into a messiah who, instead of challenging us to create God’s kingdom in this world, promised salvation in the next. And so, for the last two thousand years, his presence in our lives as an role model for activism and change has been largely superseded by the vision of a transcendent, other worldly messiah who, solely by his grace, bestows salvation; a vision that – not at all accidentally – condones and encourages passivity in the face of systemic injustice.
Radical Decency offers a roadmap that, by counteracting the processes described above, can support us in naming and reclaiming our role models and heroes.
It supports us in viewing others with respect, understanding, and empathy. And, as that mindset becomes habitual, we will become far more curious about what our leaders have to offer and far less willing to engage in the mainstream culture’s “gotcha” game of judgment and dismissal.
In addition, our ability to identify worthy leaders will increase as we evaluate them according Radical Decency’s values, asking over and over: Are they are actively looking for ways to be decent to themselves, others, and the world? Doing so, we will be much less susceptible to seduction by leaders who “talk the talk” but, then, compromise their goals – and ours – in order to provide the mainstream drug of “winning.”
Finally, Radical Decency will support us in the continuing the effort to reclaim the public stories of Jesus, Martin Luther King, and other authentic heroes, past and present, infusing them with the vision, activism, commitment, and fearlessness that made them great; reclaiming them as teachers and vital sources of inspiration.
Here is a settled thought that a lot of thinking and life experience has led me to: Making happiness your life goal is a self-defeating proposition. Indeed, if that is your central preoccupation, two unfortunate things are likely to result. First, you will gravitate toward activities that offer short-term endorphin hits – toys, games, sex, alcohol and drugs, and so on – neglecting, in the process, the more lasting rewards offered by long term, mutually nourishing relationships.
In addition, you are likely to wind up frustrated since, no matter how wealthy and privileged you are, you will inevitably encounter a slow waitress, a nasty co-worker, injury, illness and death. I am always amazed – but no longer surprised – at the levels of impatience and frustration exhibited by entitled people. Thinking that their wealth entitles them to a first class ticket in life, they so often feel instantly aggrieved when the least little things goes wrong – hardly a model of happiness.
So is there a more productive path to a happy life? The answer is, I think, yes. The key is to understand our basic biological and psychological processes and, then, to craft an approach to living that while, respecting their reality, nurtures our better nature. In this model, happiness is not the goal. Instead, it is a by-product of the choices we make.
The starting place for me is a series of interrelated orienting frames offered by three of our more generative psychological theorists: Daniel Siegel, Jordan Peterson, and Martin Seligman.
According to Siegel, if life is a river, with one bank representing safety and the other aliveness, the challenge is to creatively integrate and balance the two. An adequate level of safety and predictability is vital to avoid feeling chaotic and out of control. But, equally important, are novelty and aliveness lest we crater on the river’s other shore, creating a life that is drab and flat.
Peterson offers a more pointed, physiological version of the same concept:
Your nervous system being an evolutionary structure is evolved for a universe that is composed of the interaction between chaos and order. Everywhere you go is chaos and order. And the optimally meaningful life is to be found on the border between the two. Your nervous system tells you exactly when you are there, because you’re secure enough to be confident but not so secure that you’re bored. You’re interested enough to be awake but not so interested that you’re terrified. When you’re in that state, when you find things interesting and meaningful, time slips by and you’re no longer self-conscious.
Finally, there is Martin Seligman’s story about the famous biologist, now in his 70s, who arrives at his lab first early one morning and starts to examine samples in his microscope. Suddenly, the slides became blurry and difficult to see. His immediate, heart-stopping thought: Is my eyesight failing? Is my ability to do the thing I love the most in life at an end? Then he looks up and realizes that the sun has gone down.
This optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state, that each of these thinkers describes, seems like an excellent end point to strive for in our search for happiness. And Peterson goes on to offer a tangible, day-by-day practice to help us to get from here to there.
Beginning at a place where you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, how do you get to a more knowing place? If you follow your internal intuitions and are honest about them, a star – the thing that makes your life meaningful – will appear to guide you. You’ll take some tentative steps in that direction, get a little ways, and think “no that’s wrong.” Then your life’s meaning will appear over there, and you’ll take a few steps in that direction and see that that is wrong too. But you keep chasing it, moving forward, doing things. And because you’re honest with yourself, you learn from your mistakes and get wiser and wiser. Then, 20 years down the road, you won’t be making so many mistakes.
To the same point is this from Virginia Satir:
My growth exists in new territory, step by step. One step ahead, see what’s there, to the right or left, whatever seems to have the most space. Does it fit for me? I cannot map it out ahead of time. That’s how it is in the unknown. Take a step, then see where I can go, keeping in mind where I might like to end up. I may end up somewhere else; maybe at a place better than what I thought of. But that is the way, step by step.
Notice that, to this point, I have described a remarkably value-free approach to happiness. In theory, this path could lead to drugs, or compulsive sexual conquests, or the endless pursuit of wealth and privilege. But my gut has always told me that this isn’t – couldn’t – be true. And in a more recent lecture/podcast, “The Necessity of Virtue,” Peterson explains why.
He begins his analysis with one of Buddhism’s fundamental premises: That being – life – is suffering. He then references Cain, who railed against God for favoring Abel and, then, killed his brother.
What is Peterson’s understanding of the story? Cain screwed up. He failed to accept the fact that, living in an indifferent universe, the suffering that came his way was inevitable. Instead, he committed the cardinal “Buddhist” mistake of inflicting additional pain on himself and others in his vain attempt to deny and reverse this reality.
This parable, according to Peterson, is foundational. When we emerged into self-consciousness as a species – the very thing that makes us unique – the first thing we became aware of was our own vulnerability and, with it, the inevitability of suffering. And our instinctual move, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, was to recoil from it; to cover-up, hide, and deny it.
The problem with this approach? When we deny our vulnerability and attempt to control our destiny, we no longer view another’s good fortune and our bad luck as happenstance, to be accepted with equanimity. Instead, we envy the other’s fate and curse our own. I can – and should – have what he has. Just as it was for Cain, this mindset leads inexorably toward insensitivity and cruelty. We are primed to either take what the other person has or, in our bitter frustration, to destroy this (illusory) object of fate’s beneficence.
A journey toward happiness requires honesty about who we are and what our fate is. Failing to fully account for our vulnerability and suffering, we will be trapped in “Cain-like” habits of living: Drawn to manipulation and diminishment of others, isolating ourselves in the process, inviting retaliation. We will also brutalize ourselves by vainly seeking to suppress the fear, confusion, and sadness that so inconveniently remind us of our vulnerability.
However, when we accept our vulnerability and let go of our doomed efforts to dominate our world and control outcomes, all kinds of more hopeful possibilities emerge. And this is where Radical Decency enters to picture.
Being radically decent – respectful, understanding and empathic; accepting and appreciative; fair and just – is a perplexing and wisdom stretching challenge, even in the best of circumstances. But living, as we do, in a culture that so powerfully indoctrinates us into a fundamental lie – the myth of our invulnerability – the task is vastly more difficult. For this reason, A committed Radical Decency’s practice virtually demands an ever-deepening understanding of the life’s complexities and realities including, crucially, the vulnerability and suffering that so fundamentally define our existence.
Why? Because failing to understand these realities – so we can deal with them more effectively in our day-by-day choices – we will be inexorably pulled toward the dominating and controlling behaviors that our culture endlessly models and promotes. And in their wake will come isolation, self-judgment, and sense of failure; hardly a prescription for the happiness we long for!
On the other hand, a full throttled commitment to Radical Decency impels us toward mindsets that are less judgmental and more curious and open. Pre-occupied with the tricky and consuming task of operationalizing this approach to living, the culture’s conventional outlooks wither from neglect. And, on the flip side, attending to the demands of a committed Radical Decency practice will cultivate a deepening sense of empathy for our self and others; a state of mind will, in turn, lead to an increasing acceptance of the vulnerability and suffering that is our lot in life.
And where does this lead? To an ever-deepening sense of: Living in the present (lessening shame about the past, fear about the future, and need to control); clarity and coherence about our priorities (lessening confusion and anxiety about our choices; creating greater ease in living); and an ennobling sense of purpose (lessening hopelessness and despair; creating an increased sense of pleasure in living). See Reflection #13, Decency Is Its Own Reward.
The journey of the heart, that Peterson and Satir describe, can lead in endless directions. But so long as the journey is infused with a commitment to Radical Decency’s values, that is fine. We can trust the process, secure in the knowledge that we are moving toward a place that combines ease and vibrancy in living with that optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state of mind that is the hallmark of happiness.
In closing I want to emphasize that this Reflection deals with an aspect of Radical Decency that is personal and individual: How to create a more vibrant and nourishing life.
Focusing on this aspect of the philosophy, however, we always need to remember that Radical Decency encompasses far more than our internal, psychological world.
Equally indispensable is its effort to fully account for, and to neutralize, the indecencies that pervade our world. Why? Because, failing to do so, the values that dominate the mainstream culture will inevitably invade, diminish, and overwhelm our small, private islands of equanimity.
We need cultivate respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation; the “attitudinal” aspects of Radical Decency and the hallmarks of our personal journey. At the same time, however, we need to be equally committed to its change oriented “action” attributes – fairness and justice – in the choices we make, out there, in the real world. Decency to self, others, and the world need to be our lodestar – at all times, in every context, and without exception.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
As a proponent of Radical Decency, I am suggesting two things: (1) Make decency a priority in your life; and (2) apply it radically.
In another Reflection, I break “decency” down into a detailed set of attitudes and behaviors, the intent being to offer a concrete roadmap to support us in making day-by-day choices that are more decent. See Reflection #17, Decency Defined. In this Reflection, I deal with the “radical” side of the equation.
Viewed in isolation, Radical Decency’s component pieces are unexceptional. Be Respectful? Understanding? Empathic? Appreciative? Accepting? Fair? Just? Ask any person – even someone who is thoroughly invested in the mainstream culture’s competitive, win/lose mindsets – and he’s likely to say, “sure, no problem, all of these things are good.”
His response, however, is far more typically code for this: I will happily be understanding and empathic but only when it doesn’t interfere with my headlong pursuit of money and power. I will honor the idea of fairness and justice, but only when it requires no meaningful sacrifice on my part.
With these unspoken caveats, he is in fact expressing a deeply engrained mainstream approach to living that I call pick and chose decency: Be respectful, fair, just and so on when you can. But when it really counts “do what needs to be done.”
This approach is, of course, not decent at all.
Radical Decency is interesting and different, not because it promotes these values, but because it kneads them into a coherent, integrated whole and, then, applies them – not partially and when convenient – but at all times, in every context, and without exception. In other words, the philosophy’s transformative potential lies in its radical application.
In the discussion that follows, I elaborate on three elements that, as I see it, are indispensable to this radical approach.
- Make a positive, forward-looking vision your central focus. Don’t define yourself in reaction to others.
This principle is central to Radical Decency and a cornerstone of its radicalism. Taking this position puts me at odds – I know – with the dictum of Saul Alinsky, the legendary radical organizer who argues that successful organizing requires a designated enemy around which to coalesce, a model that has been integral to so many of recent history’s more visible radical movements: Labor’s struggles against management; the civil right’s movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s vs. the deep South’s belligerent racism; Reagan and the tea partiers vs. the Federal government, and so on.
For me, the disqualifying aspect of Alinsky’s “us vs. them” approach is that it fails to come to grips with the authoritarian, win/lose mindsets that permeate our culture and are at the root of its endemic indecency.
Here’s the problem.
The unspoken assumption in this approach is that, because “we” are good and right – and “they” are bad and wrong – what needs to be done, once we win, will be the easy part. Our self-evident goodness and rightness will point the way. With this mindset firmly in place, most radical movements spend remarkably little time on what is, in the end, the really crucial question: What are the concrete, day by day steps we would need to take to make things better, given the opportunity?
Unfortunately, the issues any truly radical movement takes on are, almost inevitably, complex and intractable. So, in the all too typical case, the leaders of successful radical movements – steeped in their self-righteous mindset, and glib take on “what do we do, once we win” – are utterly lacking in the skills needed to implement their visionary goals.
To the contrary, after years of struggle, what they have been thoroughly schooled in, know best – and have succeeded in – are the authoritarian, win/lose ways that were the hallmark of the status quo forces they worked so hard to overthrow. Thus, it is no surprise that, once in power, they wind up replicating the indecent ways of the people they supplanted; a lesson graphically illustrated by the fate of so many of history’s best known radical movements – the French and Russian Revolutions, Mao-ism, and so on.
Radical Decency seeks to avoid this trap. It starts, it is true, with an in depth analysis of the mainstream culture’s dysfunctional ways of operating. But the goal is not to identify, demonize, and defeat an enemy.
Instead, it seeks to understand the ways in which the mainstream culture neutralizes radical reform efforts so that it can put processes in place that avoid these pitfalls. Then, with these safe-guards in place, it focuses on the positive, forward looking agenda that defines Radical Decency: To understand what decency looks like, and to craft strategies that will allow us to implement it more effectively in all areas of living.
Radical Decency works to make “cure” – the tricky business of charting a different, more productive course – the touchstone of the philosophy; seeking to avoid the trap of offering one more robust rant against “what is” with far too little discussion of what can be done. True to that perspective, the balance of this Reflection deals with ways in which we can more effectively chart a solutions oriented “radical” course.
- Be strategic.
In our laissez faire, “do your own thing” culture the importance of a strategic outlook receives remarkably little attention. Here, once again, the culture’s taken for granted attitudes work beautifully – if you are looking for an approach that keeps us rooted in the status quo.
Prevailing attitudes about charitable giving offer an excellent example. People are urged to give. But strikingly absent is any societal pressure to make that giving strategic. Instead, we are effusively congratulated for any contribution, of any size, never mind that it might represent an infinitesimal fraction of our net worth and income. And a gift to a college with a multi-billion endowment is, in the mainstream view, just as commendable as a gift to an organization that is working with the neediest among us.
To be truly radical, we need to continually examine and re-examine our priorities. This process is incredibly complicated and often uncomfortable. How do you allocate your time, talent, and financial resources – day-by-day – between your family, your immediate communities, the larger world, and your own needs? Like so many other aspects of the philosophy, there are no easy answers. But as we willingly engage in this wisdom-stretching enterprise, we will more fully make good on the goal of creating a decency practice we can legitimately call radical.
One final thought on being strategic: We need to pay special attention to ways in which we can collaborate and integrate our efforts with others. Because the slope we need to climb as we seek to create a more decent life and world is so steep, we can’t take the easy, more comfortable route of pursuing our special passions only; offering little or no support to other vitally important initiatives.
