Reflection 8: Why We Aren’t Good Students; Why It Matters

When I went back to social work school in 2000, it had been 32 years since my college graduation. One of the first articles I read discussed social construction as an analytic tool. I found its approach fresh and exciting. Then I learned that the article was a classic, written in 1971, 3 years after I graduated.

What hit me, at that moment, was that my intellectual growth precipitously declined the moment I left college. My interest in learning didn’t die. I continued to read books (mostly history, biography, and politics), the New York Times, Newsweek, and the New York Review of Books. I went to plays and movies. I listened to NPR. But while I was an above average adult learner, my efforts were, by any fair measure, inadequate — and utterly typical.

Why, for most of us, does serious study die when college ends?

The answer lies in the values that drive our educational system and the world of work. In theory, our colleges and secondary schools encourage students to ask the next question, to be aggressively curious, and to see learning as an endless, ever deepening, powerfully rewarding journey. But the deeper reality is that our schools faithfully reproduce the predominant culture’s competitive, win/lose values, making the competition for grades their operative priority.

Students, adapting to this imperative, become experts, not in learning, but in memorization and regurgitation. They graduate with neither the skills nor motivation to be effective learners. Instead, they are trained to be competitors: Experts at getting the best possible grades; prepped for the next competitive challenge – work and career.

In the world of work, the incentives once again pull us away from serious scholarship. In virtually every profession, specialization is the surest path to career advancement. In my years as an attorney, my serious study – seminars, research, attention to new developments – was focused on my specialty: Bankruptcy law. In like manner, computer programmers and doctors are typically students, not of their professions, but of their specialty within that profession.

In Consilience (1998), Edward O. Wilson points to this same phenomenon in academics.  To build their careers, our budding scholars become economists, or political scientists, or biologists – and play by the rules of their chosen discipline. Then, to get ahead, they find a specific niche within their chosen field, a specialization within a specialization. So even our professional thinkers are pulled away from the “big questions” that should, one would think, be the central focus for a conscious, self-aware species:

  • Who are we, biologically and psychologically?
  • How is our world structured and how does that affect our lives?
  • Given these realities, what are our best choices for living well?

For most of us, the idea of serious and sustained focus on these issues is a nonstarter.  Instead, preoccupied with other priorities, we embrace easy, superficial answers to life’s big questions; answers whose primary virtue is their ability to advance our political, professional and/or emotional agendas. Moreover, since we have so little exposure to the habits of scholarship, we fail to notice its absence. The result? We think what we believe is true.

But as Wilson notes:

“Most people believe they know how they themselves think, how others think too, and even how institutions evolve. But they are wrong. Their understanding is based on folk psychology, the grasp of human nature by common sense – defined (by Einstein) as everything learned to the age of eighteen – shot through with misconceptions. [Even] advanced social theorist, including those who spin out sophisticated mathematical models, are happy with folk psychology.”

The downside of this phenomenon is easy to name: Habitual, unreflective thinking that leads to excesses from endemic and murderous tribal exceptionalism (Rome, the Crusades, British and American imperialism, etc., etc.); self-immolating beliefs such as radical jihadism and the rapture; and so on.

The upside benefits of a serious commitment to life long learning are far less obvious.  Does such a commitment really make a difference?

My answer is an emphatic yes.

If we hope to craft the best possible answers to life’s big questions, we need to become skilled and dedicated students: Grounding ourselves in the best available research; allowing that data to guide us in formulating answers ; always remaining open to new or revised answers as our empirical knowledge and conceptual understandings evolve.

Note, importantly, that my enthusiasm for this enterprise is not some generalized “this is good for you” platitude.  To the contrary, the new understandings that result can literally change how we see the world and, with it, how we think, act, and feel.

So, for example, Daniel Siegel and others have taught me about the neurobiological mechanisms that make our brains habit forming machines – reacting to new stimuli in the same way it reacted to similar stimuli in the past; increasing the likelihood of that response with each repetition. I also learned that our fight or flight mechanism for dealing with imminent danger reacts 10 times faster than our thinking brain, pumps cortisol and adrenaline into our system, pushes blood into our large muscle groups, and shrinks the activity of our thinking brain.

From Steven Stosny I learned as well that the jolt of energy and (false) sense of clarity that fight or flight’s physiological changes evoke is deeply addictive at an interpersonal level: That, when attacked, we are biologically wired to respond in kind, with either a counter attack (fight) or withdraw (flight).

These understandings have changed my life.

Because my mother was a rager, I grew up with a hair trigger temper. The result? For most of my life, I judged myself for my outbursts; coped with the shame that grew out of my inability to control my emotions; and suffered in silence, certain in the knowledge that there was something profoundly wrong with me.

But no more.

