Reflection 64: Social Justice and Personal Growth

Eric Hoffman, a philosophy professor at St. Joseph’s University, is the author of this week’s Reflection. He is also the conductor of The Essential Experience Workshop, referenced in the Reflection.

Brought to Philadelphia in 1989, by Eric and his wife, JoAnne Fischer – and offered 3 times a year – more than 2,000 people have participated in the Workshop. Over the years, Eric and JoAnne have nurtured a vibrant graduate community that wonderfully exemplifies Radical Decency’s values.

For more information about the Workshop, go to

Social Justice and Personal Growth

My friend, Jeff Garson, has been seeking, for the past decade or so, to encourage all of us to integrate our pursuit of personal growth with our pursuit of social justice. He describes this effort under the name “Radical Decency.” I want to take a moment here to notice how these two pursuits are so often kept separate and to urge, along with him, both intellectual and practical integration.

For many people, neither personal growth nor social justice is a central value. Some people are engaged in survival or have some other frame on the world such that neither personal growth nor social justice captures their ideals. For many others, however, at least one of these values is crucial to their self-image. They see themselves as engaged, for example, on a spiritual quest, growing toward enlightenment, or simply committed to self-improvement. Or else, they see themselves as in service to the poor and oppressed, engaged in social change. For some people, the commitment to one or the other of these values is sustained by a kind of rejection of the other. That, to me, is an interesting phenomenon.

For example, I hear people committed to spiritual or emotional or personal growth express abhorrence of politics, suggesting that its divisiveness is inevitably contrary to the spiritual commitment to recognize a universal humanity. Politics seems to insist that others be seen as opponents or adversaries, if not enemies. Advocacy for social justice seems to the personal growth folks to contradict the recognition of each individual as precious and valuable. It seems judgmental in insisting that some are right and others wrong about how our social institutions should function, and the fundamental value of personal growth is to be non-judgmental and accepting of everyone. In these ways, rejection of political involvement helps to support the commitment to personal growth. We manifest our commitment to personal growth in part by avoiding political judgments.

Conversely, those who are politically committed will often express a frustration with those whose main commitment is personal growth. They may see them as self-indulgent or as failing to engage in the vital battle for human welfare and fairness in the world we live in, thereby leaving injustice in place. The politically committed may feel a need to reject the abstractness and disengagement of a commitment to personal growth in order to reaffirm the importance of political commitment to social justice. We manifest our political commitment in part by avoiding too much personal indulgence.

These kinds of attitudes are expressed relatively often, I think, though there is sometimes a weak acknowledgment of the need for some integration. The person whose primary value orientation is toward personal growth may, in some extreme cases, be moved to see some particular social outrage as requiring comment or even action. This will be seen as a kind of exception and assimilated to the personal growth frame as much as possible. Similarly, some politically committed folks will see the need to explore feelings and relationships on occasion, as long as it doesn’t get too private and distract from the important work of social change. This kind of minor inclusion of the other frame seems to me to be an advance, because, in my view, both frames are important.

What is much more difficult is to pursue a really robust integration of the two frames, to develop ways of seeing them not as in conflict so much as in a creative tension that can generate powerful synergies. This may involve owning the resistance we may have to really embracing the other side of the tension.

So, for instance, what is behind the accusation of the person who is politically committed that the personal growth advocate is “self-indulgent”?  Here, there is a resistance to taking care of oneself. The political activist may see almost any self-care as self-indulgent. This may involve disowning the part of oneself that needs care as weak and unworthy. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the meaning of the social justice advocate’s care for the weak in society. Is there judgment mixed in with compassion for the poor? How, they might be challenged, can you advocate for the weak without also acknowledging and advocating for the weak parts of yourself? These are hard questions that pose a challenge to those committed to social justice to look more honestly at their personal feelings and motivations.

On the other side, the personal growth advocate’s characterization of the social justice advocate as “judgmental” is equally open to question. The resistance to political stances may have more to do with avoidance of conflict than with any spiritual principle.  Anxiety about confrontation with others may generate a kind of rationalization that sounds like a commitment to universal humanity, when it is mainly a way to remain comfortably disengaged. Moreover, this kind of withdrawal arguably diminishes any real compassion for the people who most need it, a kind of betrayal of the very spiritual values one claims to hold. The challenge to the advocate of personal growth is to look more honestly at the world and its dynamics of injustice and to explore more fully how compassion might be expressed in a struggle for justice.