- Be fully committed; “all in.”
Joseph Stalin was a mass murderer, responsible for the death of 60 million people. Jesus, an exemplary person, has been an inspiration to countless millions. But they were both radicals – and in one respect their message was identical.
When a wealthy man asked Jesus what he needed do to get eternal life, His response was: Give your possessions to the poor and follow me. Similarly, after the collapse of the 1905 revolution, when so many of his compatriots got married and found jobs, Stalin railed in frustration: “You cannot be a householder and a revolutionary.”
Being “all in” is a tough discipline as the Bible recognizes when it reports that the rich man went away sad. But Jesus and Stalin were right. If you conclude that fundamental change is needed you cannot commit yourself to the process halfway. You have to be willing to risk all: As Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem with his radical, anti-establishment message; and as Lenin and Stalin did in their years of beleaguered organizing and, at the decisive moment, when they stormed the Winter Palace.
Doing so in the context of Radical Decency presents special challenges. Unlike so many other radical movements, it is not exclusive or rejectionist. Instead, it counsels us to find ways of living in the world as it is – an essential aspect of decency to self – while, at the same time, actively making choices that foster greater decency in our immediate environments and in the world. Given this approach, the philosophy usually unfolds quietly, in the privacy of our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices.
This means that many of the choices that truly put us “all in” will be invisible to everyone except us. It also makes it easy to fake it, since there is nothing to stop us from doing the easier stuff even as we quietly neglect the necessary but more uncomfortable decency choices.
The bottom line in all of this? Being fully committed – being “all in” – requires a lot of discipline and self -accountability. As with so many other aspects of the philosophy, its demands are enormously challenging – worth pursuing only because the potential rewards are commensurate with the demands.
When my wife and I started couples therapy in the mid 1990s, after 10 years of marriage and almost 50 years of living, our gifted therapist, Sunny Shulkin, described the way most couples fight. She speaks and he listens – but in a special way – carefully sifting her words for ammunition so that, when her mouth stops moving, he can fire back. And as he counter-attacks, she, in turn, is busy collecting her own ammunition so that, when he stops talking, she can return the fire.
The description was sobering, uncomfortably accurate. Over and over, Dale (my wife) and I would take turns explaining why we were right and the other wrong, with our frustration and vehemence increasing with each exchange. The predictable endpoint?
A complete breakdown in communication and mutual misery, followed by reconciliation – not resolution – and, in due course, a repeat performance.
And the years slipped by.
Why was Sunny able to describe the process of this new couple, sitting in front of her, with such eerie accuracy? Because we live in a culture where the relentless message is that successful people are winners; competitors who strive and, ultimately, prevail. With these values permeating our approach at school, work, and so many other areas of living, their habitual appearance in our intimate relationships is utterly predictable.
It is all so sad. We know to a certainty that the great majority of our teenagers will organize their lives around a committed intimate relationship. Nevertheless, there is virtually no effort to teach them alternative skills that would allow them to be more effective romantic partners.
But a better way does exist. And for Dale and me, one of our great joys is to share what we have learned, with others, in our therapy practices. In this Reflection, I offer some guidelines for effective fighting that we have teased out, in our work with couples – and with each other.
Radical Decency is an approach to living that encompasses all areas of living, from the most private and personal to the most public and political. And, needless to say, the same attack/counter-attack habits that couples engage in are practiced with a vengeance in the public arena – with devastating consequences.
In this area, however, the shift to more effective fighting is far more difficult since key qualities that can jumpstart the process for couples – good faith, trust, and a shared desire for a better way – are in short supply. That said, one of Radical Decency’s central beliefs is that application of its values in one area will lead to creative insights in other areas as well. For that reason, I invite you consider how the practice pointers for couples, described below, might be adapted and applied to our efforts to create a more decent and constructive public discourse.
Point 1: You’re not fighting about what you’re fighting about.
Couples bicker about chores – how to handle the children – love-making – money, the list goes on and on. But when a couple shifts to fight mode, the struggle is – almost always – about one thing: Each partner feels unheard and unseen and, with that, fears the loss of the safe, nurturing love that he or she longs for, and depends upon, from the other.
For those of us who instinctually default to the fight side of the fight/flight dichotomy, the typical fear is that the most important person in our life will abandon us. For those on the flight side, the fear is of being overwhelmed and engulfed by that person and his needs.
Because the substantive issue at hand has triggered your partner, it needs to be treated with respect. But don’t dwell on it. Make your point about how dinner chores should be handled, listen to his, and then shift your attention to the real issue: The ways in which you and your partner are not feeling loved and appreciated.
Remind yourself that, notwithstanding her harsh words, you are not at imminent risk of losing her good opinion of you. You are, after all, the love of her life. Instead of trying to prove your worth by “winning” the argument, look for ways to reassure her of your abiding love and respect – by making her feel that her point is really being heard by you.
Note, importantly, that the practical cost in adopting this approach is actually very small. In most cases, the outcome on the substantive issue is of no consequence. Her way of doing it is fine and, so too, is his. Either way, no babies are dying.
The bottom line: Focus your primary energy on your partner’s emotional needs and longings – and yours – and not on the intricacies of how and when to do the laundry.
Point 2: Winning is not the goal.
When your partner yells, or goes cold and judgmental, he has not turned into an unfeeling monster. Despite appearances, he feels lousy and is at his most vulnerable and unsafe. Just like you. Understanding this, it makes no sense to inflict additional pain through a counter-attack, especially since the point you are about make, with such urgency, is almost always a point you’ve made many times before, in past fights.
Not falling into this habitual, reactive way of responding – in the middle of a fight – is excruciatingly difficult. But it is the holy grail of effective fighting: To replace our instinctual fight/flight reactions with loving acts and, equally, to be receptive to our partner’s efforts to do the same.
When emotions escalate, job one is to tend to our physical and emotional safety and integrity. But consistent with that priority, there are many moments, even in the middle of a fight, when loving acts are possible.
Seek to understand and empathize with your partner and, importantly, share these efforts with her in ways that she is able to hear. Let her know, as best you can, that you know what it feels like to be her. Equally, important, strive to warmly accept loving initiatives from her side, even when they are tinged with a residue of anger and resentment. And resist, with all the discipline and presence of mind you can muster, the urge to get in the last shot.
Point 3: Don’t defend yourself.
When a fight starts, one of the first casualties is context. Despite her harsh words and cold looks, you are not an awful person. In fact, you are the most important person in her life; the person she has chosen to grow old with; the person she has stayed with for all these years; the person she trusts with her life – and the lives of her children.
Remembering this, defending yourself is really beside the point; a non-issue. Notwithstanding his momentary annoyance about the clutter you have created in the spare bedroom, you are, and remain, someone he loves and esteems. So, instead of justifying the clutter, acknowledge it and look at the cleanup, not as an annoying chore – or an admission of guilt – but as a ready-made opportunity to love him.
Point 4: Time is on your side.
When we are in the middle of a fight, we too easily think that everything has to be said – NOW. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, we have all the time in the world; with any luck, decades.
With this thought in mind, keep the conversation simple and stay focused on the issue at hand. If she complains about your getting home late for dinner, don’t respond by pointing out that she is chronically late when you have plans with another couple. That is changing the subject, pure and simple. She wants to talk about dinner and, ignoring that, you have shifted to a second topic.
This is where the realization that time is on our side is so helpful. Your annoyance about the routine on Saturday night is real and needs to be dealt with. But it’s best to raise it at another time – tomorrow or next week. Why? Because the alternative doesn’t work. When you change the subject and link issues, your partner – feeling unheard – is likely to do the same. This, in turn, will invite further linking by you, and so on, in an escalating, difficult to interrupt cycle.
When you and your partner fight, the goal should be to do less and to do it well. Then, stop and acknowledge your success, knowing that the tools you have used in this “good” fight, today, will help you to deal more effectively with the next issue – tomorrow, or next week, or next month.
Point 5: Scan for the positive.
What gives the guideline, first offered by Terence Real, its power is a simple, underlying truth: Your partner makes sense. Given his experiences, skills, disposition, hopes and dreams, this is how the magnificent person you have chosen as your partner operates in the world. And she is a package deal. The stuff you love and the stuff that drives you crazy are inextricably intertwined.
So when, in the middle of a fight, your partner takes his best shot, “scan for the positive” – for what you agree with – and begin your response there. Let the part where she calls you insensitive and thoughtless slide by, without comment, and agree with her that you did indeed fail to clean the kitchen before the guests arrived.
Doing so will remind you that she make sense; that her needs are real and legitimate. It will also act as a powerful brake on your instinctual, fight/flight driven rush toward defensiveness and reactive counter-attack. And, finally, it will invite her to join you in this shift toward reciprocal acts of understanding and love that are the hallmark of more effective fighting.
Point 6: Measure yourself by your successes and not by your failures.
I close with this thought. Being a good romantic partner, always difficult, is never more challenging than when you are in the middle of a fight. As hard as you try, there will, inevitably, be many moments when you fall short. So always remember to measure your progress by your successes and not by your failures.
Radical Decency is an action and process oriented approach to living. It is not based on an a priori set of beliefs about the nature of reality. Instead, it is grounded in our biological limitations and potentialities and, then, works with these empirical truths to offer behavioral guidelines that cultivate better lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world.
These guidelines – respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice – are the meat and potatoes of Radical Decency. Equally important, however, are the means by which they are implemented. To achieve the philosophy’s ambitious goals, substance and process – means and ends – need to be in harmony.
Adopting this approach, Radical Decency rejects the idea – condoned and widely adopted in the mainstream culture – that a worthy goal gives us permission to temporize on the means employed to attain it. Radical Decency views with deep suspicion the politician or social reformer who claims that he is (1) “playing the game” to (2) get power, so that once in power, he can (3) reform the system. Why? Because it doesn’t work: Part (3) never seems to happen.
Indeed, the deeper truth is that this “ends justifies the means” approach is a key way in which the efforts of well-intentioned people are domesticated and marginalized. In their zeal to be effective – to be big, to have a perceptible impact in the world – they are seduced into ways of operating that reflect the culture’s predominant values. In the end, they wind up perpetuating the very system they seek to reform.
With these premises in mind, I have puzzled, for many years, over this question: How can we maintain Radical Decency as an unyielding, uncompromisable priority and, at the same time, effectively present it – market it – to others.
Here are my thoughts.
The predominant culture has evolved a myriad of mechanisms –subtle, indirect, and devastatingly effective – for corroding and neutralizing change efforts. Thus, it is no surprise that it offers a ready answer to my question: To be successful, Radical Decency needs to be effectively marketed and sold, just like any other product in the marketplace of ideas.
When I first started working with Radical Decency, I instinctually accepted this approach as the “smart” thing to do. If I wanted to succeed, how could I do otherwise?
Over the years, however, I have come to realize that this approach fundamentally conflicts with Radical Decency’s core principles, emasculating in the process both the message and the movement we hope to nurture around it.
The proponents of this approach tend to be business-smart people; a group that I very much identify with, given my many years as an attorney and mainstream political activist. Drawing on their experience, and success, in the mainstream world, they instinctually push marketing initiatives that people like themselves, with money and real world smarts, find familiar and comfortable.
Steeped in these approaches, their messages are carefully crafted to avoid any buzzwords that might be off-putting to mainstream audiences. In the process, however, they soft-pedal the philosophy’s more visionary and radical ideas and, to the extent possible, make them sound like good, smart business. And because these are “mere marketing strategies” designed to “sell the product,” they seldom see them as posing any risk to the philosophy’s core message.
The fundamental problem with this approach? It vastly underestimates the depth of our immersion in the mainstream culture’s habits of thought and action.
Rising above these entrenched ways of being is a daunting task, even when all of our energy is focused on that goal. And when, in this context, our marketing strategies adopt the mainstream culture’s language and tone, and continually seek to rationalize Radical Decency based on that culture’s “compete and win” premises, the all too predictable result is dilution, confusion and diminishment of the philosophy’s transformative message and purposes.
A second, more practical – but equally fatal – flaw with this approach is that, in its pursuit, conventionally minded people are invited to become key players in our radically decent enterprises. The problem here is that the mainstream smarts, that makes these people attractive collaborators, also makes them instinctually biased toward status quo ways of operating. And as they become more and more influential in the movement, there is an ever-increasing risk that their mainstream outlooks and tactics will supplant Radical Decency’s more radical vision.
In the end, the inconvenient truth is that conventional marketing strategies are fundamentally inconsistent with the philosophy’s principles. Their goal – to mold the message to meet the target audience’s expectations – embraces a manipulative approach that is deeply at odds with the philosophy’s goal of fostering mutual and authentic contact in every interaction and area of living. Their pre-occupation with winning the competition for money, members, and influence – by whatever means necessary– is, in truth, a return to the very values Radical Decency seeks to supplant.
So what would a radical decent marketing strategy look like?
It would, to be sure, take full advantage of the many creative technologies that would allow our ideas and programs to reach to a wider audience. And it would strive to present Radical Decency as the exciting, creative and, potentially, life- and world-altering program it truly is. At the same time, however, it would avoid the over promising/“tell them what they want to hear”/manipulative practices that are such a comfortable – and assumed part – of so many marketing programs. Above all, the message would be invitational; avoiding any suggestion that Radical Decency is “the way” or “the only way.”
This is not to suggest that we should become diffident or falsely modest in our presentation. Radical Decency and approaches like it are desperately needed in our lives and in the world. So while remaining invitational in our approach, the message would be strong, clear, and appropriately amplified.
We will be doing our job well if, in our marketing, we offer a “passionate invitation” while always taking care never to slip into proselytization or manipulative persuasion. With such an approach in place, our message to the larger world would be this:
- If you are fully in, great. We are confident that you will be richly rewarded for your choice.
- If you and I share some but not all of Radical Decency’s premises, that is fine too. Perhaps our ongoing dialogue will reveal commonalities, and new and creative ways of collaborating.
- And if you have no interest, we genuinely wish you well in finding your way knowing that, in the end, we have no monopoly on wisdom.
The goal: To allow people, exposed to our marketing material, to feel engaged with in an authentic and respectful way; allowing them to consider our ideas – and possible participation in our programs – from a place of increasing trust and open mindedness.
With this approach, we will never feel pushed to compromise Radical Decency’s core values in the process of marketing them. We will, instead, be enriched by the continually challenge of practicing and modeling marketing strategies that fully reflect them.