Understanding the biological and psychological realities described above, I now make complete sense to myself. Confronted with anger from an early age, I learned to counter attack. And because the pattern kept repeating itself, that response became a deeply engrained habit, reinforced through the years by the jolt of energy its activation provided. I wasn’t wrong. I was human.

The result has been an easing of my shame and the defensive crouch it provoked; states of mind that, for years, limited my efforts to tame my emotional demons. Armed with a better understanding of the rage cycle, I was able to craft strategies to prevent its activation or, failing that, to interrupt it.  Knowing that our brains are habit forming machines, I also embraced a more realistic vision of the change process – seeing it as a war of attrition, requiring a steady and open ended commitment to my new ways of thinking, acting, and feeling.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, offers another, good example of the transformative power of serious study. That book persuasively argues that the historic dominance of Middle East and European cultures resulted from geographic and climactic factors; the early development and spread of plant and animal domestication in those areas. Diamond and others also describe the seismic impact of this event on human history, setting the stage for exponential population growth and – through the ability to control the food supply – the emergence of the hierarchical, authoritarian cultures that have dominated the last 4,000 years of human history.

With these understandings, any residual attachment I might have had to the mainstream cultural notion of Western superiority is gone, as is the mainstream view of history as a journey toward modernization and progress.

Our history is not preordained and is not shaped primarily, or even substantially, by the intrigues of the kings and generals that fill our history books. Who we are and how we live is, most fundamentally, the result of the interplay of biology, environment and natural selection. And history’s appropriate time frame is not the 5,000 years of “civilization” covered in our history books. It is instead 300,000 years of Homo sapien history, our 7 million years as a distinct primate subgroup, 3 billion years of life on earth, and 13 billion years of cosmic evolution.

I could cite many other examples in which scholarship has profoundly changed my thoughts and outlook: Paulo Frieire and Philip Lichtenberg’s dissection of the psychology of authoritarian relationships; Carol Gilligan and Terence Real’s insights into the different ways in which men and women are acculturated; and so on.  Hopefully, however, the examples described above make my point: Serious, careful and sustained study and reflection can change our lives. And, more fully assimilated into our mainstream ways of living, it can change the world as well.

Reflection 7: A Comprehensive and Inclusive Approach to Change

In this Reflection, I discuss key ways in which Radical Decency supports a more integrated and, thus, more effective approach to change.


Radical Decency is a values-based call to action. It invites us to organize our lives around a set of values that are practical, understandable, and all encompassing:

Be decent in all that you do – to yourself, to others, and to the world.  And to do it at all times, in every context, and without exception.

We practice Radical Decency trusting that it will guide us to concrete, day by day choices that, as they accumulate, are the surest path to the philosophy’s ambitious goals: To create better lives and to meaningfully contribute to a better world.

In this way, Radical Decency is a significant departure from the visions of change that predominate in the culture. These formulations consist, largely, of high-sounding goals with far too little thought given to their implementation. We are told to “do justice” but are not told how. And, for most of us, any instinct to act dies with the realization that the contributions we are invited to make – a donation here, a volunteer day there – will have no perceptible impact.


Notice, also, that the philosophy’s values-based approach – by its very nature –drives us toward a fundamentally more inclusive and, thus, a more effective approach to change. Why? Because the predominant values it seeks to supplant – compete and win, dominate and control – are infused in every area of living.

For this reason, Radical Decency needs to unfold in virtually every sphere of life. And the obvious corollary? Everyone with a sincere interest in Radical Decency – whatever their area of activity – needs to be embraced as partner in the cause.

Business people are an excellent example of how this process works. In most social change venues, these people are viewed (at best) as part time and compromised participants. While most of their time is devoted to fundamentally amoral, profit-seeking activities, they can at least raise money and write checks.

But Radical Decency castes them in a very different light. Since business and the workplace are the epicenter of the mainstreams culture’s indecent values, it is one of the most fruitful and exciting venues in which to apply its precepts.

What better place to work for fundamental change than in the belly of the beast? Imagine how different our world would be if the prevailing view in boardrooms and executive offices was to treat co-workers, customers, and the environment with habitual decency.  How different things would be if profitability was priority 1A – vitally important but clearly subordinate to the goals of Radical Decency.


Radical Decency’s lodestar prescription for living – to be decent at all times and without exception – drives us toward more integrated change initiatives in other ways as well. Seeking to live up to this ambitious goal, we are impelled to take stock of our decency efforts in every area of living, from the most personal and intimate to the most public and political.

Several years ago, I created a “Roadmap” that attempts to enumerate specific acts of decency, contemplated by the philosophy, across the full range of activities that constitute our lives. Here are some examples, drawn from that document:

Tend to your emotional needs: Nurture, companionship, novelty, play, etc. (decency to self).

Be honest, don’t manipulate to get result; don’t mislead nonverbally (decency to others).

With strong emotions/different communication styles, stay open; when breakdown occurs, do repair work (decency to others).

