Reflection 54: Being Radical — Three Key Points

As a proponent of Radical Decency, I am suggesting two things: (1) Make decency a priority in your life; and (2) apply it radically.

In another Reflection, I break “decency” down into a detailed set of attitudes and behaviors, the intent being to offer a concrete roadmap to support us in making day-by-day choices that are more decent. See Reflection #17, Decency Defined. In this Reflection, I deal with the “radical” side of the equation.

Viewed in isolation, Radical Decency’s component pieces are unexceptional. Be Respectful? Understanding? Empathic? Appreciative? Accepting? Fair? Just? Ask any person – even someone who is thoroughly invested in the mainstream culture’s competitive, win/lose mindsets – and he’s likely to say, “sure, no problem, all of these things are good.”

His response, however, is far more typically code for this: I will happily be understanding and empathic but only when it doesn’t interfere with my headlong pursuit of money and power. I will honor the idea of fairness and justice, but only when it requires no meaningful sacrifice on my part.

With these unspoken caveats, he is in fact expressing a deeply engrained mainstream approach to living that I call pick and chose decency: Be respectful, fair, just and so on when you can. But when it really counts “do what needs to be done.”

This approach is, of course, not decent at all.

Radical Decency is interesting and different, not because it promotes these values, but because it kneads them into a coherent, integrated whole and, then, applies them – not partially and when convenient – but at all times, in every context, and without exception. In other words, the philosophy’s transformative potential lies in its radical application.

In the discussion that follows, I elaborate on three elements that, as I see it, are indispensable to this radical approach.

  1. Make a positive, forward-looking vision your central focus. Don’t define yourself in reaction to others.

This principle is central to Radical Decency and a cornerstone of its radicalism. Taking this position puts me at odds – I know – with the dictum of Saul Alinsky, the legendary radical organizer who argues that successful organizing requires a designated enemy around which to coalesce, a model that has been integral to so many of recent history’s more visible radical movements: Labor’s struggles against management; the civil right’s movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s vs. the deep South’s belligerent racism; Reagan and the tea partiers vs. the Federal government, and so on.

For me, the disqualifying aspect of Alinsky’s “us vs. them” approach is that it fails to come to grips with the authoritarian, win/lose mindsets that permeate our culture and are at the root of its endemic indecency.

Here’s the problem.

The unspoken assumption in this approach is that, because “we” are good and right – and “they” are bad and wrong – what needs to be done, once we win, will be the easy part. Our self-evident goodness and rightness will point the way. With this mindset firmly in place, most radical movements spend remarkably little time on what is, in the end, the really crucial question: What are the concrete, day by day steps we would need to take to make things better, given the opportunity?

Unfortunately, the issues any truly radical movement takes on are, almost inevitably, complex and intractable. So, in the all too typical case, the leaders of successful radical movements – steeped in their self-righteous mindset, and glib take on “what do we do, once we win” – are utterly lacking in the skills needed to implement their visionary goals.

To the contrary, after years of struggle, what they have been thoroughly schooled in, know best – and have succeeded in – are the authoritarian, win/lose ways that were the hallmark of the status quo forces they worked so hard to overthrow. Thus, it is no surprise that, once in power, they wind up replicating the indecent ways of the people they supplanted; a lesson graphically illustrated by the fate of so many of history’s best known radical movements – the French and Russian Revolutions, Mao-ism, and so on.

Radical Decency seeks to avoid this trap. It starts, it is true, with an in depth analysis of the mainstream culture’s dysfunctional ways of operating. But the goal is not to identify, demonize, and defeat an enemy.

Instead, it seeks to understand the ways in which the mainstream culture neutralizes radical reform efforts so that it can put processes in place that avoid these pitfalls. Then, with these safe-guards in place, it focuses on the positive, forward looking agenda that defines Radical Decency: To understand what decency looks like, and to craft strategies that will allow us to implement it more effectively in all areas of living.

Radical Decency works to make “cure” – the tricky business of charting a different, more productive course – the touchstone of the philosophy; seeking to avoid the trap of offering one more robust rant against “what is” with far too little discussion of what can be done. True to that perspective, the balance of this Reflection deals with ways in which we can more effectively chart a solutions oriented “radical” course.

  1. Be strategic.

In our laissez faire, “do your own thing” culture the importance of a strategic outlook receives remarkably little attention. Here, once again, the culture’s taken for granted attitudes work beautifully – if you are looking for an approach that keeps us rooted in the status quo.

Prevailing attitudes about charitable giving offer an excellent example. People are urged to give. But strikingly absent is any societal pressure to make that giving strategic. Instead, we are effusively congratulated for any contribution, of any size, never mind that it might represent an infinitesimal fraction of our net worth and income. And a gift to a college with a multi-billion endowment is, in the mainstream view, just as commendable as a gift to an organization that is working with the neediest among us.

To be truly radical, we need to continually examine and re-examine our priorities. This process is incredibly complicated and often uncomfortable. How do you allocate your time, talent, and financial resources – day-by-day – between your family, your immediate communities, the larger world, and your own needs? Like so many other aspects of the philosophy, there are no easy answers. But as we willingly engage in this wisdom-stretching enterprise, we will more fully make good on the goal of creating a decency practice we can legitimately call radical.

One final thought on being strategic: We need to pay special attention to ways in which we can collaborate and integrate our efforts with others. Because the slope we need to climb as we seek to create a more decent life and world is so steep, we can’t take the easy, more comfortable route of pursuing our special passions only; offering little or no support to other vitally important initiatives.

  1. Be fully committed; “all in.”

Joseph Stalin was a mass murderer, responsible for the death of 60 million people. Jesus, an exemplary person, has been an inspiration to countless millions. But they were both radicals – and in one respect their message was identical.

When a wealthy man asked Jesus what he needed do to get eternal life, His response was: Give your possessions to the poor and follow me. Similarly, after the collapse of the 1905 revolution, when so many of his compatriots got married and found jobs, Stalin railed in frustration: “You cannot be a householder and a revolutionary.”

Being “all in” is a tough discipline as the Bible recognizes when it reports that the rich man went away sad. But Jesus and Stalin were right. If you conclude that fundamental change is needed you cannot commit yourself to the process halfway. You have to be willing to risk all: As Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem with his radical, anti-establishment message; and as Lenin and Stalin did in their years of beleaguered organizing and, at the decisive moment, when they stormed the Winter Palace.

Doing so in the context of Radical Decency presents special challenges. Unlike so many other radical movements, it is not exclusive or rejectionist. Instead, it counsels us to find ways of living in the world as it is – an essential aspect of decency to self – while, at the same time, actively making choices that foster greater decency in our immediate environments and in the world. Given this approach, the philosophy usually unfolds quietly, in the privacy of our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices.

This means that many of the choices that truly put us “all in” will be invisible to everyone except us. It also makes it easy to fake it, since there is nothing to stop us from doing the easier stuff even as we quietly neglect the necessary but more uncomfortable decency choices.

The bottom line in all of this? Being fully committed – being “all in” – requires a lot of discipline and self -accountability. As with so many other aspects of the philosophy, its demands are enormously challenging – worth pursuing only because the potential rewards are commensurate with the demands.