In all of this, the issue of effectiveness is very much in play. Foregoing traditional marketing tactics will undoubtedly leave many opportunities on the table. But if we are serious about creating an alternative approach to living – and maintaining its integrity –there is no other way. The truth in this area, as in so many others, is that there are no easy choices. As tempting as they are, marketing strategies that temporize on Radical Decency’s core values – for the sake of short-term gain – are misguided. The pull of the culture’s mainstream values is simply too strong.
As we got acquainted with our Novgorod guide, during our trip to Russia a few years ago, she mentioned that she taught world history. Right away I knew what she meant. Her history course went all the way back to “the beginning,” to the “dawn of civilization” about 7,000 years ago. This is what “world history” meant when I was in high school in New York, in the 1960s, and what it means today, half way around the world, two generations later.
Most of us never give this definition a second thought. But when we do, its weirdness is impossible to avoid. The “world” of which it purports to be a “history of” has actually existed, not for 7,000 years, but about 4 billion years. Moreover, we have existed as Homo sapiens for 300,000 years and as a distinct line of primates for another 6 million years. So even if we accept the idea that “world” history is legitimately limited to “human” history, the mainstream definition is still woefully incomplete, ignoring all but a small fraction of our species’ history.
What is going on?
As I see it, three fundamental factors are at work.
The first is fairly apparent, once you begin to reflect on the mainstream culture’s wildly distorted vision of world history: Our breathtaking self-absorption.
World history is about “us,” and us alone. Other species that coexist with us or preceded us – even the dinosaurs that dominated the world far longer than we have – are written out of world history. Equally absent, with the sweep of our conceptual pen, is any physical phenomenon that is not directly implicated in “our” dramas.
Moreover, the “us” we are talking about isn’t even all humans. History only begins when people like us first appeared; modern folks who live in sedentary communities, have a written language, and organize themselves in hierarchical/ authoritarian patterns. Everyone who lived before then is consigned to “pre-history,” the implicit message being that– having nothing to teach us – these people can and should be ignored.
Notice also, that world history is further limited to a very distinct subgroup within this already limited group. Virtually every society and ideology that earns history’s attention has one key element in common: Its ability to dominate large numbers of people during the time in which it is of historical interest. That is the common thread that draws into a coherent story characters as diverse as the Egyptian pharaohs, the ancient Greeks, Roman Emperors, Christian and Muslim thinkers and rulers, Napoleon, the British Empire, Hitler, Stalin, and the United States.
In other words, history is about winners; the people who best exemplify a dominant culture in which competition, dominance and control are valued above all else. In this myopic view, everyone else is either a foil in the winners’ drama or a non-entity, literally ignored out of existence.
The second factor that the mainstream definition of world history highlights is the extent to which our extreme self-absorption goes unnoticed. How is it that so many teachers, students, textbook writers, and professional historians can so easily and comfortably accept such an obviously distorted definition of world history?
The answer is not stupidity. It lies instead in the fact that from birth – from all sides – and, literally, for millennia – we have been massively brainwashed to think in this way. And because we are continually bombarded with myopic, self-absorbed ways of thinking, we exist in a context in which our distorted definition of “world history” is commonplace – unremarkable and, thus, seldom noticed or commented upon.
Examples of this taken for granted self-absorption are everywhere. Serious historians, for example, continue to argue the merits of American exceptionalism; the view that our country is different and unique.
Really? Seriously? Exceptionalism has been the cry of every empire and petty despot since, well, the dawn of world history. In fact, the only thing that is exceptional about the claim of American exceptionalism is how truly unexceptional it is.
Similarly, every generation’s financial bubble, including the run-up of housing prices leading up to 2008’s financial meltdown, has been an extolled as an exception to the hitherto normal rules of economics. Every 20 years or so, we are told – and millions believe – that our current investment strategies are somehow different and special.
Another rather stunning example is intelligent design; the idea that only a being with a brain like ours could have possibly created the world. Here again, massive self-absorption is at work.
Physicists, systems theorists, and students of ants have all persuasively demonstrated that many intelligences are not housed within a single skull.
In addition, contemporary neuroscientists, such as Daniel Siegel, point out that human intelligence does not arise out of a single brain in isolation, but instead results from the ongoing communion of one brain with others.
Nevertheless, intelligent design, in a classic example of blind egotism, simply asserts that “of course” our brain – that is, intelligence residing within a single human skull – is the highest expression of intelligence and, as such, is the only form of intelligence that could have possibly created such a complex universe.
The final factor that our weird definition of “world history” points to is to the extent to which our massive self-absorption is viewed as someone else’s problem. So, in writing about the ego-centrism of intelligent design, I confidently imagine the head-nodding agreement of my more secular readers. And yet, how many of these readers fall into the equally myopic trap of dismissing non-scientific thought as something from a primitive and outmoded past; a past that has been thoroughly superseded by civilization’s “progress” to its current “superior” state?
As this example illustrates, while I may see – and judge – the myopia and self-absorption in your way of viewing the world, I seldom see it in mine. Thus:
- Religious fundamentalists believe they have found the way – and reject any history that contradicts their sacred texts.
- Secularists view pre-scientific thought as primitive and intellectually bankrupt.
- My country/culture/sect is unique and special.
- Women judge men as “less than” even as men judge women as overly emotional.
- My school/job/neighborhood/car/handbag sets me apart.
The list is endless but the common thread is this: We – that is, I and people like me – are different and better.
One very fair response to this rant about self-absorption is to ask why it is so objectionable. Can’t a passionately partisan love of country – or group – or family be an effective and fulfilling approach to living? My answer is no.
While the immediate psychic pay-offs are real, these self-absorbed approaches to living are, in the end, self-defeating strategies. When primary loyalty is to a group, it too easily puts important areas of our psyche at risk, suppressing the nonconforming ideas, temperaments, emotions, and drives that inevitably exist within our endlessly complex psyches.
In addition, it ignores the fact that we humans are intensely creatures of habit. For this reason, a split approach to living – being judgmental and dismissive of “others,” even as we seek to create an island of empathy and understanding in our smaller, self-selected group – can never work. Inevitably, the attitudes we habitually practice, out there in the larger world, will infiltrate and infect ways in which we deal with members of our group and, sadly, with our selves as well.
The proof? Living a world where a split approach is the norm has produced just such a dismal outcome: A culture in which injustice and inequity – together with anxiety, depression, and a wide variety of other addictive and self-destructive behaviors – are rampant.
Radical Decency offers a more hopeful alternative, in two fundamental ways.
First, it is based on behaviors – being decent – and not a set of beliefs. As a result, it avoids the trap of confusing and compromising our vocation of decency with a priori notions about who we’re supposed to be.
In addition, it is inclusive. By challenging us to be just as attentive to others and the world as we are to our selves, it specifically excludes the possibility of privileging one group over another – of making “world history” only about “us.”
I find writing about love confusing. The word is used so in many different contexts, to describe so many different states of mind. Bringing clarity to this multiplicity of meanings and uses has always seemed a daunting challenge.
Further complicating the task is the word’s power. Because it is so deeply evocative, its use, depending on context, can provoke strong and, at times, very uncomfortable feelings as, for example, when it is used to it describes sexual attraction to someone inappropriately young – or an individual, group, or nation’s rapturous embrace of a crazed but highly charismatic leader.
In this Reflection, I take the plunge, seeking to bring clarity to a question that has quietly nagged at me for many years: How should we understand the concept of love and, more particularly, how should we put it into practice as we strive to live more radically decent lives?
The confusion of meanings that surround the word is brilliantly illustrated in We, a remarkable book by the Jungian theorist, Robert Johnson. In it, the author identifies romantic love, not as an enduring reality, but as an intellectual construct that burst onto the scene in the early Middle Ages. He then describes how, because of its enormous cultural impact, it has come to encompass aspects of living that are really quite distinct from the romantic love’s essence.
Johnson’s narrative vehicle, the story of Tristan and Isoulte, begins with Tristan and the Queen – Isoulte the Fair – falling in love and moving to the forest to be together. The Queen, as she inevitably must, returns to her duties and, so, their romantic interlude ends. Thereafter, Tristan marries and has children with Isoulte of the White Gloves. But Tristan, unable to let go of his overwhelming “love” for the Queen, leaves Isoulte of the White Gloves and, in the end, dies tragically.
The point of the story for Johnson? Tristan screwed up.
He hopelessly confused romantic love with what Johnson refers to a chivalric love. In his understanding, Tristan idealistic or chivalric love – a deeply felt and enduring human emotion – lay at the heart of his feelings for the Queen. But Tristan failed to understand this, or limits of that love, conflating it with the sexual/life partnership love that found expression in his relationship with Isoulte of the White Gloves.
To this day, we repeat Tristan’s error, unreflectively seeking a romantic partner who fills our every “love” need. The result? These relationships are burdened with unreasonable expectations and demands that – inevitably unmet – unleash, far too often, a sense of bitter disappointment that can corrode and destroy these relationships.
In seeking to operationalize Radical Decency in our lives, what feelings and choices, among the many that receive the “love” label, are central? The starting place for me is the distinction between love the “noun” and love the “verb.”
When used as a noun, love describes one of any number of feelings, depending on the context within which the word is applied: Love of God, love of country, romantic love, self-love, agape love, and so on. Like all feelings, these states are not choices. They are, instead, physiological and psychological facts on the ground.
For this reason, love the noun is not a values-driven state of mind. To the contrary, we can – and frequently do – fall in love with a person who we know to be cruel or selfish. And, in our love and loyalty, we too easily excuse even the most heinous of acts perpetuated by our church, ethnic group or country; persisting, without ethical pause.
Love, the verb, is very different. It is quintessentially a choice. Loving my wife, or Jesus, or the men I go to war with – love, the verb – I chose to do the innumerable acts that communicate that state of mind to the object of my love. It is here, in this action-oriented realm of love, that Radical Decency can play a powerful role; supporting us in making wise life- and spirit-affirming choices.
If love begins as an emotion (the noun), faith is the bridge that carries it into the realm of action (the verb).
Esther Perel, the psychotherapist and author, describes trust as a leap of faith. “We believe in it, all the while knowing it may not be true.” And, equally, with love: We whole-heartedly commit ourselves to “this” person or “that” cause, all the while knowing that this forever feeling may not endure.
This leap of faith, this act of claiming, is vital to love’s central role in our lives. As I describe in the Reflection 38, Three Dimensions of Love, our longing to claim (and to be claimed) is:
“Inextricably bound up with our need to cope with the realities that frame our existence as self-conscious beings, aware of our fate. Simply put, we are here through no choice of our own; we, and everyone we love, will leave, again through no choice on our part; and there is no roadmap for what to do, while we are here. Given these unalterable facts, we long for a feeling of belonging that – in its sheer passion, power, and completeness – can offer psychic surcease from these grim existential realities.”
But here is the problem.
We live in a world in which other, more humane values takes a back seat to our pervasive pre-occupation with getting ahead, with competing and winning. As a result, the moral compass we need to guide us in this claiming process – this leap of faith – is confused and undernourished. Lacking a steadily practiced, more decent values perspective to guide our choices, we too easily extend love, the verb, to most any person, idea, or movement that activates “that feeling” – love, the noun.
Radical Decency can crucially change this equation, offering a values-based roadmap for operationalizing love, the verb. Using it as our guide, we tend to another person – day-by-day, moment-by-moment – with respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and accountability (justice). And, crucially, we invite, with our expectations, similar treatment in return.
As these choices accumulate, we, and the people with whom we are in connection, are supported in feeling safe, seen, and warmly held; lowering defenses and increasing the likelihood of authentic and intimate contact, the interpersonal transaction at the heart of Radical Decency – and of love, the verb.
In terms of constructively harnessing our powerful impulse to love, the payoff in this process is this: As we steadily tend to our Radical Decency practice, we become more discerning about what is – and what is not – a loving relationship; that is, a relationship based on mutual and authentic contact. And as this sensibility grows, we become far more capable of resisting the instinct to go with “that feeling” when the object of our hormonal affection is unable to treat us in this way – or puts existing love relationships at risk.
So I walk into a room and am captivated by a new person – her look, her smile, her energy. But I am sustained by a sense of romantic love that goes far beyond “that feeling.” Committed love, the verb, as my wife and I have cultivated over the years, the cotton candy of a new romantic connection pales in comparison to the eight-course banquet we have created. I am able make choices with this new person that are measured and appropriately boundaried.
This same values-based process is vitally needed when love plays out in the context of our ethnicity, religion, and nationality. In these areas, unfortunately, the cultural norm is unrelenting pressure to make love and fealty absolute. When the chips are down, we are expected to rally to the flag – no matter what; a pattern confirmed by countless cruelties, inflicted both on nonconformists within the group and nonbelievers without.
If we hope to create a more decent world, we need to challenge this pattern. What is needed instead, as we move from love the noun to love the verb is a framework that allows us – as we do in healthy romantic relationships – to model and insist upon on interactions based on decency’s 7 values. As in a committed romantic relationship, loyalty to our country or group would be a given. But our loyalty would not be unconditional and would not be forever, no matter what.
When good values are inextricably woven into the fabric of the relationship, romantic partners grow and heal in ways that are unimaginable at the outset. This same process can occur for us, and our brethren, in the context of our ethnic, religious and national communities as well.
A new level of relational awareness and wisdom is my dream for the future; a new understanding of love, the verb that, with intent and time, would take hold in our communal engagements. We would be loving and fiercely loyal members of our religious, ethnic and national communities, of course, but we would also insist on values based interactions between people within our group and, equally, with those beyond its borders.
My fierce and abiding belief? If this relational vision ever emerges as the culture’s new, taken-for-granted norm a more humane and decent world – instead of being a far off dream – would become an unfolding and ever deepening reality.
We exist within systems. The environment, the culture, our families and romantic relationships, even the cacophony of voices in our heads – all of these are systems. So, needless to say, the principles that govern the way systems operate are enormously influential in our lives.
The implications that flow from this reality are, however, deeply obscured by the individualistic worldview that predominates in our culture. The story, endlessly taught and told, is that we are the “captain of our ship;” that good people – through hard work, determination, and smarts – chart their own destiny.
And when it comes to public policy, what matters isn’t the system but the people in it.
This perspective also permeates our view of how change happens. We think it’s all about individual action. “I’m going to fix the situation through my shrewd choices,” or “he could fix the problem if only he would get his act together and do the right thing.” We persist in believing that the way to solve our economic, political and environmental problems is by electing the right leaders.
Unfortunately, the evidence decisively refutes this individualistic approach to change. From time to time, the “right” political leader has been elected, depending on your political outlook – Kennedy or Reagan, Clinton or Bush. But the “problem” always remains: Inefficient and profligate government (for conservatives), an increasingly tattered safety net and regulatory scheme (for liberals). Nevertheless, we persist in looking to leaders for answers. In the process, we virtually ignore the systemic forces that, when it comes to shaping our world, are so much more influential.