These challenges, directed to those who seek a vibrant integration of personal growth and social justice, are rather general. The practical question is what this might look like in the lived world.  There are many groups and individuals engaged in this set of challenges. In the Essential Experience Workshop Community, which is stronger on the personal growth side than the social justice side, we have stretched in the past to include a social justice dimension in the community.

We encourage service in a variety of ways, for instance. In the past, we have sponsored (mostly under the leadership of Jeff and, his wife, Dale) service trips locally and abroad, and we have conducted discussions and designed projects aimed at diversity issues. Nonetheless, these initiatives would need renewal at this point to pursue more balance of personal growth and social justice in the EE community. The absence of such initiatives may be a reason why some, whose inclination is more toward the social justice dimension, may feel less aligned with the EE community.

I, for one, would like to see a revitalized social justice dimension in our Community. It may be sensitive for many and create turbulence that would be difficult for some, but it would also enrich and give meaning to the pursuit of wholeness to which EE is devoted. This revitalized initiative might not be for everyone, or it might not be for everyone at a particular moment. But for some, it might be just the right vehicle for personal growth. And for all of us, even if we were not actively involved at the moment, its existence would be a reminder that the integration of social justice with personal growth enhances both.

Reflection 60: The (Not So) Mysterious Absence of Public Role Models

If we hope to craft more effective change strategies, we need to come to grips with the dynamism of the predominant culture. A marvelously intricate and evolving system, it perpetuates and entrenches itself in so many ways.

Some of these processes are obvious: The aggressive, bullying, and self-aggrandizing attitudes and behaviors that pervade our culture. But many others are hidden and subtle, and we need to come to grips with these processes as well. Why? Because failing to do so, they operate unseen and without restraint in our lives, defeating by indirection our efforts to create a more decent life and world.

A number of these phenomena are discussed in earlier Reflections: # 8, Why We Aren’t Good Students; Why It Matters (the decline of critical thinking); # 22, Consumerism – and the Passivity it Breeds, #29, Losing Our Communal Roots; # 31, Perfectionism; and #51, Monumental Self-Absorption (our culturally distorted view of history).

In this Reflection, I discuss another of these processes: The ways in which we are deprived of public role models to guide and inspire us. In this area, as in so many others, there are multiple, mutually reinforcing cultural forces that lead to this result. Key aspects of this phenomenon are discussed below.

  1. Disqualifying potential leaders and role models.

This process flows directly out of the fact that we live in a culture permeated by a competitive, win/lose mindset: If someone else is up, I must be down.

Because we habitually view the world from this perspective – because we are in competition with everyone else – we reflexively judge others, looking for weaknesses and shortcomings. See Reflection 16, Mainstream Thinking – The Tyranny of Opinion and Judgment. As a result, we are experts, not at identifying and nurturing leaders, but at tearing them down.

When a person emerges as a potential leader, the mainstream media’s coverage is not saturated with stories that explore his or her strengths. Instead the hunt is on for disqualifying flaws and “gotcha” moments: Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my front porch;” Howard Dean’s scream; Bill Clinton’s sex life; Dan Quayle’s “you’re no John Kennedy” moment; Gary Hart’s illicit romp on the Monkey Business; Edmund Muskie’s tears in the snows of New Hampshire; and so on.

The result of this process is a debasement of the entire process of finding leaders and role models. Many of our best people avoid the public arena entirely. And those who don’t – and survive this cultural witch hunt – are, typically, cautious and deeply conventional people who have long since learned to hide, rather than share, their true humanity; hardly the sort of people who are capable of leading and inspiring by their example.

  1. Our confused understanding of the leaders we do have.

A second reason for the absence of inspiring role models lies in our confusion about the qualities we are looking for. We may think that we are seeking wise and decent leaders, but the truth is far more complicated. Over the last 40 years, a number of Presidents were seemingly decent men attempting to make thoughtful and responsible decisions including, for example, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush.

The fact that Ford, Carter, and the elder Bush each failed to get re-elected is not, it seems to me, a coincidence. Why? Because, in a culture that puts its highest priority on winning, moderation, reflection, and decency are associated with weakness and the lack of a killer instinct. The result? We have visceral doubts about leaders who exhibit these qualities.

Note, importantly, that the need to feel like a winner – and, with it, the tendency to associate decency with weakness – deeply infiltrates the worldview even of people who view themselves as progressive. It is not just conservatives who view Jimmy Carter as a failed President. And the reason, I think, has less to do with what he did or didn’t do and more to do with the fact that he “lost.”

