Reflection 81: Being Radical — An Expanded Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection 80: Derailing Change — Domestication and Marginalization

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

Here’s how it works.

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

At the beginning, hopes are high.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestication

“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.”

Marginalization

“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.’ ”
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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.

Reflection 79: The Lust for Certainty vs. The Risk of Trust

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.”

Reflection 78: The Space Between

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.

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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.

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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

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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:

·    Respect;

·    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.

Reflection 77: Process and Possibility — Moving Beyond Our Labels

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.

Reflection 76: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Part 2

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.

Reflection 75: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Part 1

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.

Premises

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Orienting Mindsets

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Goals

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.

Reflection 74: Radical Decency — A User’s Guide

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.

Reflection 73: Making Broadcast News More Radically Decent

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.

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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.”

Reflection 72: Men’s Moment(s) of Truth

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.

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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.

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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.

Example One

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.

Example Two.

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.

Example Three.

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.”

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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.