In this Reflection, I look at the last 40 years of our politics from a systemic perspective. As you will see, my analysis has very little to do with leaders and elections. Instead, it works from these premises:
- The system that predominates in our culture places its highest value on the accumulation of capital through the most efficient possible use of resources, both physical and human; and
- In accordance with the principles that govern all systems, this system drives public and private choices in ways that promotes its singular goal.
Cultivating this more systemic view of the world, my hope is that:
- We can better understand the disruptive and, often, unjust and inequitable public policy shifts that seem to “just happen;”
- With these new understandings in place, craft strategies that allow us to more effectively influence the course of events.
A Systems Analysis
Over the last few hundred years capitalism has emerged, to a stunning degree, as the system that dominates our lives. What this means, in practical terms, is that capitalism’s outlook is thoroughly embedded, not only in ways in which our businesses, communities and organizations operate, but also in our taken for granted ways of being in our personal lives.
At a macro level, our businesses, schools, and public and private agencies instinctually replicate capitalism’s preferred authoritarian model: What the teacher or boss says, goes. And even most reform minded of our organizations, intent on attracting money and mainstream credibility, are given over to capitalism’s competitive ways; seeking to be the best, to make more money, to become bigger and more influential, to “win.”
Since work and career consume so much of our time and energy, it is not surprising that these outlooks dominate our private lives as well. We are individual operators who go out in the world, each day, seeking to compete to win. And the measure of our success? Money and possessions.
Operating in this environment, here is what I view as the real, front-page story of our politics over the last 40 years. To grow itself – to accumulate more and more capital – this predominant system has tended to two overwhelming priorities: Creating more products, and ever expanding markets in which to sell them.
With our unrestrained commitment to advances in technology and productivity, the first part of this equation is fairly straightforward. All that is required are choices that allow the system’s product creating momentum to continue without interruption. And that has happened.
But the question of ever growing markets is more vexing. On the one hand, with its single-minded focus on increasing capital, the system will always seek to drive workers’ wages down. And over the last 40 years, these efforts have been very successful. But standing alone, wage stagnation is highly problematic since it would result in the progressive impoverishment of the very consumers upon whom the system depends.
So a more realistic take on many of the most significant public policy changes of the last four decades is to view them as self correcting maneuvers of a predominant cultural system, doing what systems do: Preserving itself and extending its reach, in this case by finding ways to maintain and expand consumer spending without raising wages.
Because we habitually see change as the product of individual choices, the emergence of the major public policy shifts that exemplify this process seems mystifying. They seemed to “just happen” with little or no debate or active decision-making on anyone’s part.
But from a systems perspective, there is really no mystery at all.
Because the predominant system has so thoroughly colonized our habitual ways of operating, most all of us – knowingly or unknowingly – make day by day choices that are complicit with its goals. What happens, then, is this: A wide variety of individuals and institutions make decisions – uncoordinated but informed by this common set of values – that naturally cohere and evolve into public policy shifts that consistently promote the system’s priority goal of capital accumulation.
One very good example is the evolution of the women’s movement since it burst on the scene in the late 1960s. Over the years, progress toward its larger goal – an end to our authoritarian/patriarchal ways – has been uncertain at best. But in the area of career options, it has been stunningly successful. Why? Because adding a second wage earner to a majority of American households, beginning in earnest the 1970s, allowed a continuing expansion of household purchases even as wages remained stagnant.
Similarly, the exponential growth in credit card use in the 1980s and, then, of “home equity loans” – a term that didn’t even exist until the mid-80s – didn’t just happen. As this feminist driven second wage earner phenomenon leveled off, these mechanisms allowed consumer spending to continue its growth for another two decades, once again without any increase in wages. The new mechanism? Massive borrowing by individual consumers.
The nationalization and securitization of the mortgage market was the final (I think!) extension of this credit expanding strategy: A financial maneuver that pushed this consumer borrowing/consumption machine into overdrive. And the dark irony, here, is that with pension plans being the ultimate purchaser of so many of the subprime mortgages, the system contrived to have America’s unwitting worker’s finance their continued, credit-driven buying spree with their own retirement savings.
This systems driven, “capital promoting” narrative also makes sense of many other, seemingly unrelated, policy choices: Our complicity with a massive exodus of jobs and capital to other countries; the eerily prescient initiative, five years before the housing market’s collapse, to limit personal bankruptcy relief; the bail out of the banking system; the failure to prosecute so many of the major players in the financial meltdown; the mysterious absence of any serious debt relief initiatives for consumers; and so on. In short, the culture’s predominant capitalistic-based goals are the real driver of many, if not most, of the important shifts in public policy that have occurred over the last 40 years.
A Values Response
Because the mainstream culture’s values drive our public debate and dictate outcomes, our change efforts need to start with the systematic cultivation of an alternative, more humane set of values: Radical Decency. With this new orientation, our lively interest in wealth creation will continue. But it will no longer operate without restraint. Instead, it will be subordinated to, and placed in the service of, the larger goal of a more humane, just and equitable world.
Being decent to your self, others, and the world – at all times and without exception –won’t magically lead to better public policies. But it will shed a clear, critical light on policies – such as those described above – that preserve capital and expand its wealth generating capacity but, in the process, penalize millions of middle and working class people.
In addition, as we immerse ourselves in Radical Decency’s wisdom-stretching equation new, more effective strategies for change will emerge. See, for example, Reflection #12 (how to make “decency to the world” a personal priority); Reflection #15 (identifying business as a key strategic focus); and Reflection #45, (describing a more deeply collaborative approach to social change); Reflections ##35 and 66 (describing tools for creating greater decency in the workplace); Reflections ## 75 and 76 (using decency principles to create a more civil political conversation).
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.
In My Stroke of Insight, the neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, described the reality she inhabited after suffering a massive stroke that shut down the left side of her brain. Given over entirely to her right hemisphere, she was aware only of a field of energy of which her body, now fluid and permeable, was an integral part. If someone came into her room feeling tense, she was aware of his presence. If he was calm, however, she could not differentiate him from the rest of the energy that inhabited her and her room.
For me, Bolte Taylor’s testimony is persuasive. I believe in the interconnectedness of all things, what some refer to as the one-ness of the universe.
But . . . and this is a big but. We inhabit this integrated world as humans, and the reality of our biology fundamentally limits the ways in which we can participate in this interconnected universe.
In his brilliant lecture/podcast, Reality and the Sacred, Jordan Peterson illustrates this point with the following example. When we stand in front of the mirror, what do we see? A face, a nose, a mouth.
And what are we are incapable of seeing? The molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks that are the building blocks of our faces. Equally beyond our perception are the cosmic forces that govern all matter and energy including, of course, the thing I see in the mirror and refer to as “me.” In other words, we humans are designed to experience only a thin slice of the universe’s larger reality.
It is true that a statistically insignificant number of humans have, in the course of our history, reported exceptional moments of transcendent consciousness. But parsing out the reliability of these reports – and I confess to being a skeptic – is beside the point. Even conceding the possibility of transcendent events, far in excess of 99.9% of all of the moments of consciousness, experienced by members of our species, are limited in the ways that Peterson describes. Like it or not that is the reality that defines our lives and with which we need to come to grips in seeking an answer to this question: How best can we act on – operationalize – our one-ness with the universe?
Unfortunately, this question receives far too little attention. Most people are unreflectively rooted in the mainstream culture’s view of reality. They view each individual as an independent entity, charting his or her own unique course, choosing on a strictly voluntary basis where and with whom to attach. For these people, the question of how to operationalize the universe’s one-ness has no relevance.
Then there is a much smaller group of people who embrace the idea of the interconnectedness of all things. But these people, with limited exceptions, are channeled by the mainstream culture into activities that marginalize and dissipate their impact: Prayer, ecstatic religious experiences, consciousness expanding retreats and vision quests, mind-altering drugs, and so on.
My feelings about these people are mixed. On the one hand, I admire their willingness to consider and embrace an expanded vision of reality. On the other, I am disturbed by their pre-occupation with activities that largely ignore the urgent need to translate these understandings into effective change strategies.
To say that the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings in Japan affects what happens in New York – however true it may be as a theoretical matter – is decidedly not a viable strategy for changing a culture that wildly overemphasizes, to our great detriment, the values I summarize as “compete and win, dominate and control.”
The most visible exception to this pattern is the environmental movement’s emphasis on our symbiotic relationship with other species and the physical environment. This is one place where an important part of our interconnectedness is translated into active social engagement. But even here, the approach is partial and incomplete. Lacking a fully integrated model for the universe’s one-ness, the approaches of most environment organizations – as important as they are – fail to follow through on the implications of our interconnectedness in non-programmatic areas: The structure and operation of their organizations; the treatment of employees, vendors, and adversaries; their investment policies; and so on.
So is there a way to more effectively way to follow through on the implications inherent in the universe’s one-ness? In his signature book, Beyond Permanence, Craig Eisendrath offers a way forward. Fully accounting for the interconnectedness of all things, his prescription for living allows us to more meaningfully contribute to a better world and, in so doing, to create richer, more meaningful lives.
Eisendrath’s orienting frame of reference thoroughly departs from the individualistic outlook that dominates our culture and so effectively reinforces its win/lose, every man for himself ways of operating. What he would put in its place is,
“a new way of thinking about the relation of personhood and society, not in opposition, or even a situation in which people view society as a stage upon which to make an effort or impact, [but instead as] an organic, nurturant relationship in which human beings emerge from the physical and social worlds and reciprocally exercise their responsibility to make these environments even more nurturant and beneficial.”
To his great credit, Eisendrath also offers a prescription for operationalizing this view of the world. His first ingredient is “activism.” According to Eisendrath, “understanding one’s condition and the condition of one’s associates and the surrounding world” can only emerge when we actively immerse ourselves in the issues and events of our lives.
But activism isn’t enough. To make wise and strategic choices, our activism needs to be informed by a vision; what Eisendrath refers to as “an effective personal philosophy.”
Finally, he argues for a symbiosis that unites vision and activism: “We [need to] integrate our continuing experience with a developing personal philosophy, creating a basis for principled action in the immediate situations of our lives.”
My personal journey underscores, for me, the wisdom of Eisendrath’s prescription. I can do the mainstream thing with the best of them: Complaining and pontificating about what’s wrong with the world, all within the safe confines of my status quo life.
But my most meaningful growth has occurred when I have been actively involved with the big issues that have marked the time and place in which I’ve lived: Marching for civil rights; doing the nitty-gritty organizing of Common Cause/Philadelphia and the National Constitution Center; traveling to El Salvador to live and work with re-settled rebel fighters; struggling to run a radically decent business; working with my coaching and therapy clients, day by day, to figure out more effective ways of living.
The importance of “activism” has also been driven home for me in my more intimate relationships. For me, professional and community involvements have always been instinctual. But my sense of life’s possibilities really took off when I more fully committed my time and energy to the perplexing task of being a good spouse, father and friend.
With all this, I also recognize the indispensable role that the second half of Eisendrath’s prescription – an evolving personal philosophy – has played in my life.
The mainstream values that dominate our world and permeate our lives are devilishly clever and deeply misleading. They distract us with faux dramas, drawing us into big fights over marginal issues: Which mainstream candidate will win the next election? Will Congress pass a marginal shift in our budget priorities?
The mainstream culture also divides energy, separating the “good guys” into separate silos – education reformers, environmentalists, social workers, meditators, body workers, visual artists, poets – with interactions between people in these silos being, at best, haphazard and episodic.
For these reasons, Eisendrath’s “vision” work is essential. Seeking to live differently and better, we have to knead these disparate, reform-minded perspectives into a coherent and comprehensive philosophy that can provide focus and guidance for our concrete choices. Lacking that informing vision, we are likely to remain confused, frustrated, and discouraged – and, therefore, primed to accept the inevitability of our current ways of operating.
Radical Decency is my evolving answer to Eisendrath’s prescription for living. Accounting for the interrelatedness of all things – the one-ness of the universe – it seeks to unite vision and activism, supporting us (as Eisendrath would say) “in exercising our responsibility to make the physical and social environments from which we emerge – and of which we are so thoroughly a part – more nurturant and beneficial.”
A reaction I sometimes hear to Radical Decency is that its prescription – decency to your self, others, and the world, at all times and in every context – is noble, but utopian and impractical.
The criticism is misguided. Why? Because it fails to take account of the philosophy’s full-throttled commitment to “decency to self.” When we seek to balance and integrate decency to self, with decency to others and the world, we are challenged to make choices in life that – far from being naïve – are a tough-minded, realistic and, crucially, sustainable.
In this Reflection I discuss decency to self – how it has been distorted by our engrained mainstream ways of thinking and how Radical Decency can vitalize the ways in which we tend to and love our self.
The importance of decency to self is grounded in our biology. We humans are wired to be in deep and intimate connection with one another. Our physical and emotional development and continued well-being depend upon it. But that is not the full story. Faced with perceived danger, our fight/flight brain shifts our attention, dramatically and decisively, to our own needs. Any approach to living that fails to take account of both of these biological realities – our fundamentally affiliative nature and our vital need for physical and emotional safety – is unrealistic and unsustainable.
This balanced approach is not, however, embraced in the mainstream culture. Instead, we are conditioned to view our selves and others through an illogical, all-or-nothing prism: Either we are selfish – or we are altruistic and caring. There is far too little currency for the view that we can – and should – be decent to others and the world and, at the same time, decent to our self.
This odd, biologically unnatural mindset grows directly out of the authoritarian ways of operating that dominate our world. In this model, there are two roles:
- The dominant person – the boss, the traditional husband – who demands what he wants and projects his needs onto others; and
- The subordinate person who tends to the dominant person’s needs.
So, for example, as the boss gets ready for the meeting, he barks at his assistant “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.
This is, needless to say, a deeply flawed system. The dominant person’s attunement skills and ability to love and nurture atrophy. And the subordinate person’s ability to understand, assert and satisfy his needs correspondingly shrinks.
One of the special geniuses of the mainstream culture is its ability to generate cover stories that justify its preoccupation with a compete-and-win, dominate-and-control mindset. So, we celebrate the life-style of the people at the top of this authoritarian pyramid, conveniently overlooking the high emotional price paid by these purported “winners” in life. Indeed, the hallmarks of this way of life – the unbounded pursuit of money, power, and material goods and toys – have become the culture’s standard measures of decency to self.