Balance resources used, accumulated, offered to others, and conserved (decency to the world).

Be open, inquisitive about varieties of oppression – yours and others – and how it is resisted (decency to the world).

Working with specific aspects of Radical Decency, such as these, most of us will quickly notice that our practice is fairly strong in some areas and in obvious need of improvement in others. And, with this clarity, we are set up for greater success as we seek to improve and expand our Radical Decency practice.

We will, in addition, be primed to reach out to people with greater skill in areas where we are deficient (social justice types teaching and supporting personal growth types; personal growth types teaching and supporting decency based businesses, and so on).  And, as this process grows and deepens, there will be a natural coming together of change agents from diverse areas of activity; magnifying and improving everyone’s change efforts.


Still another way in which Radical Decency deepens and expands our change efforts lies in the habits of mind it cultivates.

Forced to confront the many complexities that arise when we seek to be decent to ourselves, even as we maintain decency to others and the world, Radical Decency is a challenging approach to living. Howard Lesnick, a law professor and gifted thinker and writer, cuts to the core of the philosophy’s intellectual and emotional challenge, in Listening for God when he “cautions against” “taking the rightness of parental preference for granted” in a society where “the degree of parental preference is far too extensive to be morally justified.”

All too frequently, there are no obvious or easy choices. We are regularly stretched to harmonize and integrate – or, failing that, to balance – what often seem inherently conflicting priorities: My career vs. my obligation to family and friends vs. larger issues of social and economic injustice. But we need to persist in these efforts despite the many situations in which, given the culture’s predominant values, our choices will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or simply ignored.

These difficulties are, paradoxically, one on of the key benefits of the philosophy.  Seeking to be the best we can be in these “wisdom stretching” moments, we are pushed – at times of reflection – to cultivate our creativity, thoughtfulness, and intuitive awareness; and – at times of choice – to stretch our analytic skills and to exercise both courage and prudence, as situations warrant.

Most of all, Radical Decency cultivates a deepening sense of curiosity about every aspect of living – from the subtleties of own thoughts and feelings, to the intricacies of an intimate conversation, to the historical forces that repeatedly result in violent social upheaval. How else can we become the creative force for decency we aspire to be?

And as curiosity and, with it, our insight and empathy become consuming pre-occupations, the culturally engrained habits that separate us from others – judgment, possessiveness, greed, need to control – begin to wither, crowded out by these new habits of thought, feeling and action.

As this process takes root, our approach to other change agents will, once again, be fundamentally altered. Instead of seeing their efforts as different and unrelated, or in competition for scarce resources, we will be primed to be deeply curious about their goals, insights, approaches to change, and specific tactics. And, in this way as well, we will be impelled toward a path of deepening collaboration with other, reform-minded people.

Reflection 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other

Radical Decency grew out of my journey with the Eccoes Foundation, an organization my wife and I started in 2000. With our long involvement with personal growth and social justice causes, we were puzzled about how little overlap there was between the two. To unravel that mystery, we decided to start a public foundation that offered grants to organizations operating at the intersection of these worlds.

In our 3 years as operators of a grant-making organization, we found any number of inspiring groups that acknowledged the connection between social justice and personal growth. But true programmatic integration was hard to find. Instead there were social justice groups that, recognizing that personal healing enhanced their effectiveness, would sponsor staff retreats. On the flip side, we found personal growth groups that had social justice committees or sponsored occasional community-oriented events. But in every instance, the organizations we funded clearly existed in one world or the other.

This experience led me to a lot of head scratching, writing and, ultimately, Radical Decency. It is offered as an approach to living that, fully thought through, has the potential to integrate people and organizations with a passion for social justice and personal growth into a more unified and effective force for change. 


What can explain this separation between the worlds of social justice and personal growth? As I see it, it is a series of culturally promoted messages, relentlessly reinforced, that push us to “do our own thing,” to focus on “our” career, to be a “success.” And what is success?  The accumulation of more and more personal power, recognition, and wealth.

These attitudes, in turn, foster a pervasive sense of “personal ownership,” not just of things but also of ideas, programs and philosophies. Indeed, how many of us are immune to a sense of diminishment when our good idea is adopted – but we receive no credit?

The net effect? The many people who share a passion for creating a better life and meaningfully contributing to a better world are separated from one another; fragmenting their energy; reducing their effectiveness. 


What is less obvious is the extent to which these values are embedded: (1) in the very structure of the organizations these “good guys” join and create to promote their goals; and (2) in the ways in which they think about their lives and careers. To illustrate the point, consider the very different opportunities and rewards available to me as a commercial bankruptcy attorney, on the one hand, and as a public interest lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist on the other.