Progressives may say they want leaders and role models who transcend the mainstream culture’s values. But, then, they judge our leaders by the very win/lose values they purport to condemn. So, for example, Obama was negatively judged for persisting in his efforts to nurture a fruitful dialogue during the budget crises that have marked his years in office. Why? Because he dominate, control, and “win.” And yet – granting that the compromises he agreed to had real consequences – isn’t the pursuit of a civil dialogue as, or more, important than Congress’ vote on the issue du jour?

Progressives seemed far more comfortable with Bill Clinton who “won” by triangulating the opposition – code for embracing dismantling the welfare system and financial deregulation. Thus, while he may have given away the store substantively, he allowed mainstream progressives feel like “winners” in their competition against the right.

  1. Domesticating and marginalizing our heroes.

When a leader who is the real deal does actually emerge, the mainstream culture’s first line of defense is the tearing down process described above. But when that fails, a more subtle process takes hold. The leader is “embraced” by the mainstream culture but is, in the process, transformed into a pale, domesticated version of himself. Over time, as increasingly mainstream stories are told and re-told about him, he is absorbed into a larger cultural narrative that supports and reinforces the very mainstream ways of operating he worked so hard to change.

The most vivid, recent example is Martin Luther King. Here is a man who was committed to fundamental change. He fought against inequity and injustice wherever he saw it; fearlessly risking his life and freedom for the cause; dying as he lived, working to bring economic justice to Memphis’ sanitation workers. His activism, tireless organizing, and nonviolent tactics offered a vivid roadmap for more effectively confronting entrenched privilege and power.

But, now, 40 years after his death, we are left with a safely domesticated, hollowed out version of the man. In our collective, mainstream memory he is remembered, and celebrated, as the leader of the movement – now a fading historical artifact – to end de jure segregation in the South.

De-emphasized to the point of invisibility are the broader, more enduring aspects of his legacy: His campaigns against systemic racism, economic injustice, and American imperialism, as well as his legacy of activism, organizing, and nonviolent confrontation. In other words, the culture has obscured the very things that could make him a vital role model for those of us who long to create a better world.

Historically, the most significant example of this domestication process is Jesus. In The First Coming, a book that exhaustively teases out the known details of his life, the philosopher, Thomas Sheehan, describes a man who was wholly committed to challenging power and fundamentally changing the world in which he lived. But Sheehan then describes a process that, within 60 years of his death, relegated his radical “here and now” vision to the relative margins of the movement, created in his name.

In Sheehan’s telling, as each gospel was written, Jesus was progressively transformed into a messiah who, instead of challenging us to create God’s kingdom in this world, promised salvation in the next. And so, for the last two thousand years, his presence in our lives as an role model for activism and change has been largely superseded by the vision of a transcendent, other worldly messiah who, solely by his grace, bestows salvation; a vision that – not at all accidentally – condones and encourages passivity in the face of systemic injustice.


Radical Decency offers a roadmap that, by counteracting the processes described above, can support us in naming and reclaiming our role models and heroes.

It supports us in viewing others with respect, understanding, and empathy. And, as that mindset becomes habitual, we will become far more curious about what our leaders have to offer and far less willing to engage in the mainstream culture’s “gotcha” game of judgment and dismissal.

In addition, our ability to identify worthy leaders will increase as we evaluate them according Radical Decency’s values, asking over and over: Are they are actively looking for ways to be decent to themselves, others, and the world? Doing so, we will be much less susceptible to seduction by leaders who “talk the talk” but, then, compromise their goals – and ours – in order to provide the mainstream drug of “winning.”

Finally, Radical Decency will support us in the continuing the effort to reclaim the public stories of Jesus, Martin Luther King, and other authentic heroes, past and present, infusing them with the vision, activism, commitment, and fearlessness that made them great; reclaiming them as teachers and vital sources of inspiration.

Reflection 55: Being Decent To A Hitler

In this Reflection, I focus on the more practical side of Radical Decency, working with an example that is regularly raised by readers: How to react to a public person who you are deeply at odds with, in a world in which demonization of political adversaries –Ted Cruz (for liberals), Barak Obama (for conservatives),Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein – is endemic.