On the flip side, the mainstream culture promotes an equally distorted version of decency to others. Implicitly glorifying the role of the subordinate person in this authoritarian structure, it relentlessly romanticizes the “ever nurturing, always there to serve others” mother/nurse/secretary who should, in fact, be more appropriately viewed as a victim of this highly exploitative system.
These twin distortions, deeply interwoven in their effects, are instrumental in short-circuiting the ability of all of us – whether we resist them or not – to be decent to our self.
Here’s how the process works.
Given the insistent pressures of the world in which we live, most people are simply seeking to get by as best they can. They do this by pursuing the culture’s prescribed path, including its limited and distorted view of what it means to be decent to your self. The all too typical by-product of this way of life is some combination of the spirit-sapping conditions that are endemic in our grasping, dog eat dog world: Self-judgment and doubt, anxiety, depression, anger and violence, addictive behaviors, failed relationships, etc.
Interestingly, while many people recognize the price they pay when they pursue this prescribed way of living, this insight seldom leads to a significant shift in outlook and approach. Why? Because the institutions that drive our culture and write our paychecks demand steady, nose to the grindstone production and penalize choices that noticeably diverge. Despite the cost, a decision to get off the treadmill in any meaningful way seems, for most, far too risky.
Reinforcing this choice is the fact that the only visible, alternative path – a service oriented life – is decidedly on the short end of the culture’s taken-for-granted either/or mindset, described earlier:
If you make the needs of others your focus, you’ll get less – and should expect to get less – both financially and, at an interpersonal level, where you’ll be expected to be a Florence Nightingale type who, in the words of the country and western song is, “always giving, never asking back.”
The idea that decency to self could be a co-equal concern for people who choose these service-oriented professions has little currency in the mainstream culture.
These considerations leave the typical mainstream person, leading a typical mainstream life, checkmated. The price he is required to pay in terms of decency to self, if he choses an alternative path, makes the decision to maintain his place in culture’s competitive win/lose game seem inevitable and unavoidable.
And, equally – when it comes to decency to self – people who choose an alternative path of service are similarly mouse trapped. Seduced and/or coerced into conformance with this self-sacrificing model, they wind up subordinating crucial needs to the needs of others.
In the end, everyone loses.
Radical Decency offers a way out.
It focuses on seven values – respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and justice – and invites us to apply them on an across-the-board basis. Doing so, it replaces the distorted values of the mainstream culture with a clear and coherent alternative that, crucially, fully accounts for decency to self.
We humans are intensely creatures of habit. As we do something more and more, the likelihood that we will instinctually do the same thing, in the same way the next time, and the next, increases correspondingly. And one of the great virtues of Radical Decency is that it knowingly enlists this signature characteristic of our brains in the service of a better life. The philosophy’s central proposition is this: If our intent is to be decent at all times, in every context, and without exception, these values will over time become our new habits of living.
The really good news is that decency to self – like decency in every other area of living – will be energized by this sort of unwavering attention. We will continue to do what we have to do to maintain our economic viability – since this is an important aspect of decency to self. But, at the same time, our emerging self-decency habit of mind will guide us, more and more, toward choices that honor our broader physical, emotional, and spiritual needs – with the respect, understanding, and empathy upon which the philosophy insists.
Because we live in a world in which the mainstream culture’s “compete and win” values are so predominant, the art of being decent to our selves – like the art of being decent to others and the world – is a difficult, wisdom-stretching proposition, to say the least. Given this reality, we need to always remember:
- That embracing decency as a vital pathway toward decency to self requires a radical commitment to its 7 values; and, equally,
- That as difficult as this is, such a commitment will bring with it commensurate rewards; that, as explained in Reflection 13, Radical Decency is, truly, its own reward.
From my teenage years forward, I have been puzzling over this question: Is there an effective strategy for creating a more decent, just and equitable world that I can be a part of? Preoccupied with this issue I became a lawyer, acquiring – so I thought – the skills needed to effectively participate in such an effort.
In my 25 years as a attorney I was involved in many activities that seemed, at the time, to offer a workable answer to my “big” question: The civil rights movement, political campaigns, single issues advocacy, lawsuits, civic education, volunteer tutoring, domestic and overseas service trips. In the end, however, I felt deeply frustrated. The larger goal of an effective change strategy seemed forever out of reach. None of the activities in which I immersed myself seemed, in a final reckoning, to even remotely alter the indecent trajectory of our culture.
Asking myself why, I arrived at this answer: The tentacles of our system reach much more deeply than is commonly understood; thoroughly infecting the ways in which we think and feel; deeply limiting our ability to be in fruitful relationship with one another. Realizing that change efforts need to grapple with these psychological issues as well, I re-tooled as a psychotherapist – and began to develop Radical Decency as a more comprehensive and, hopefully, more effective strategy for change.
In this Reflection, I offer a critique of our mainstream approaches to change and discuss the ways in which Radical Decency can, potentially, alter them and magnify their impact. I make these arguments with considerable diffidence. The people who devote themselves to conventional change efforts are the best among us and their initiatives do so much good in the world.
But the deeper reality is this: In ways that are subtle, indirect, and chillingly effective, the system diverts and marginalizes reform energy. What happens is that change efforts are condoned and even encouraged – but only up to a point:
- A new law is passed that moderates some of the system’s worst excesses but leaves its operative mechanisms unchecked.
- A humanitarian initiative is funded that, while meaningful in its immediate impact, touches only a relative handful of lives.
The problem with this approach is that these visible, accessible but ultimately limited-in-scope projects capture the time and energy of many of the most reform-minded among us. And, consumed by these activities, these natural leaders of, and participants in, larger changes effort never take on the more radical initiatives that could, potentially, fundamentally alter the cultural landscape.
Here’s how the process works.
At a structural level, reform-oriented people are channeled into one of three tracks: “Change within the system” approaches – lawsuits, elections, lobbying for new laws; “service” approaches – tutoring children, work at a homeless shelter, tending to people’s physical and emotional ills; and “save the world” approaches – seeking an end to hunger, war, or disease.
Notice, first of all, how effectively this structure isolates and divides reform energy. One group lobbies for changes in the environmental laws, another organizes tutoring programs, and a third raises money to fight AIDS. But strikingly absent are meaningful efforts to coordinate these efforts, in an attempt to magnify their impact.
Moreover, each of these culturally condoned approaches, viewed individually, is inherently limited. Trying to pass laws or elect more enlightened leaders requires you to compete in a system that has been systematically structured to reward the very values you are trying to overthrow. Outgunned many times over, in terms of lawyers, lobbyists, and campaign contributions, can we reasonably expect these efforts to fundamentally alter our status quo ways of operating?
Service-oriented activities, for their part, are admittedly oriented toward individuals, and not systemic reform. And the idea that millions of individual acts of kindness will magically coalesce into an irresistible force for fundamental change is a comforting, but untenable, illusion. While social movements may sometimes originate in a spontaneous spark – felt by many – they can never take root and grow in the absence of self-conscious organizing and community building.
The self-limiting aspects of “save the world” efforts are subtler but not less real. We mere mortals may decide that ending hunger is an inspiring goal. But what exactly should do we do when we get to our desks? Who do we call? What letter do we write? Faced with the overwhelming enormity of the task, most of us quietly shelf our longing to make a difference and return to the more immediate task of getting by in life. In short, save the world initiatives, more often than not, are invitations to paralysis and avoidance and not to meaningful action.
Note moreover, that these efforts are almost always issue specific: Hunger, or disease, or illiteracy. So even if the “big” issue of choice could be solved – a doubtful outcome – its impact on the culture’s broad sweep of indecency would be tangential at best. Despite their ambitious (and worthy) goals, these “save the world” initiatives are similarly partial and incomplete.
In what ways can Radical Decency support us in escaping these deeply embedded structural impediments to change? By offering an expanded frame of reference that allows people, immersed in activities that now seem disparate and unconnected, to more fully understand the depth of their common interests and goals. Then, building on that understanding, supporting them to forge new, more creative collaborations that will, hopefully, broaden their respective missions and magnify their effects.
The key element, driving this shift, is Radical Decency’s comprehensive perspective.
Our current crisis is not about unjust laws, or rampant incivility, or an epidemic of depression and anxiety, or racism and sexism, or a failed education system. While all of these conditions exist, they are in fact the expectable consequences of a more fundamental malady: A system in which a wildly over emphasized set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – predominates and drives our choices in every area of living, from the most personal and intimate to the most public and political.
The answer, then, is to focus on these dreadfully consequential symptoms – of course – but to do so within the context of the larger value issues at the heart of our failed culture. In other words, fight for better schools or a reformed financial system if that is the issue that moves you. But do so in concert with others who are seeking reform in others areas, with the unifying goal being a progressive shift toward a society in which the new norm is Radical Decency: Decency to self, others, and the world – at all times, in every context, and without exception.
Doing so, “change within the system” types would, for example, notice the unique insights that “service” types have to offer when it comes to applying principles of decency at a more micro, interpersonal level; understanding that their macro, reform work is powerfully vitalized by these new understandings. Thus, their interest in this work – instead of being cursory and superficial, as is now more typically the case – would be intense, hands-on, and thoroughly integrated with other aspects of their mission.
And, needless to say, “service” types would be equally invested in absorbing and incorporating, into their work, the insights and strategies that “work within the system” and “save the world” types have crafted in their struggle to transform our politics.
How, then, might this expanded perspective change (for example) the specific strategies and approaches of a reform-minded, “work within the system” nonprofit?
An important starting place would, of course, be the more intense collaboration with “service” and “change the world” types just described.
In addition, its push for decency, justice and equity would not be directed outward only. Principles of Radical Decency would guide every aspect of its business operations as well, including wages and benefits, purchasing, money management, overall decision-making – even the way in which its meetings were run.
Radical Decency would also powerfully reshape its approach on substantive issues.
In the political arena, the prevailing view – seldom critically examined – is that manipulative, power oriented ways of operating need to be used, as well, by the advocates for greater equity and justice; that the only way to fight fire is with fire.
The problem with this “pick and chose” approach to decency is that it is far too slippery a slope. Adopting the mainstream culture’s business as usual political techniques, otherwise well-intentioned people become unwitting participants in – and, thus, perpetuators of – the very value system that lies of the root of the problems they are seeking to solve: The culture’s self aggrandizing, win at all costs mentality.
Guided by a larger vision of decency, however, these politics-as-usual tactics would be replaced by ways of operating – frequently pioneered by service types and psychotherapists – that, while appropriately aggressive, are honest, respectful, understanding, and empathic. And with this consistency – and clarity – of approach would also come an increased ability to challenge the deeper manifestations of indecency that drives our politics – and so inhibit the ability of our hypothetical “work within the system” nonprofit to realize its goals with respect to its issue of choice:
- The obsession with winning;
- The systematic buying and selling of public officials via campaign contributions, contracts, and jobs;
- The breathtaking absence of meaningful dialogue;
- A mainstream media that utterly fails to challenge the nonsense politicians spout “because it has to, to maintain access;”
- Our willingness to overlook and excuse the self-interested, indecent actions of our allies on “other” issues and in other areas of their life.
With Radical Decency as its reference point, the boundary between decent and indecent – while exquisitely difficult to navigate – would no longer be confused, shifting, and filled with convenient, easy way out exceptions. Either our hypothetical organization would strive to be decent to itself, others, and the world or – in its indifference to decency in one or more areas – it wouldn’t. And, modeling and advocating for this approach in all of its choices, it would be far better able to mount a coherent challenge to the mainstream culture’s pervasive and pernicious attitudes and practices.
Needless to say, this vision of social change would also include an analogous, expanded perspective on the part of “service” and “save the world” types as well.
Working from this expanded vision, all of us – including, importantly, people seeking to infuse their “non-activist” lives and mainstream workplaces with Radical Decency’s principles – would understand the self-evident importance of deeply immersing ourselves in, and supporting, the work of our comrades in arms. Hopefully, then, as our vision expands and our separate and varied initiatives coalesce into a unified, values-based movement, so too would our impact in the world.
A gifted supervisor – when you can find one – is one of the great benefits of being a psychotherapist. I was lucky enough to find one in Carol Brockmon. One highly useful tool she introduced me to was the distinction between intimate and strategic relationships.
In this Reflection, I explain that distinction and elaborate on some of its more important implications.
Here is a typical interaction in a strategic relationship. Needing to make a key decision, a department head at a conventional, mainstream business convenes a two-hour staff meeting at 1 p.m. Being an enlightened leader, she encourages an open and vigorous exchange with each team member freely stating his or her beliefs. Now, it’s 2:59. The discussion ends and the department head makes her decision. Whether they fully agree or not, the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.
Here, by contrast, is a typical intimate interaction. A husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now it is 2:59, after a lot of back and forth, no agreement has been reached. What happens? A decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.
The difference? In the first scenario, the priority is on achieving a goal – getting something done. In the second, the highest priority is on the relationship itself – on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship.
Note, importantly, that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Strategic relationships work better when tools of intimacy are used. The department head could have simply sent a memo saying, this is what we’re going to do. But she understood that an open exchange of ideas, properly managed, improves the staff’s morale, its willingness to embrace the ultimate decision, and, more often than not, the overall quality of the decision as well.
Similarly, there are many strategic aspects to an intimate relationship. A decision about their son’s school has to be made. The couple can’t keep talking until November.
What makes this distinction so useful, however, is that it clarifies our confusion on both sides of the equation.
Discussions in which couples kill each other, arguing over what to do – in this situation or that – are endemic. Over and over in my practice, I remind couples that, 90% of the time, either choice is acceptable. A visit to mom or a day at the beach with the kids; how much cleaning is enough; how and when to pay the bills; the toilet seat up or down – there really aren’t any “right” and “wrong” decisions.
So, I repeatedly urge couples, put outcomes on the back burner. Remember that this is an intimate relationship and, for that reason, the far more important part of the discussion is not the subject itself but your emotional needs and those of your partner.
Viewed from this perspective, you should clean the dishes before leaving the kitchen, not because it’s the “right” thing to do but because you are stretching to love her in a way that is meaningful to her. Conversely, the reason for asking her to leave earlier for the airport has everything to do with your emotional comfort and nothing to do with good planning. After all, in all the years before she became your partner, she always managed to be in her seat when the plane took off.
When your priority is on the emotions that inform your intimate discussions, and not on outcomes, the results are dramatic. Focused on each partner’s needs and desires – yours and his – your empathy, patience, and skill at loving and being loved will grow and grow. At the same time, those seemingly inevitable, repetitive flare-ups will become less common and easier resolved.
And, guess what? Regardless of where you come out on the substantive issue – her solution, his, or a compromise – everyone will survive just fine.
On the strategic side of the equation, our confusions are just as great. What I notice, here, is the frequency with which we become wedded to emotional outcomes in situations that are plainly strategic.
