Reflection 36: Indecency – A Historical Overview

Through virtually all of our 6 million years of existence as a distinct line of primates and 300,000 years as Homo sapiens, the rhythm of our lives was dictated by the physical world. We foraged and hunted; in the winter we sought warmth and shelter and, in the summer, shade. Daily chores started at sun up and ended when the sun went down.

As Jared Diamond points out, however, a dramatic turning point occurred about 10,000 years ago with the domestication of crops and animals. What we call civilization – the history of the last 5,000 years or so – is a direct outgrowth of the exponential increase in the food supply and population that these innovations made possible.

Two powerful trends were unleashed by these events – that continue into the present:

  1. The ability of one group of people to dominate another through control of the food supply and, with it, the growth of nations, empires, religious movements, and other complex hierarchical and – more typically than not – authoritarian organizations; and
  2. An accelerating ability to harness nature to our purposes.

Given these extraordinary developments, major shifts in our traditional ways of being were inevitable. But because the catalyst for change was technological – and not moral or spiritual – there was nothing to guarantee that these cultural adjustments would be wise and humane.

In fact, they have been anything but. Instead of using these evolving technologies to meet our emotional and spiritual needs, we have moved in the opposite direction: We have subordinated our needs to the demands of the increasingly powerful authoritarian organizations that the technological advances have spawned. And those organizations have, in turn, spurred additional technological advances used to further entrench their authority.

A prime example is our response to innovations that improve productivity. While they could be used to reduce our workload – thus freeing time for family and leisure – they almost never are. Instead, the time they free up is used to work even harder in service of our culture’s singular obsession with more and more productivity and material wealth. We have, in short, been indoctrinated into a way of living that makes us cogs in an enormous, endlessly voracious “productivity machine.”

The system’s self-perpetuating momentum is then sealed by our induction into the culture’s equally voracious “consuming machine.” Conditioned to always want more, we are driven in our jobs to produce (and earn) more, which in turns feeds our addiction to wanting more, and so on, in an endless cycle what chews up our days and leaves less and less room for the expression of other aspects of our humanity.


While this trend has been gathering steam for thousands of years, I want to call special attention to the last two centuries. As recently as 200 years ago, our lives were still largely rooted in the rhythms of nature.

Then, our accumulating technologies reached critical mass. Massive reality-altering change swept the world:

  • Electricity eliminated night as a meaningful limit on our activities.
  • Central heat and air conditioning eliminated summer and winter.
  • With the advent of modern travel and instantaneous communication, time and distance – to a hitherto unimaginable degree – ceased to be limiting factors.

The result? The physical environment is no longer a defining factor in our lives. We can now work and consume day and night, 365 days a years. Remote locations and private moments – something we used to take for granted – are rapidly disappearing. The Internet instantaneously connects a missionary in Borneo with his or her family in Phoenix, and computers and smart phones keep us fully connected during the morning commute – as we sit on the beach – even when we go to the bathroom.

The scope and magnitude of these changes is, of course, very important. But so too is the speed with which they have occurred. In my lifetime, for example, the implications of the telephone, car, radio and television were barely digested, when jet travel was introduced, followed by the pill. These changes were then followed by a revolution in office technology (Xerox machines, word processors, email), and the arrival of instantaneous access – to virtually everything – via computers and smart phones.

Why is this acceleration in the speed of change so important? Because it hampers our ability to craft reasoned and humane responses. We scarcely digest and adjust to one seismic change when another and, then, another is upon us.

As the scope and pace of change has accelerated, so too has the corrosive impact of our obsessive, work and consume habits of living. In earlier Reflections, I discuss some of their consequences:

  • A massive decline in communal connections (#29 Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots) and intellectual vitality (#21 Theory Matters);
  • The pain that comes from perfectionism (#31 Perfectionism);
  • A denial of vulnerability (#14 Dying – and Our Epidemic of Immortality);
  • A marked shrinking of the intimate connections we share with one another (#22 Consumerism — and the Passivity it Breeds).

But these examples do not tell the full story. The cultural adaptations of the last 200 years have also fundamentally distorted our most basic neurobiological wiring.


Across millions of years, we humans have evolved as profoundly affiliative beings, the result being that our emotional and intellectual growth – and continued vitality – depends upon ongoing, intimate contact with one another.

According to Daniel Siegel, one of our leading neuroscientists, the brain is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains. In other words, thinking about a single brain – a single person – makes no sense. We only exist in connection with others.

But nature has also provided us with an auxiliary fight or flight brain. Designed to deal with danger, it’s fast – 10 times faster than our thinking brain – and powerful in its effects. Energy chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) are pumped into our system, blood rushes to our large muscles groups, and the activity of the thinking brain shrinks – in order to avoid indecision at a time of crisis. Faced with a potentially life-threatening emergency, we are ready to act quickly, forcefully, and instinctually.

When the natural world dictated the rhythm of our lives, a natural balance was maintained between our fight/flight and thinking/affiliative brains. Most of our hours and days were spent in a nonreactive emotional state as we went about the highly routinized chores of daily living. Then, occasionally, there would be flashes of danger – a predatory animal, enemy, or natural disaster – that would activate our fight or flight brain. When the crisis ended, we would return to our normal, more relaxed state of mind.

But in today’s world – after 200 years of momentous change – everything is different.

Groomed to be competitors and “winners,” we are “on,” more or less constantly – both because we can be and because an endless stream of cultural cues, incentives, and sanctions tell us that that is what successful people do.

To get ahead, we move through our days anticipating danger; striving for a competitive edge; viewing setbacks as unacceptable and traumatic; exhausting ourselves, physically and emotionally. In other words, we have taken fight or flight – an auxiliary system, designed to deal with isolated moments of danger and, to truly unprecedented levels, made it our base-line operating system.

Some of the fallout from this seismic shift in consciousness is easy to identify: Heightened levels of stress and anxiety, drug abuse and alcoholism, verbal and physical abuse. But the damage goes further.

Fight or flight is specifically designed to neutralize or “annihilate” the will of the other – either through aggressive force (fight) or withdrawal (flight). These choices are, however, the antithesis of intimacy, a pattern of interaction that requires a willingness to engage others with empathy and curiosity.

So, it is no accident that so many couples and families are locked in an endless cycle of criticism, counter criticism and withdrawal – or that self-criticism and judgment (indicating a fight/flight stance with our self) are so pervasive – or that combative/attacking behaviors have become ever more dominant in our politics. The disquieting reality is that the cultural choices of the last 10,000 – and, in particular, the last 200 – years have led to a marked deterioration in our intimacy instincts and skills.

Compounding the problem is the fact that fight or flight is highly infectious, with attacks provoking counter attacks even from ordinarily more conciliatory people. For this reason as well, overcoming this “new normal” state of conscious is a huge challenge.


Radical Decency – decency to self, others, and the world; practiced at all times, in every area of living, and without exception – is an approach to living that, at a personal level, can make a real difference as we seek to diverge from these increasingly engrained, fight/flight habits of living.

At a societal level, a perceptible shift in ways of operating that have their roots in 10,000 years worth of history is a long shot, to say the least. But the future is inherently uncertain. And the hopeful thought, implicit in this analysis, is this: Because our current situation is the result of historical choice – and not the inevitable product of our inherent human nature – it can also be undone by the choices we make going forward.