In the analysis that follows I discuss how a person, seeking to be radically decent, might constructively engage with a political leader who, in that person’s sincere but subjective opinion, is dangerous and unscrupulous. In other words, how do you engage with a “Hitler” in a more decent way?


A key to dealing with this issue is to remember – always – that Radical Decency makes decency to self every bit as important as decency to others and the world. Putting this perspective into practice is not as easy as it may seem, however. Why? Because the mainstream culture cultivates an either/or outlook: Either we are selfish, self-absorbed competitors, intent on getting ahead; or, we are selfless nurturers who, in the words of the country and western anthem are “always giving, never asking back.”

Since Radical Decency is clearly not a selfish approach to living, there is a tendency to stereotype it as a selfless philosophy that over-focuses on how we treat others. But, as its emphasis on decency to self makes clear, this assumption fundamentally distorts its purposes.

Making decency to self a co-equal priority leads to interesting and helpful shifts in our outlook and choices. It reminds us to be respectful, understanding, and empathic not only in our dealings with others, but also in how we handle the often-discordant voices inside our head. And, importantly, it brings into focus two key, threshold questions that are all too easy to overlook in our dealings with others: How much intimacy do we want to have with this person? What kind of boundaries do we want to set?

Why are these questions so important? Because, lacking clarity on these issues, one person in a relationship may well expect more than the other person is willing to give. This, in turn, is a recipe for misunderstanding, hurt, disappointment, and, as tensions rise, reactive fight or flight behaviors that make respect, understanding, and empathy impossible.

When it comes to our politics, here is how this process works: Failing to attend to these threshold intimacy and boundary issues, our implicit assumption – understandable but untenable, given our engrained political culture – is that we should be able to rely on our leaders to be wise, fair, and just. Then, when politicians on the other side disappoint this expectation, our fight or flight mindsets are powerfully triggered and, with that, we instinctually move into anger and demonization.


With these orienting thoughts in mind, how should we deal with a Hitler? The starting place is to be clear, from the outset, that we have no interest in a relationship that is frank, open and, thus, intimate. Instead, our initial focus should be on strategic choices; choices that keep us emotionally and physically safe. See Reflection 44, Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships. Then, with this understanding in place, we should strive to balance self- care with two other key goals, inherent in Radical Decency: (1) Our responsibility to resist injustice; and (2) to be respectful, understanding and empathic to others – all others.

Pursuing these multiple objectives is not easy. Many of us, fearing retaliation, choose instead to abandon the two key goals, just identified, retreating as unobtrusively as possible, into our private/nonpolitical pre-occupations. Others accept their responsibility to resist injustice but make no effort to be respectful, understanding and empathic.

The first of these two reactions is a retreat from the principles of Radical Decency, pure and simple.

The second is more complicated and presents a more interesting dilemma. A “fight fire, with fire” reaction to injustice is fueled by two emotions. The first is anger: Do you really expect me to be decent to “him,” after all that has done? The other is a fear that, striving to remain decent, we will wind up condoning and enabling this person’s conduct, with the result being that we will be rolled in the knife fight that is the reality of politics.

While the risk of “going soft” is real, allowing it to control our choices is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. We cannot and should not tolerate murderous dictators. But the root problem is not the Hitlers, Saddams, and Gaddafis that regularly turn up in our world. It is, instead, our mainstream values – compete and win, dominate and control – that, pursued to their logical extreme, spawn one ruthless dictator after another.

When this reality is factored into our thinking, the hard truth is this: Giving ourselves license to demonize the politicians we oppose, and to use any means necessary to fight them, we are unwittingly adopting and perpetuating the very values that allowed them to come to power in the first place.

The more productive approach is to model the change we seek. We should persist in efforts to understand the other – even a Hitler – on his terms, knowing that his worldview has an internal logic that makes sense to him. We should also seek to understand – and even empathize – with the fears and vulnerabilities that have driven him to such perverse attitudes and behaviors.

So when you see “that person” on television, lean forcefully against the temptation to sputter in anger, call him names, and change the channel. Instead push yourself to understand who this person is and why he is saying the things he is saying. Then craft a response that is not a reactive “f__ you” to this “idiot” but is, instead, thoughtful and strategic. Finally, and very importantly, show up and speak up: Offer your more decent ideas and outlook.