The most obvious place where this occurs is at our mainstream places of business. Work could be a place where intimate relationships are the norm – a possibility I wrote about in Reflection, #43. Unfortunately, in our culture that is rarely the case. Hence that Reflection’s title: Radical Decency in Business: A Fairy Tale.
For this reason, the hypothetical that follows deals with what is – and not what could be.
Lou works in a small department and one of his co-workers – call him Fred – is harassing him. Fred refuses to provide Lou with information he needs to do his job, does everything he can to undercut Lou’s credibility with the boss, and even – deliberately, it seems – clutters their common work area with his files.
While important, Lou’s job is not his life’s priority. That would be his wife, kids, and private passions. And yet, he gets sucked into this unsolicited war, registering repeated complaints about Fred’s conduct, creating extensive written rebuttals, and obsessively plotting ways to “win” the battle for his boss’ good opinion by strategically pointing out – at staff meetings and endless water cooler conversations – why he is right and Fred is wrong.
The problem, of course, is that Lou – like so many of us – is unable to maintain emotional clarity about the context in which he is operating. At a typical work place, the priority is on getting things done and not on dealing with people’s feelings. But in seeking to win his battle with Fred, Lou is seeking an emotional outcome – an acknowledgment that is anger is justified and that he is held in high regard by his co-workers and boss. And in service of that goal, he deeply engaged at an emotional level.
Ideally, Lou would treat Fred’s behaviors as he would the acts of a stranger – unpleasant, unwanted but, ultimately, of no emotional significance. Maintaining that distance, he would no longer be caught up in responsive anger and anxiety about becoming an outcast in this work “family.” And with these uncomfortable and distracting emotions out of the picture, he could deal with Fred’s behaviors as a purely strategic challenge; crafting counter measures that, unencumbered by extraneous emotions, would more effectively neutralize the very real threat that Fred’s behaviors represent to his perceived value to the department and boss, and to his ability to do his job well.
Taking this approach is, needless to say, difficult. When we are attacked, our brain is wired to respond quickly, powerfully, and in kind. And once our fight or flight response is activated, it is exceedingly difficult to turn off. But to have mastery over our choices, we need to cultivate the ability to emotionally engage only in those situations where it is appropriate. And, while this is a difficult task, it is worth the effort. Ultimately, we will feel better and be to operate more effectively in difficult, strategic environments.
Note, importantly, that this tough-minded approach to strategic relationships in no way compromises Radical Decency. Prudent boundary setting, a cautious and measured approach to emotional disclosure in unsafe environments, and effective counter-measures are indispensable aspects of decency to self. But with across the board decency as our highest priority, we also need to remember that these self-protective choices are not an excuse to dispense with other attributes of decency – respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice – in dealing with the Freds of the world.
So while Lou should not ignore Fred’s conduct or “make nice” with him – in the name of these values – he should strive to be civil, even in the face of Fred’s provocations; to avoid the temptation to demonize him; and ideally, understand and even empathize with whatever emotional demons are driving Fred’s behaviors. His larger goal should be fair treatment all the way around – to himself and to Fred –– and not revenge.
There are, obviously, many relationships that have both intimate and strategic dimensions: The friendships that flower in work environments, the co-parenting relationships that many former spouses share; the very different sort of workplaces that Radical Decency envisions; and so on. Hopefully, however, focusing on the very different challenges, presented by these twin poles of relationship, will support us in making choices in all of our relationships that are more loving, appropriately self-protective – and radically decent.
Once upon a time . . .
A group of friends stumbled upon a smart iconoclastic writer, Daniel Quinn, who told this story. As a struggling author in the 1980s, he, his wife, and three colleagues started a newspaper in rural New Mexico. The paper was only modestly successful, but they persisted.
While making money was vitally important, they soon realized that their higher priority – the one that kept them going – was their pleasure in working together. Quinn labeled this a modern day tribe; a group of people bound together, not by physical proximity, but by a work environment in which they were able to thrive as people.
To the group of friends, Quinn made a lot of sense. Since work dominated the best hours of the great majority of their days – and so much of their energy – why not make it a primary place of sustenance? Instead of being an unfortunate exception to their most deeply held values – at the center of their lives – why couldn’t work be a place where, surrounded by people they liked, admired, and trusted, their lives found vital expression?
So they decided to go into business together. The type of business didn’t really matter. It could have been a computer company, a chiropractic office, a used car lot, a farm. What was important was this: Having spent years at typical mainstream places of business, they were determined to operate differently.
Here is what they decided to do. Because their economic future would depend upon it, profitability would be priority 1A, vitally important but clearly subordinate to their first priority, Radical Decency; decency to self, others and the world – at all times, in every context, and without exception.
Because some members of the group had been involved in similar projects in the past, they knew how easy it was to embrace Radical Decency in theory and how hard it is to apply it day by day, especially in the pressured packed environment of a business.
So in the beginning they went slowly – exploring the idea in detail, allowing the group to evolve organically. Eventually, a core group of people emerged that understood the approach to living, were eager to organize their work lives around it and, importantly, were willing and able to meaningfully contribute – each in their unique way – to the budding business’ profitability. In other words, all the initial participants had a clear and strong commitment to priority 1 – and to priority1A.
Getting the project off the ground was wrenchingly difficult. In addition to the typical problems a new business must face, the organizers had to figure out what it meant to actually run a business in a radically decent way.
From day one, big, obvious, wisdom stretching questions had to be answered.
- Who “owns” the company and what rights are associated with ownership?
- How do you allocate profits and risk of loss?
- How to you price products when your decency commitment whole-heartedly extends to your customers (foreclosing mainstream business’ far simpler “whatever the market will bear” approach)?
- What is fair compensation at every level?
- How are decisions made in an environment where a collegiality is not just a hoped for result but it at the heart of the firm’s mission?
- How do you fully honor the concept of decency to self – for every participant – without unduly compromising Priority 1A?
What also became apparent, early on, is that little things were vitally important. Virtually everyone involved had long experience working at “business as usual” companies. Mainstream habits of operating were what they knew and instinctually fell back upon at times of stress. And, on the flip side, no manuals were available for operating a radically decent business, to guide them and keep them on track.
It was all new, complicated, frustrating, and perplexing.
Given all of this, an ever present danger was that day-to-day business pressures would drag them back to mainstream ways of operating, one small compromise at a time: Toleration of a powerful employee’s entitled behavior here; a willingness to subtly manipulate an unsuspecting customer there; and so on. The best antidote? An intense, detailed, even obsessive attention to the company’s mission in all things, large and small.
So in the early days, a lot of time was spent figuring out what Radical Decency had to teach them about, well, just about everything: Running meetings; talking to each other – and to customers, vendors, and competitors; dealing with co-worker conflict; even procedures for keeping the lunch and bath rooms clean.
These seemingly endless conversations were a frequent source of frustration, since “important” work had to get done. But it was time well spent. As time past, their ability to more fully understand the implications of Radical Decency in business grew and grew and, with it, their sure footedness in putting it into practice. Like a hitter obsessively practicing an improved swing, new, more decent ways of operating eventually became their engrained, habitual ways of operating.
And as this process unfolded, good things started to happen at an accelerating pace.
It is not uncommon for a company to promote itself as a nice place to work, backing this promise up with pot sweetening benefits such as flex time or more generous maternity leave. But, at this company, decency and fairness were built into the very fabric of its personnel policies. Full disclosure of company finances; fair and transparent compensation at all levels; equitable sharing of sacrifice; open and collegial decision-making – all of these were standard operating procedures. The result: The company attracted an unusually capable, imaginative and loyal group of employees.
Word also began to get out to an expanding group of customers that, here, Radical Decency was more than just a marketing slogan. Fashioned to reflect its mission:
- The quality of its products and services was exceptional, and none exceeded its ability to deliver;
- Pricing was fair and transparent; and
- Everyone doing business with the company was treated with unusual thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
The company’s approach didn’t appeal to everyone. Some potential customers only understood a dog eat dog approach. Others, not understanding its very different approach, thought the company was a soft touch; someone they could take advantage of. And a number of people lost interest when they learned that wasn’t the case. But many others, almost stunned to learn that business was actually being conducted in this way, became fiercely loyal customers – the company’s most reliable source for new business.
The company’s success also showed up in other, less quantifiable ways.
Because it nurtured a relaxed and open environment, where problems could be raised and worked though, employees almost never started the day with knots in their stomachs.
While everyone understood that performance over time was a must, they never allowed this unforgiving reality to morph into a “no mistakes tolerated” or “no sacrifice for the office is too much” atmosphere. Workers comfortably acknowledged times of lesser productivity – due to a marital crisis, or a physical or emotional issue – and reasonable allowances were made. The firm’s culture also allowed people to acknowledge mistakes and areas of weakness, even as its shared sense of mission inspired them to improve and strive for excellence.
In a similar way, while long hours were at times required, equal attention was paid to the other side of the equation. Everyone understood that everything isn’t a crisis. In less frenetic times, people felt free to attend a daughter’s Thursday afternoon soccer game or take an extra week few weeks for that once in a life time vacation – understanding that their a willingness to be fully available, when needed, was the thing what made this extraordinary flexibility possible.
Over time, the company also found its way to collaborators who not only got what they were doing but, in a growing number of cases, were eager to re-caste their own businesses into radically decent enterprises. And so, their company became a catalyst for an expanding network of radically decent businesses.
At a purely income generating level, this network was a big success. Because their relationships were based on a shared mission, and not just economic self-interest, referrals happened far more frequently. In addition, because of their philosophical compatibility, leads were turned into customers on a much more regular basis.
And as this network grew, its successes extended far beyond the vital but ultimately mundane world of customers, sales, and revenue. As tricky as decency to self and others can be, crafting ways to meaningfully contribute to a more decent world can be mind-meltingly complicated. But the possibilities for effective action expand exponentially when retail businesses, nonprofit service providers, real estate developers, hi-tech companies, colleges, and widget manufacturers are bound together by a full throttled commitment to Radical Decency. Before long:
- Landlords were collaborating with mental health trauma specialists to offer respite housing to victims of abuse;
- People with employment challenges were being placed at radically decent businesses by radically decent healers and career consultants;
- Investors were funding new radically decent businesses as well as Radical Decency initiatives in politics; and,
- Articles, books, courses, seminars and retreats were being offered to discuss lessons learned and to craft more strategic and effective ways to implement Radical Decency at all levels – from the most intimate and personal to the most public and political.
And the group of friends? Well, things evolved and changed. Some stayed at their widget company. Others, intrigued with other aspects of the expanding movement, moved on. But bound together by a common mission, they maintained a warm, intimate, and nourishing connection.
. . . and they lived – ever after – with an ennobling purpose and energizing sense of possibility.
Radical Decency challenges us to continuously consider three realms – our selves, others, and the world – in everything we do. We need to identify processes that are problematic in each of these areas, understand their impact, and craft effective strategies for dealing with them.
Here is the reasoning behind this approach.
The overriding problem we face in crafting better, more generative lives is that we live in a culture that, through a myriad of norms, cues, incentives and sanctions, habituates us to a fundamentally inhumane set of values – compete and win, dominate and control. As I explain in Reflection 27, these values have created a culture that fails to support us in being decent to ourselves – or to others – or to the world; in other words, a failed culture.
The sensible response, then, is to place a new, more humane set of values at the center of our lives. But complicating this task is the fact that, as the best theorists’ point out, we are biologically wired to be creatures of habit. Thus, we begin this work with deeply engrained habits of living that are at odds with our goal. In the words of Vikki Reynolds, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”
Because we have to wean ourselves from our pre-existing “compete and win” habits, we need to practice our new habits of living – decency to self, others, and the world – at all times and in every context. If we temporize and make exceptions, the enormous pull of the predominant culture will defeat our purposes.
Overcoming the virulent cultural disease that permeates our lives requires strong medicine.
For psychotherapists and other healers, the implications of this approach to living are profound. Most healing focuses on the individual or on the individual in the context of his most immediate environments: His romantic partner, family, friends, and work. The culture’s enormous influence in our lives is either ignored or treated as a given, something to which we have to adjust.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Family therapy, for example, views the family as a system in which any member’s changed behaviors necessarily affects the overall system and each participant in it. This emphasis on the client’s ability to effect his environment is itself empowering and healing. Equally healing is the recognition that new behaviors, wisely conceived and executed, can provoke changes in the system that, in turn, support and magnify the healing and growth of both the client and the family system in which he operates.
The culture is, of course, a lot more complicated than a family. But since it too is a system, these same principles apply. And since the values that predominate in our culture have such a pervasive, debilitating effect on our lives, the application of systems based healing techniques, in this larger context, would seem to be an urgent concern if we are serious about being the best healers we can be.
The systematic de-emphasis of cultural factors in psychotherapy and other systems of healing is no accident. Systems tend to perpetuate themselves and the predominant culture’s self-perpetuation mechanisms are truly brilliant. Not surprisingly, then, while mainstream healers are supported in doing useful work, they are guided away from approaches that would meaningfully challenge the prevailing power structure or the belief systems that support it.
Thus, for example, we use the DSM to diagnose conditions “in the client” but are given no categories – none – to account for his or her culturally caused conditions. Then we are paid to fix the problems that the DSM defines; that is, to help clients fit more comfortably into the culture, as it currently exists.
And what is it that is ignored in the process? Any sustained attention to the problematic values that permeate our culture and play such a formative role in causing the clients’ emotional distress in the first place.
This dismal truth is confirmed by the mainstream literature. When I was in professional school, our clinical textbook advised us to avoid cultural factors because we were not “trained to deal with them.” Similarly, the “Wheel of Life” – a standard tool of life coaches – provides a comprehensive list of categories for assessing clients’ lives (work, family, leisure, etc) but fails to include their engagements in the public/cultural spheres (communal involvements, social movements, politics). And the current, standard definition of “holistic” healing – mind, body and spirit – similarly makes no reference to these larger, cultural factors; what I call the “practical” and the “radical” (see Reflection 24 Holistic Healing – Embracing the Practical and the Radical).
In making this point I am not suggesting that fitting in and getting by are bad things. Since we will, inevitably, be crafting our lives within the existing culture, we need to creatively support clients’ efforts in this area. But if that is all we do as healers, our offerings are limited and compromised.
We also need to lay bare the unstated assumptions that flow from the mainstream culture, and so badly punish so many of us, including these messages:
- That we are failures if we don’t make “enough” money;
- That perfection is the goal and anything short of that – in ourselves or others – is an occasion for self-judgment and shame;
- That confusion and vulnerability are weaknesses to be hidden;
- That you can accomplish anything if you just try hard enough.
