Reflection 52: Marketing Radical Decency

Radical Decency is an action and process oriented approach to living. It is not based on an a priori set of beliefs about the nature of reality. Instead, it is grounded in our biological limitations and potentialities and, then, works with these empirical truths to offer behavioral guidelines that cultivate better lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world.

These guidelines – respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice – are the meat and potatoes of Radical Decency. Equally important, however, are the means by which they are implemented. To achieve the philosophy’s ambitious goals, substance and process – means and ends – need to be in harmony.

Adopting this approach, Radical Decency rejects the idea – condoned and widely adopted in the mainstream culture – that a worthy goal gives us permission to temporize on the means employed to attain it. Radical Decency views with deep suspicion the politician or social reformer who claims that he is (1) “playing the game” to (2) get power, so that once in power, he can (3) reform the system. Why? Because it doesn’t work: Part (3) never seems to happen.

Indeed, the deeper truth is that this “ends justifies the means” approach is a key way in which the efforts of well-intentioned people are domesticated and marginalized. In their zeal to be effective – to be big, to have a perceptible impact in the world – they are seduced into ways of operating that reflect the culture’s predominant values. In the end, they wind up perpetuating the very system they seek to reform.

With these premises in mind, I have puzzled, for many years, over this question: How can we maintain Radical Decency as an unyielding, uncompromisable priority and, at the same time, effectively present it – market it – to others.

Here are my thoughts.


The predominant culture has evolved a myriad of mechanisms –subtle, indirect, and devastatingly effective – for corroding and neutralizing change efforts. Thus, it is no surprise that it offers a ready answer to my question: To be successful, Radical Decency needs to be effectively marketed and sold, just like any other product in the marketplace of ideas.

When I first started working with Radical Decency, I instinctually accepted this approach as the “smart” thing to do. If I wanted to succeed, how could I do otherwise?

Over the years, however, I have come to realize that this approach fundamentally conflicts with Radical Decency’s core principles, emasculating in the process both the message and the movement we hope to nurture around it.

The proponents of this approach tend to be business-smart people; a group that I very much identify with, given my many years as an attorney and mainstream political activist. Drawing on their experience, and success, in the mainstream world, they instinctually push marketing initiatives that people like themselves, with money and real world smarts, find familiar and comfortable.

Steeped in these approaches, their messages are carefully crafted to avoid any buzzwords that might be off-putting to mainstream audiences. In the process, however, they soft-pedal the philosophy’s more visionary and radical ideas and, to the extent possible, make them sound like good, smart business. And because these are “mere marketing strategies” designed to “sell the product,” they seldom see them as posing any risk to the philosophy’s core message.

The fundamental problem with this approach? It vastly underestimates the depth of our immersion in the mainstream culture’s habits of thought and action.

Rising above these entrenched ways of being is a daunting task, even when all of our energy is focused on that goal. And when, in this context, our marketing strategies adopt the mainstream culture’s language and tone, and continually seek to rationalize Radical Decency based on that culture’s “compete and win” premises, the all too predictable result is dilution, confusion and diminishment of the philosophy’s transformative message and purposes.

A second, more practical – but equally fatal – flaw with this approach is that, in its pursuit, conventionally minded people are invited to become key players in our radically decent enterprises. The problem here is that the mainstream smarts, that makes these people attractive collaborators, also makes them instinctually biased toward status quo ways of operating. And as they become more and more influential in the movement, there is an ever-increasing risk that their mainstream outlooks and tactics will supplant Radical Decency’s more radical vision.

In the end, the inconvenient truth is that conventional marketing strategies are fundamentally inconsistent with the philosophy’s principles. Their goal – to mold the message to meet the target audience’s expectations – embraces a manipulative approach that is deeply at odds with the philosophy’s goal of fostering mutual and authentic contact in every interaction and area of living. Their pre-occupation with winning the competition for money, members, and influence – by whatever means necessary– is, in truth, a return to the very values Radical Decency seeks to supplant.


So what would a radical decent marketing strategy look like?

It would, to be sure, take full advantage of the many creative technologies that would allow our ideas and programs to reach to a wider audience. And it would strive to present Radical Decency as the exciting, creative and, potentially, life- and world-altering program it truly is. At the same time, however, it would avoid the over promising/“tell them what they want to hear”/manipulative practices that are such a comfortable – and assumed part – of so many marketing programs. Above all, the message would be invitational; avoiding any suggestion that Radical Decency is “the way” or “the only way.”

This is not to suggest that we should become diffident or falsely modest in our presentation. Radical Decency and approaches like it are desperately needed in our lives and in the world. So while remaining invitational in our approach, the message would be strong, clear, and appropriately amplified.

We will be doing our job well if, in our marketing, we offer a “passionate invitation” while always taking care never to slip into proselytization or manipulative persuasion. With such an approach in place, our message to the larger world would be this:

  • If you are fully in, great. We are confident that you will be richly rewarded for your choice.
  • If you and I share some but not all of Radical Decency’s premises, that is fine too. Perhaps our ongoing dialogue will reveal commonalities, and new and creative ways of collaborating.
  • And if you have no interest, we genuinely wish you well in finding your way knowing that, in the end, we have no monopoly on wisdom.

The goal: To allow people, exposed to our marketing material, to feel engaged with in an authentic and respectful way; allowing them to consider our ideas – and possible participation in our programs – from a place of increasing trust and open mindedness.

With this approach, we will never feel pushed to compromise Radical Decency’s core values in the process of marketing them. We will, instead, be enriched by the continually challenge of practicing and modeling marketing strategies that fully reflect them.

In all of this, the issue of effectiveness is very much in play. Foregoing traditional marketing tactics will undoubtedly leave many opportunities on the table. But if we are serious about creating an alternative approach to living – and maintaining its integrity –there is no other way. The truth in this area, as in so many others, is that there are no easy choices. As tempting as they are, marketing strategies that temporize on Radical Decency’s core values – for the sake of short-term gain – are misguided. The pull of the culture’s mainstream values is simply too strong.