One particularly thorny problem that repeatedly comes up, in this context, is how to respond when you are drawn into a substantive debate with a person from “the other side.” The more productive approach, as I see it, is to parse out the real arguments – which deserve to be addressed – from the ones that are obviously partisan and sophistic; a process made surprisingly easy by our politicians’ utter lack of subtlety or restraint in presenting their bogus arguments. Then, instead of engaging in the fruitless exercise of responding to their politicized argument, seek to expose their inauthenticity.

In the 1980s, I experienced the power of this approach when Elie Weisel, presenting his arguments in an issue of the day, was greeted with a highly personal attack on his character. His response: “Shame on you, there are important things to say on your side of the argument and your response dishonors them.”


Another point I want to emphasize is that a radically decent approach to a political adversary does not exclude extreme measures. The first principle of decency to self is to maintain physical safety. So if the choice is to kill or be killed, by a person intent on doing you in, killing is appropriate. Hitler needed to die. But such extreme choices are unusual and we need to remain vigilant lest a principle that is applicable in extreme situations is expanded to condone killing or other forms of domination and control in less extreme contexts.


Cultivating this balanced approach when faced with the extreme provocation of a Hitler is, of course, extremely difficult. But we need to remember that, with each exception we make to the principles of Radical Decency, we are walking down the road toward “pick and chose decency;” the self serving version of decency that is the mainstream culture’s convenient cover for its avaricious, exploitative ways.

The good news is that inspiring historical precedents demonstrate the power of this balanced approach. One need only look at the lives and choices of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Jesus to understand that you can be forceful, audacious, heroic, effective and – at the same time – respectful, understanding, and empathic in a social/political context.

We also need to remember that the alternative, “fight fire with fire” approach is a self-defeating proposition. We are unlikely to defeat a dictator at his own brutally murderous game. And if we do – as occasionally happens when corruption saps his vitality or fortuitous events conspire against him – the people who succeed him are usually primed to use these same authoritarian methods. Why? Because these tactics were, in case after case, the very tools that allowed these “reform minded” leaders to rise to the top of the political system.


Any challenge to entrenched power is a long shot and the discouraging truth is that most of us, if we engage in this struggle at all, genuflect (figuratively or literally) before the inspiring leaders of the past and, then, revert to the self-defeating “fight fire, with fire” tactics, described above. Hopefully, the clarity of vision and concrete strategies that Radical Decency offer will allow us to avoid this trap and enable us to become more effective contributors to the struggle against oppressive leaders.

Reflection 49: Politics: Systems Analysis, Values Response

We exist within systems. The environment, the culture, our families and romantic relationships, even the cacophony of voices in our heads – all of these are systems. So, needless to say, the principles that govern the way systems operate are enormously influential in our lives.

The implications that flow from this reality are, however, deeply obscured by the individualistic worldview that predominates in our culture. The story, endlessly taught and told, is that we are the “captain of our ship;” that good people – through hard work, determination, and smarts – chart their own destiny.

And when it comes to public policy, what matters isn’t the system but the people in it.

This perspective also permeates our view of how change happens. We think it’s all about individual action. “I’m going to fix the situation through my shrewd choices,” or “he could fix the problem if only he would get his act together and do the right thing.” We persist in believing that the way to solve our economic, political and environmental problems is by electing the right leaders.

Unfortunately, the evidence decisively refutes this individualistic approach to change. From time to time, the “right” political leader has been elected, depending on your political outlook – Kennedy or Reagan, Clinton or Bush. But the “problem” always remains: Inefficient and profligate government (for conservatives), an increasingly tattered safety net and regulatory scheme (for liberals). Nevertheless, we persist in looking to leaders for answers. In the process, we virtually ignore the systemic forces that, when it comes to shaping our world, are so much more influential.

In this Reflection, I look at the last 40 years of our politics from a systemic perspective. As you will see, my analysis has very little to do with leaders and elections. Instead, it works from these premises:

  • The system that predominates in our culture places its highest value on the accumulation of capital through the most efficient possible use of resources, both physical and human; and
  • In accordance with the principles that govern all systems, this system drives public and private choices in ways that promotes its singular goal.

Cultivating this more systemic view of the world, my hope is that:

  1. We can better understand the disruptive and, often, unjust and inequitable public policy shifts that seem to “just happen;”
  2. With these new understandings in place, craft strategies that allow us to more effectively influence the course of events.

A Systems Analysis

Over the last few hundred years capitalism has emerged, to a stunning degree, as the system that dominates our lives. What this means, in practical terms, is that capitalism’s outlook is thoroughly embedded, not only in ways in which our businesses, communities and organizations operate, but also in our taken for granted ways of being in our personal lives.