We also need to define with greater insight and precision the cultural disease that ails us. This would include a clear-headed accounting, in our work with clients, of cultural realities such as these:
- That, with rare exceptions, businesses are authoritarian places that (often despite their nice words) work against efforts to create more humane lives;
- That we bring the culture’s problematic “win/lose” ways of interacting into our most intimate relationships.
- That while football, movies, and popular books are entertaining and seductive, they promote the values of the predominant culture and, immersed in these entertainments, we are distracted from our efforts to create more nourishing habits of living.
Finally, in partnership with our clients, we need to develop specific techniques for molding the environments in which we live – and within which we are so deeply embedded and defined – in ways that are more just, equitable, and humane; a theme to which I frequently return. See, for example, Reflection 35 Salaried Workers – Realities and Possibilities; Reflection 43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection 45 Re-visioning Social Change Work; and Reflection 66 Doing Better at Work, In Authoritarian Relationships.
Seeking to confront these realities, Radical Decency is my healing technique of choice. It provides a vivid roadmap that, by orienting my day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, effectively counteracts my tendency toward discouragement, cynicism, inaction – and, therefore, complicity – when faced with the culture’s “compete and win” values.
Striving to be radically decent I might, in a given situation:
- Offer an intimate word of support (or, refrain, if it seems intrusive);
- Make an uncomfortable phone call;
- Chose a visit to a friend over a run in the park (or vice versa);
- Invest my energy in one professional project over another; or
- Recognizing my inability to constructively influence outcomes, more comfortably do nothing.
Because the cultural disease that ails us is everywhere, virtually every choice is an opportunity to be more decent: To others – to the world – and, very importantly, to myself as well. Steadily focusing on these goals has, I have found, brought with it an increasing sense of compassion (and self-compassion), curiosity, and zest; states of mind that have nurtured a deepening sense of gratitude for the life I am leading.
To fully realize our potential as healers, we need to forthrightly deal with the realities of the culture in which we live; creating techniques, such as those described above, to be used in our work with clients. The goals of our noble professions demand nothing less.
I have always been troubled by what passes for moral and ethical guidance in our culture. I remember being in Church, as a 15 year old, and hearing the minister say “love thy fellow man.” I also remember thinking, it’s now 11:30 am and he didn’t say a single, really useful thing about how to do that between now and next Sunday when Church reconvenes.
In my 20s I joined a profession with an elaborate Code of Ethics – the law. And to this day I attend ethics seminars to maintain my license. These classes are deeply demoralizing. The standard approach is to tell us what the rule is and how close to the line we can get without risking sanctions or a malpractice lawsuit.
The approach is deeply cynical and misguided, though it is difficult to find attorneys who questions it. Preet Bharara, the current U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is a refreshing exception. Attorneys, he points out, would never ask their law partners to identify the minimum amount, needed to be done, to maintain profitability. To the contrary, he would eagerly seek new and creative ways to make more and more money — no questions asked. So shouldn’t the same mindset apply to our moral and ethical choices? Shouldn’t we strive with equal vigor to find new and creative ways to express our ethical ideals?
I have no problem with a socially agreed upon set of moral standards. Some actions need to be encouraged; others socially prescribed. But moral and ethical guidelines need to be rooted in a larger, coherent vision of how we should live. Absent such a vision to inform their creation and application, moral and ethical guidelines will inexorably morph into tools that promote the values that pervade our culture – control, domination, and material self-aggrandizement.
Here is one (of many possible) examples from the legal profession.
A cardinal – and very sensible – rule of the profession is to avoid conflicts of interest. Since one defendant could seek to assign blame to another defendant, a single attorney should not represent both defendants. But to truly guide attorneys to a more ethical vision of their work, we need to come to grips with all of the implications, inherent in this rule.
One of its inevitable consequences is multiplying lawyers fees: Two attorneys, not one, at every deposition and hearing. And since most lawsuits are about money (the standard recompense in civil lawsuits), you would think that the Code of Ethics would deal with the financial implications of this dual representation rule.
But, it doesn’t.
Why? Because the result is wonderfully convenient for attorneys: More lawyers employed, more fees generated.
Not surprisingly, this particular “unintended consequence” is all too common in the profession’s Code of Ethics. To cite just one other example, the injunction to “represent your client zealously,” is an open invitation for lawyers, billing on hourly basis, to pad their fees by filing marginally useful motions and fighting the other side on every issue.
What makes it worse is that the Code of Ethics could easily deal with this financial issue. Suppose hourly billing, without adequate safe guards, is deemed to be unethical — since it very clearly puts the attorney’s and client’s economic self interest at odds. Impractical? Impossible? Not at all. One possible safeguard would be to require attorneys to estimate overall cost in advance and, if that number is reached, to reduce their future hourly billing rate to an amount that just covers their costs (usually about 65% of normal fees).
If an intent to grapple with this fee exploitation issue existed, guidelines such as this one, could be easily crafted. But don’t expect the ABA’s Board of Governors to take this issue on any time soon. The true bottom line of the legal profession’s Code of Ethics is not legal ethics.
This same self-interested theme exists in the code of ethics that governs my new profession, social work. For example, clinicians are enjoined not to share information about themselves with clients. Like the legal example just discussed, this is an important area in which to offer ethical guidance. But a simple “rule against” falls far short, since it fails to account for the times when self-disclosure can be a powerful tool of healing and growth. Once again, the deeper, unspoken theme is to protect the professionals — in this case by giving them license to avoid emotionally challenging engagements with their clients, without regard to their positive or negative effect on the therapeutic process.
Finally, I want to focus on adultery as still another area where the mainstream approach to morality, by failing to offer a larger vision of right and wrong, exacts a heavy price.
A very typical example is an intimate partner who, after 20 years of fidelity, has an affair. Our cultural norm is to condemn the partner who engages in the affair as a cheater; a liar; a bad guy. So when the hypothetical couple comes to a marital counselor, such as me, the straying partner is typically wracked with guilt and the other partner deeply aggrieved.
My point is not to judge these reactions. They are sensible and expectable. But our simplistic and unthoughtful approach to morality – sex outside the marriage equals adultery equals bad – obscures so much else. Sadly, it is an invitation for the couple to stay stuck in their pain.
One very important reality that the couple, in my example, can easily lose sight of is that the affair partner is actually a good person, highly responsible and committed to his partner. Why do I say this? Because (in our hypothetical) the affair was preceded by 20 years of commitment and fidelity.
This does not negate the fact that affair partner’s behavior grievously damaged the couple’s intimacy and trust. But their healing would be better served if they could fearlessly judge the act, separate and apart from the actor. Unfortunately, our received moral precepts obscure this vital distinction. (Recall President Bush condemning “evil do-ers” rather than acts of terrorism).
Another crucial issue, obscured by the couples’ “good guy/bad guy” mindset, is what motivated the straying partner. In our hypothetical, that partner did not enter into the extra-marital relationship lightly. To the contrary, his or her behavior was driven by compelling, though dimly understood, emotional forces.
Life is complicated and living intimately with someone else multiples those complications. Indeed, it is the rare (maybe nonexistent) couple that doesn’t accumulate hurts and unexpressed needs and frustrations, as the years go by. Often, an affair is an inept and ill-advised attempt to break out of a painful and deeply entrenched pattern of behavior. And since a relationship is a system, the great likelihood is that both partners – in the time leading up to the affair – were coping with unresolved pain.
Given this reality, going back to the way things were is not a good choice. Better to look at the affair as a potential turning point – a time when long standing issues can surface and be dealt with in a more satisfactory way. Once again, however, our standard moral precepts do not lead the couple in this direction. The common outcomes are either (1) a divorce (get rid of the cheating bum), or (2) an extended period of remorse followed, as the pain recedes, by the re-emergence of their old ways of doing things; that is, the very patterns that led to the affair in the first place.
Radical Decency – by focusing inclusively on decency to self, others, and the world – is designed to offer precisely the kind of larger vision of how to live that can lead to more just, equitable and humane moral standards. Applied to professional ethics it focuses on the full range of collateral consequences for all parties.
When it comes to deepening our ethical insights, and crafting wiser choices, Radical Decency can support us in doing better – a lot better.
Central to Radical Decency’s approach to living – its vital pulse – are habits of mind that allow us, in every interaction, to express our needs in constructive ways and, equally, to hear the needs of others. Because we are innately empathic beings, a sustained cultivation of these skills will allow us to more easily and instinctively move toward more decent choices in all areas of living.
The formulation sounds simple. But as I have discovered in my work as a psychotherapist and coach, and in my own relationships, its application is frustratingly difficult. The reason? Because, when disagreements arise, we are culturally wired to lapse into the fight or flight ways of being that the predominant culture’s “compete and win, dominate and control” mindset have so deeply engrained in our habitual ways of being in the world.
In this Reflection, I work through one very common example of this phenomenon. A husband is about to leave for work and his wife, looking at a sink filled with breakfast dishes, says, “Why can’t you do the dishes?” His response: “Look, I’ve had a really busy morning. I usually do them. Give me a break.”
Even assuming a relatively restrained tone in the “music” of these communications, their fight/flight motivation is unmistakable. Both partners are focused on the recent past and – intent on rehashing what just happened – are locked into judgment mode; a hallmark of fight or flight mindsets.
Thus, the wife’s relatively neutral words are in fact words of judgment and attack: You didn’t do something – something you were supposed to do – and (by reasonable inference) something you all too frequently fail to do.
And how does the husband respond? Equally focused on the past, he counterattacks. Instead of dealing with the merits of the issue – who should do the dishes and when – a response that would invite further dialogue – he seeks to disqualify his wife’s position: You are wrong on the facts AND emotionally out of line in even raising the issue (“give me a break”).
What very often happens next is – nothing. Each person, being subtly attacked, feels disconnected and sore. But the interaction is, in their minds, too minor to be worthy of further discussion. Better to absorb the pain and move on.
The other likely result is not, unfortunately, an honest, problem solving discussion; that is, mutual and authentic contact. Instead, if the couple chooses to get into it, the far more typical outcome is a cycle of escalating attacks and counter-attacks.
- Her: “You’re always have an excuse!”
- Him: “You never stop complaining, get off my back!!”
And round and round it goes, until one or both of them goes cold and withdraws; that is, retreats into the flight part of fight or flight.
When it comes to our romantic partner, most of us have some sense of how to charm and seduce; an unsurprising fact given the endless stream of books, movies, and ads that promote and teach these ways of interacting. And yet, at the same time, we have little guidance in the art of lovingly engaging with our partner at our points of sensitive difference – even though much of the hard work of relationship needs to be done in precisely these small moments.
So why does this strange dichotomy exist? Why do we, as a culture, neglect this vital relational skill even as we celebrate and promote romantic seduction? Because “charm and seduce” – a wonderful gift, when done with judgment and respect – is also entirely consistent with our culture’s predominant values. In this all too typical version, seduction is an effort, through a series of manipulative moves, to get our partner to feel and act in specific ways; ways that very much suit our purposes – but not necessarily theirs.
By contrast, a loving engagement with our partner in tense times is the antithesis of this competitive/manipulative mindset. For this reason, the predominant culture has an unacknowledged but powerful interest in minimizing this skill; an interest unerringly reflected in the marginal attention it receives in popular culture.
Thus, one of the key challenges, implicit in Radical Decency’s approach to living is to learn to fight well, weaning ourselves from our current fight or flight ways, replacing them with more mutual and authentic ways of interacting.
What would that look like in our example?
First, and very importantly, both partners would focus on the near future and not the recent past.
As a child of our fight or flight culture, the wife, ever vigilant to the possibility of attack, sees the dirty dishes as evidence of danger: That her needs are being ignored; that love is being withdrawn. With her fight or flight physiology activated, her words seek to deal with the perceived source of the attack: Her husband, evidenced by his past behaviors including, very particularly, the choices he’s made in the run-up to this current interaction.
On his side, the husband is equally focused on the immediate past; moving into defense mode; judging and criticizing the words that just came out of her mouth. Why? Because in his culturally reinforced, overly vigilant state, he also feels under attack: Unappreciated, devalued, unloved.
What is so sad in all of this is that there is nothing to defend – on either side. As a functioning couple, they have each put enormous amounts of time and energy into the relationship and are vitally invested in seeing it continue. Beneath the bickering is a vast reservoir of trust and love. So, the perceived attacker isn’t a source of danger at all. He/she is, instead, the other partner’s staunchest ally in life.
Given this reality, the couple would be better served by focusing, not on illusory dangers from the recent past, but instead on the near future. Why? Because they each want to increase the love flowing back and forth between them, and the best way to do that is to focus on what they do next, rather than picking apart choices already made.
Here’s how it would work.
The wife wants to be loved in a specific way – by coming home to a clean kitchen. So she would ask for what she longs for: “Honey, it makes me feel great when you do the dishes before you leave in the morning.”
Now, he is set up for a positive, loving response (“sure, I’ll do my best to do it”) rather than a defensive counter-attack (“I am not a bad person for forgetting to do the dishes this morning”). Alternatively, he might acknowledge her desire but say, “My mornings are really tight. Taking time to do the dishes is tough.”
Note, importantly, that if this second alternative is his authentic response, the couple is still set up for a positive outcome. With defensiveness eliminated and the needs of both partners on the table – hers, for a completed chore (and concrete expression of love); his, for a routine that accounts for the pressures he feels – creative problem solving can flow from the common goal, shared by both partners: How can I best meet my needs AND the needs of this partner I dearly love?
A similar transaction can also be initiated from the husband’s end of the conversation. Instead of rising to the bait of her nascent reactivity ( “why can’t you do the dishes”) with a counter-attack, he can thank (yes, thank!) his wife for raising the issue. Why? Because he now has a more vivid roadmap for loving her. And in this frame of mind, he will be able, once again, to move toward a forward-looking outcome that attends, with equal attentiveness, to his needs and hers.
While this different way of treating our intimate partner may seem a little unusual and strange it is only because we are so relentlessly pushed toward very different ways of thinking, feeling and acting. The sad reality is that these more contactful and loving techniques are seldom taught and find precious little reinforcement in our culture.
Hopefully, initiatives such as Radical Decency can act as healing correctives in our intimate relationships – and in all other areas of living as well.
As an observer of politics for more than 50 years, one persistent and powerfully present theme is this: The steady deterioration of decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – in both tone and substance.
In these years, the rhetoric of our two major parties has promoted meaningfully different agendas. Republicans’ public position is that, if we allow private, competitive markets to operate without restraint, greater decency will be a natural by-product of the private choices that accumulate under this system. Democrats, on their side, similarly endorse free market principles but seek to maintain and increase decency through governmental corrective initiatives.
