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.


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.


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.


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.


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.