At a macro level, our businesses, schools, and public and private agencies instinctually replicate capitalism’s preferred authoritarian model: What the teacher or boss says, goes. And even most reform minded of our organizations, intent on attracting money and mainstream credibility, are given over to capitalism’s competitive ways; seeking to be the best, to make more money, to become bigger and more influential, to “win.”

Since work and career consume so much of our time and energy, it is not surprising that these outlooks dominate our private lives as well. We are individual operators who go out in the world, each day, seeking to compete to win. And the measure of our success? Money and possessions.

Operating in this environment, here is what I view as the real, front-page story of our politics over the last 40 years. To grow itself – to accumulate more and more capital – this predominant system has tended to two overwhelming priorities: Creating more products, and ever expanding markets in which to sell them.

With our unrestrained commitment to advances in technology and productivity, the first part of this equation is fairly straightforward. All that is required are choices that allow the system’s product creating momentum to continue without interruption. And that has happened.

But the question of ever growing markets is more vexing. On the one hand, with its single-minded focus on increasing capital, the system will always seek to drive workers’ wages down. And over the last 40 years, these efforts have been very successful. But standing alone, wage stagnation is highly problematic since it would result in the progressive impoverishment of the very consumers upon whom the system depends.

So a more realistic take on many of the most significant public policy changes of the last four decades is to view them as self correcting maneuvers of a predominant cultural system, doing what systems do: Preserving itself and extending its reach, in this case by finding ways to maintain and expand consumer spending without raising wages.


Because we habitually see change as the product of individual choices, the emergence of the major public policy shifts that exemplify this process seems mystifying. They seemed to “just happen” with little or no debate or active decision-making on anyone’s part.

But from a systems perspective, there is really no mystery at all.

Because the predominant system has so thoroughly colonized our habitual ways of operating, most all of us – knowingly or unknowingly – make day by day choices that are complicit with its goals. What happens, then, is this: A wide variety of individuals and institutions make decisions – uncoordinated but informed by this common set of values – that naturally cohere and evolve into public policy shifts that consistently promote the system’s priority goal of capital accumulation.

One very good example is the evolution of the women’s movement since it burst on the scene in the late 1960s. Over the years, progress toward its larger goal – an end to our authoritarian/patriarchal ways – has been uncertain at best. But in the area of career options, it has been stunningly successful. Why? Because adding a second wage earner to a majority of American households, beginning in earnest the 1970s, allowed a continuing expansion of household purchases even as wages remained stagnant.

Similarly, the exponential growth in credit card use in the 1980s and, then, of “home equity loans” – a term that didn’t even exist until the mid-80s – didn’t just happen. As this feminist driven second wage earner phenomenon leveled off, these mechanisms allowed consumer spending to continue its growth for another two decades, once again without any increase in wages. The new mechanism? Massive borrowing by individual consumers.

The nationalization and securitization of the mortgage market was the final (I think!) extension of this credit expanding strategy: A financial maneuver that pushed this consumer borrowing/consumption machine into overdrive. And the dark irony, here, is that with pension plans being the ultimate purchaser of so many of the subprime mortgages, the system contrived to have America’s unwitting worker’s finance their continued, credit-driven buying spree with their own retirement savings.

This systems driven, “capital promoting” narrative also makes sense of many other, seemingly unrelated, policy choices: Our complicity with a massive exodus of jobs and capital to other countries; the eerily prescient initiative, five years before the housing market’s collapse, to limit personal bankruptcy relief; the bail out of the banking system; the failure to prosecute so many of the major players in the financial meltdown; the mysterious absence of any serious debt relief initiatives for consumers; and so on. In short, the culture’s predominant capitalistic-based goals are the real driver of many, if not most, of the important shifts in public policy that have occurred over the last 40 years.

A Values Response

Because the mainstream culture’s values drive our public debate and dictate outcomes, our change efforts need to start with the systematic cultivation of an alternative, more humane set of values: Radical Decency. With this new orientation, our lively interest in wealth creation will continue. But it will no longer operate without restraint. Instead, it will be subordinated to, and placed in the service of, the larger goal of a more humane, just and equitable world.

Being decent to your self, others, and the world – at all times and without exception –won’t magically lead to better public policies. But it will shed a clear, critical light on policies – such as those described above – that preserve capital and expand its wealth generating capacity but, in the process, penalize millions of middle and working class people.