As a mainstream attorney, tending to “my career,” I developed a name for myself in a narrowly defined and financially rewarding area of the law; cultivated a stable of good paying clients who were loyal – to me; and measured my success in terms of the money I made. Playing by the predominant culture’s rules of personal aggrandizement, I was offered an easily identifiable career path and way of living, and was rewarded for that choice with the mainstream culture’s indicia of success – money and respect.

By contrast, the career paths available to me as a public interest lawyer looked very different. I could specialize in housing law – or civil rights – or environmental law.  But there was no readily available career path that allowed me to work, more generally, on the deeply flawed ways in which we live. 

Similarly, while social work school trumpeted an approach to healing that considered both the personal and political, incoming students were required to choose either a clinical or policy track. In other words, it could train you for a career that focused on social justice, or personal healing and growth – but not on both. Once again, there was no career path for someone who was interested in an integrated “big picture” approach to change.

So right from the start – in both of these reform-minded professions – the structural realities of the culture pushed me to shrink my focus; to work on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Why? In retrospect, the answer seems self-evident.  The predominant culture, with its genius for self-perpetuation, tolerates small incremental improvements, but has no tolerance for – and hence offers no structures to support the work of – people who seek more fundamental change. 


This narrowing process is also deeply interwoven in the organizations the good guys create to implement their visions. As a society, we have created vast markets to finance risky new ventures and to reward organizers and early investors when they are successful. These structures are, however, only available when the prime virtue of the product is its ability to make a lot of money. In other words, access to these empowering financial structures is limited to people who embrace the predominant culture’s vision of success. 

For people seeking to create a better world, the realities are very different. Social change oriented nonprofits have no meaningful access to capital markets, their organizers and investors (donors) can never cash out, and there are legal limits on the salaries they can pay. And, in an analogous way, change agents who work in the healing professions – psychotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, etc. – are limited by modest fees and the sale of services and products that are of little or no interest to capital markets.

But financial marginalization is only a part of the story. Since they are offered enough money to survive and are able to focus on their passion for change, many of the world’s good guys are drawn to the nonprofit or healing careers. But in accepting this invitation, they are forced – in fundamental, mission compromising ways – to play by ground rules that have been crafted by the predominant culture. 

Thus, to retain the goodwill of mainstream funders – foundations, individual donors, government agencies – they focus on limited and defined substantive areas and, more often than not, on service oriented services and products. Doing so, their more radical instincts are marginalized. While they can work to make aspects of the existing system less mean spirited, even the limited support they receive from mainstream funding sources will evaporate if they focus on more fundamental change.

Moreover, the great majority of these good people are not immune to the pull of the predominant culture’s values. They worry about cost of sending their kids to college and how to support themselves when they are old. And, surrounded by the mainstream culture’s cues, sanctions, and incentives, they are susceptible to all the material things the culture so relentlessly promotes – a comfortable home in the suburbs, fancy gadgets, nice vacations, etc., etc.

So while they choose their careers for noble reasons, the tendency to protect the financial viability of the entity they depend upon for their livelihood – by adopting mainstream business outlooks and practices – is almost impossible to resist. Pushed in that direction by their lawyers, accountants, and PR advisers, they increasingly treat other good guy organizations as competitors; view their services as a proprietary brand to be preserved and protected; and see their clients and funding sources as closely held corporate assets.  Here, once again, powerful cultural forces discourage collaboration, mutual support, and a more radical agenda.

Thus, embarking on a mission of change, the typical good guy winds up in the vise of a system that offers work on important and inspiring but, in the end, narrowly focused programs; that discourages active cooperation with other change agents; and will, if fundamental change is sought, financially quash the organizations they rely upon to support themselves and their families. 

Small wonder, then, that organizations working at the intersection of social justice and personal growth are hard to find. Our world is specifically structured to prevent good guy energy from cohering into a unified and, therefore, more effective force for change.


Overcoming these cultural forces is a daunting task. And, tackling them is one of Radical Decency’s central missions.

Radical Decency’s approach to living seeks to systematically replace the cultural norms that produce these results with attitudes and behaviors based on respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, acceptance, fairness and justice. The hope is that, building out from this values-based perspective, new outlooks and structures will emerge that will allow the energy of reform minded people – the good guys – to cohere into a more collaborative and effective movement for change. For a fuller discussion of how this might occur, see Reflection 6, Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection 45, Re-visioning Social Change Work; Reflection 89, A Call to Action, Part 1 – Community; Reflection 90, A Call to Action, Part 2 – An Expanded Collaborative Vision; and Reflection 91, A Call to Action, Part 3 – Expanded Collaboration in Action.

Reflection 5: Radical Decency Guideposts for Healers

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.

Reflection 4: Perspectives on Morals and Ethics

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.

Reflection 3: Why Can’t You Do the Dishes

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.

Reflection 2: The Deep Roots of Our Indecent Politics

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.

Reflection 1: Our Propaganda Saturated Culture

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.