Executive power since the 1960s has bounced back and forth between the parties: Kenney/Johnson followed by Nixon/Ford; Reagan/Bush One followed by Clinton; Bush Two followed by Obama. So, if our major parties actually subscribe in practice to their publicly stated goals, you would expect to see some coherent progress toward a more decent world during their years in power in ways that reflect each of their approaches.
But this hasn’t happened. When it comes to decency, the actions of both parties have been strikingly at odds with their official, publicly promoted ideologies:
Republicans have been deafening, in their silence, when it comes to leadership in promoting the private initiatives that are supposed natural by-products of the free market’s “magic,” exemplified by the utter absence of any enduring trace of Bush One’s “thousand points of light,” or Bush’s Two’s “compassionate conservatism.”
And the Democrats have been richly complicit in the erosion of safety net programs including, for example, the Bankruptcy Reform Act, signed into law by Carter, that deeply compromised the sanctity of union contracts; Clinton’s welfare “reform” and repeal of decades old regulations separating lending from investment banking; and Obama’s failure to seek meaningful financial re-regulate in return for $1.59 trillion in bailout funds; and
So what is going on? While disingenuous choices by contemporary politicians are part of the story, the more fundamental cause is deeply rooted in our evolution and history as a species.
Over the course of our 300,000 years as a species, humans have evolved exceedingly effective survival mechanisms; mechanisms that have allowed us to grow, in the last 50 to 100,00 years, from a geographically limited, sub-Saharan group of primates into the planet’s dominant species. And, the best theorists point to sensitivity to one another – and, with it, our ability to cooperate and communicate – as our key evolutionary edge.
While we are weaker and slower, our ability to intuit what others feel meant that a nod of the head or change of expression could be instantly understood by a fellow hunter at 50 yards. Living as hunter/gatherers, — the reality for almost all of years as a distinct species – this ability and the capabilities it fostered were the key to our evolutionary success.
The implication, confirmed by contemporary neuroscientists such as Dan Seigel, is that we are fundamentally affiliative beings. Our natural state is to be in intimate connection with, and to care for, one another. As Seigel says, it makes no sense to think of a single brain in isolation. From birth, and throughout life, our brain is molded and evolves by interacting with other brains. That is how we are neurologically wired.
But this is not the full story. Like other mammals, we have a second emergency system: Fight or flight. And because it is designed to deal with mortal danger it has a number of unique characteristics.
First, it is fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain. A car cuts across your lane without warning and what happens? You swerve superfast – your fight or flight brain in action. Only then do you realize that a car cut in front of you – your thinking brain.
In addition, since failing to remember the mortal risk of a crouching tiger 6 months or 20 years later would be a truly lousy idea, evolutionarily speaking, that part of your brain never forgets.
Finally, once activated, your fight or flight brain takes control of your mind and body. To support immediate counter-measures, it rushes hyper-alert chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) into the system and blood to the large muscle groups. And it shrinks the activity of the thinking brain, thereby minimizing the risk of having complex considerations interfere with the fast action required to insure survival.
So what does all this evolutionary and neurobiological theory have to do with our indecent politics? That gets back to our species’ history over the last 10,000 and 200 years.
As hunter/gatherers we spent long days quietly cooperating with one another in the mundane tasks of survival, with only occasional episodes of terror: A confrontation with an animal or neighboring group, a natural disaster. But then, about 10,000 years ago, as Jared Diamond describes in Gun, Germs, and Steel, we learned how to domesticate crops and animals.
The effect on humanity was seismic. Now, for the first time in our history, one group of people – through control of the food supply – could forcibly exercise control and dominion over others, and do so on a vast scale. The result: Our history as a species moved decisively and dramatically in that direction. We ceased to exist as small, isolated groups of hunter/gatherers. City/states, nations and empires became the norm.
But with this new, very different way of living, the people in control needed to develop new, ever more complex techniques for maintaining and expanding their power. When we remember the powerful physiological effects of fight or flight, it is not surprising that strategies that activated that part of the brain became key tools.
Demonization of the “other” became, and has remained, a mainstay of our governance. Why? Because when people are in a fight or flight state – out of fear of annihilation by an enemy – their willingness to follow, and to be controlled by, a leader greatly increases.
Thus, cultivating our auxiliary fight and flight mechanisms for political purposes has a long history.
But a key, crucially important additional piece of the puzzle is this:
Technological developments in the last 200 years have vastly upped the ante. Why? Because so many of life’s taken for granted down times – the times that allow us to be in our base-line affiliative state for a great majority of our hours and days – no longer exist. And, as an unintended but enormously important consequence, there has been an exponential increase in the times during which fight or flight states of mind are predominant.
Thus, for all of our time on earth – until 200 years ago – nighttime automatically resulted in a cessation of work, while summer’s heat and winter’s cold naturally and inevitably modulated the intensity of our activities. In addition, work rhythms were modulated by the weeks, and sometimes months, it took for communications to be sent and received.
But all that has now changed. We eliminated winter 150 years ago (with central heating), night time 120 years ago (with the electric light), and summer 60 years ago (with air conditioning). And, beginning in the mid-19th century, physical distance has been progressively obliterated as a limiting factor – with trains, cars, and planes; the telegraph telephone; and, in the last 20 years, cell phones, emails, texts and the Internet.
Now, thanks to technology, we can work all the time; a tendency that the culture powerfully reinforces with its emphasis on compete and win, dominant and control mindsets – whatever the cost. The result? Our fight or flight physiology is, more and more, in a state of constant activation. We are literally at risk of having this emergency auxiliary system become our new, base line mental state.
So why is our politics so indecent? Because, without regard to party or ideology, our mainstream politicians unerringly – and unnervingly – reflect the fight/flight mindsets that, increasingly and at an accelerating rate, have taken center stage in our lives.
The result? Though they may believe their own rhetoric, the great majority of our political leaders are not motivated by a desire to create a more humane, equitable and just world. To the contrary, the day-by-day choices that, over time, mold and reflect their priorities operationalize these deeply engrained flight or flight states of mind. In their deeds, if not their words, their priority is to “compete and win” and then, once in power, to maintain their position through “domination and control.”
On the Republican side, the route from rhetoric to reality is fairly straightforward. In their expressed ideology, decent outcomes occur automatically. If we are all free to pursue our private interests, the invisible hand of the free market will take care of the rest. And the absence of increased decency is explained, not through possible flaws in the theory – and, thus, in their policy choices – but through Democratic policies that prevent full implementation of the free market.
On the Democratic side, the journey to what is substantially the same outcome is more circuitous and, thus, more difficult to come to grips with. And this is an important point since, on balance, more people with an expressed passion for social justice identify as Democrats (me, included).
For this reason, their more hidden path away from decency, and toward compete and win values, means that the very people who are most motivated to blow the whistle on mainstream politics’ indecent ways are also more likely to remain mired in their side’s official story; concluding, for that reason, that the fundamental problem is with the other side – the Republicans – and not with the system itself.
Here’s how mainstream Democrats arrive at this place of indeecency.
They begin, it is true, with a series of programs that, if implemented, would promote decency: Jobs training, housing and education subsidies, an increased and expanded minimum wage, and so on. But then, the system grinds them up. And so, as the years go by, the great majority of these initiatives either do not become law or, if they do, are watered down to a point where their impact is more symbolic than real.
In the mainstream Democratic version of our politics, however, the failure of these “good” Democratic initiatives is attributed to the machinations of “bad” Republicans. And so, comforted by the belief that the Republican’s are the real problem, they gloss over their thorough complicity in what I see as the real story of our politics: A long series of bi-partisan, “under the radar screen” policies choices that favor the rich; that is, the funders of the very compete and win, dominate and control agenda that is so central to purposes of all our politicians, both Democrat and Republican.
Once you start to look, examples of this unacknowledged, largely invisible agenda show up everywhere. In addition to the policy choices cited at the beginning of this Reflection, here are a just few more examples:
- Rules changes that have allowed senior corporate executives to receive massive payments in the form of stock options, with their favorable capital gains tax rates;
- A massive expansion of our patent and intellectual property rights that give pharmaceutical, hi-tech and other industries expanded monopoly power over a vast array of products;
- Emasculation of insider stock trading rules;
- A massive expansion arbitration clauses that cut off consumer recourse to the courts;
- Exclusion of mortgage debt and student loans from bankruptcy relief;
- A steady increase in the inheritance tax exemption – from $675,00 in 2001 to $5.45 million in 2016.
For a fuller explanation of this phenomenon, I highly recommend Robert Reich’s concise and insightful book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015). And see, my discussion of his book in Reflection #87, Economic Inequality, Part 1 – How We Got Here.
A final note: Despite their defining importance to our political fate, these choices (and the overall policy trend they represent) are almost never a part of the political debate that shows up in the mainstream media. And that is no accident.
Even if we put aside the mainstream media’s complicity with the mainstream culture’s “compete and win” values, the promoters of this agenda more far typically embed these initiatives in highly technical language hidden, within the dense fog of legal language that is a part of even the simplest bill or proposed rule. Alternatively, they are the result of (not at all benign) inattention and, thus, legislative/executive inaction in the face of private choices that, as they accumulate, deeply and negatively impact the public.
In saying all this, I want to emphasize that I am not a complete pessimist. Politicians who do transcend these fight or flight mindsets – and they do exist – enjoy an inherent advantage since their policies are more congruent with our true nature as affiliative beings.
Moreover, there are inherent problems with policies and tactics that push us toward chronic states of arousal since they are manipulative, exploitative, and physically and emotionally draining – all qualities that limit their continuing appeal. In the end, politicians with a more humane approach have, I believe, the better of the argument.
But we need to recognize that we live in a culture that is deeply out of synch with our biology and has been, to an increasing degree, over the last 200 years. Thus, while mainstream politicians can simply exploit current trends, politicians and political activists who are seeking a better way have the much more difficult task: To mount a challenge to the status quo that persuasively presents a more decent alternative.
Understanding the problem we face is, of course, vitally important. But diagnosis only has lasting value if it is a prelude to corrective action. In other Reflections, I seek to address some aspects of this all-important “what to do about it” question. See, for example, Reflection #49 Politics – Systems Analysis, Values Solutions; Reflection #73, Making Broadcast News More Decent; Reflections ##75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2; and Reflection #88, Economic Inequality – Making Things Different.
My hope, needless to say, is that by focusing on the deep values-based roots of our current political situation, the many decent, well-intentioned people that exist, across the political spectrum, can come together in a unified effort to create a more just, fair, and humane world.
This Reflection series began with a movie I saw, while on vacation in Maine, several years ago: Extraordinary Measures, starring Brendan Fraser, Keri Russell and Harrison Ford.
At the end I had a sudden sense of clarity about what had just happened to me. I would sum it up as being seduced – and appalled at my own easy seduction.
The movie is about a father of two children both suffering from a debilitating disease certain to kill them by the time they are 10. He is our hero. A Harvard MBA, a rising executive at Bristol-Meyers, AND a patient and devoted husband and father who makes it to every recital.
Just for starters, how is that for a glib, unrealistic role model? The implication of this – and many other popular culture models like it – is that this is the standard for which we must strive: A hard charging professional who, by necessary implication, invests the enormous psychic energy and long hours needed to be a “winner” in that arena and, at the same time, is a devoted family person.
Since this ideal is so difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain over time, it is not the positive, inspirational ideal it purports to be. Instead, in the real lives of real people, it is a prescription for frustration, shame, and a sense of failure. We are constantly measuring ourselves against impossible to achieve standards and – surprise, surprise – coming up short. Or, for the “lucky” minority that can maintain this juggling act, we exhaust ourselves and neglect more “optional” endeavors, such as community, leisure, study, speculative reflection, and simple down time.
But for me, the real kicker of the movie was its more specific messages. And again, they are messages that saturate our culture.
The first is that you can do anything if you try hard enough.
Our hero finds THE scientist who is on to a cure for his children’s “incurable” illness. He then quits his high paying corporate job, forms a start up to perfect this groundbreaking new medicine, sells the start up to corporate America to keep the project going, and then defies the corporation in order to give the miraculous cure to his two kids. And, of course, the cure works!
Wow, what a message! Notwithstanding the enormous number of stories that permeate our culture, glorifying the heroic individual who defies impossible odds to “make it happen,” this is in fact a pernicious distortion of real life. In all but a statistically minute number of cases, terminal ill children die. Also, most startups fail. And most executives who heroically and emotionally stand up to their bosses get fired – never to be heard from again.
Which brings me to the second pernicious message of the movie: While corporate bosses may seem to be heartless and bottom-line oriented, in the end, they have hearts of gold. So, in this case, when faced with the father’s heroism and passion, the CEO’s essential humanity breaks through. Ignoring corporate rules and procedures, he allows our hero’s children to be part of the initial test for the new wonder drug.
The problem with this message? The great majority of corporations are not run by “good” people who, when faced with real life moral choices, are willing to sacrifice their profit-driven bottom line to “do the right thing.” To the contrary, the overwhelming majority of corporations fire people a without remorse and, far more often than we care to admit, condone environmental and employment practices, and public policy choices, that lead to injury, disease, and death.
The final message that jumped out at me is that disease, disability and, injustice all come dressed up in pretty little, socially acceptable, packages.
The dying children in this movie are adorable, feisty, funny, and charming. And so is the dad, the agent of change. When I worked as a consultant for the Variety Club, years ago, I was struck by the staff member who complained bitterly about donors that wanted “pretty little white girls in wheel chairs.”
The reality: Disability and injustice are inflicted on real people and, disproportionately on the poor and uneducated. Often anger, ugliness, emotional imbalance, selfishness, etc., etc. are part of the package. And except in the rarest of cases, the people who seek real change are not saints either. So do we ignore “ugly” injustice and stop listening to obnoxious agents of change? That is, I submit, one of the implicit messages of this movie and so many other pieces of popular culture like it.
One final thought. In the moment, as I watched this movie, I was totally seduced:
- By our hero;
- By his family;
- By the curmudgeon-y, unemotional, but ultimately soft hearted CEO; and
- By the story itself.
In other words, this is not just propaganda. It is, if my instinctual reaction is typical (and I think it is) highly effective propaganda, with important consequences at both an individual and societal level.
It is humbling to think that it has taken it has taken me six plus decades of living to work through the obscuring and dense haze of this feel good propaganda to a deeper understanding of its pernicious effects. The work before us, if we hope to understand the many subtle forces that mold our lives – and to take effective steps to counteract them – is immense.
That is the challenge that Radical Decency seeks to address.