In addition, as we immerse ourselves in Radical Decency’s wisdom-stretching equation new, more effective strategies for change will emerge. See, for example, Reflection #12 (how to make “decency to the world” a personal priority); Reflection #15 (identifying business as a key strategic focus); and Reflection #45, (describing a more deeply collaborative approach to social change); Reflections ##35 and 66 (describing tools for creating greater decency in the workplace); Reflections ## 75 and 76 (using decency principles to create a more civil political conversation).

Reflection 48: Naming A New “It”

My friend Gary Gray says a lot of smart things. A few years ago he described how women, in the 1960s, would meet to talk about “it.” They knew something was deeply wrong with the cultural roles to which they were consigned but couldn’t quite put their finger on it. Only after considerable ferment were they able to name it – feminism, women’s liberation – and only then was it transformed into a mass movement.

This act of naming is crucial. Until something is named, its existence is problematic. Either it is culturally invisible or exists only in a series of seemingly diffuse, disjointed, and (at best) vaguely connected thoughts, feelings and activities. But the naming process has the potential to transform this inchoate thing into something coherent, powerful and in its most expansive form, world changing.

In We, the Jungian theorist Robert A. Johnson, focusing on the emergence of romantic love as a cultural phenomenon in the Middle Ages, describes the process in this way:

“At a certain point in the history of a people, a new possibility bursts out of the collective unconscious; it is a new idea, a new belief, a new value, or a new way of looking at the universe.”

And, Johnson continues, it can operate as a powerfully positive force if:

“It can be integrated into the [collective] consciousness” and we “learn to handle its tremendous power.”


The culture in which we live is in the grips of a highly defined and thoroughly elaborated “it,” so much so that we usually think of it as unchangeable reality, as just the way things are and have to be. Compete and win, dominate and control – these values permeate virtually every part of our lives.

What are we supposed to do? For anyone living in our culture, the answer is easy. Get the best possible grades at the best possible school, so you can get a prestigious job where you can make more and more money. And, of course, always strive to be richer, thinner, sexier, more popular.

Do you notice how singular the values are in this prescribed way of living? Compete, win and, ideally, be dominant. Be in control of every aspect of your life. Indeed, the ease with which we can answer this “what are we supposed to do” question graphically illustrates how thoroughly these values have infiltrated our collective consciousness. It is the dominant “it” in our lives – either through conformance to it or in our struggle to loosen its grip.

As I discuss in Reflection #30 In Defense of Our Troubling Values, these predominant values are not intrinsically bad. Properly used, a competitive spirit sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance, and creates an intimate bond with co-competitors.

Similarly, lying to a would-be rapist (control by deception) is an invaluable skill. And, after exhausting more respectful options, appropriately modulated counter aggression (domination and control) may be the best option when confronted with an implacable foe, intent on imposing his will.

But we have utterly failed, in Johnson’s terms, to integrate these values into a larger “collective consciousness” that allows us to manage their “tremendous power.” What is starkly absent from our lives is a more expansive and humane “it” that can subsume and manage these competitive, win/lose values so they serve our humanity instead of riding roughshod over it. Radical Decency has to potential to be this new “it.”


There are many, many people who, troubled by the culture’s predominant values, are actively seeking to craft more decent and humane ways of living. But having no shared, values-based idea around which to organize, their energy is fractured and divided.

To further complicate matters, the mainstream culture does a masterful job of encouraging this fracturing process, dividing us up into liberals, conservatives, libertarians, evangelical Christians, environmentalists, free market capitalists, and so – on and on. Then, unwittingly replicating the values of the mainstream culture, these movements compete with one another saying in effect: Our approach is the right one – the one that will create a better world – if only everyone else would fall in line with our program.

The deeper truth about virtually all of these mainstream movements is that, while they capture the energy of many well-meaning people, their message is deeply compromised by the culture’s predominant values. Why? Because they are seduced by the (plausible) possibility that – adopting the culture’s “business as usual” ways of operating – they will be able to tap into its resources: Money, access to the media and other center’s of power, etc., etc. And on the flip side, they are driven by the fear that, failing to do so, they will wither and die – or, at best, remain quixotically small and marginal – due to a lack of access to these resources.

In addition, the mainstream culture’s mechanisms for allocating money, access, and media attention make it almost inevitable that the people who build and maintain these movements will be goal-oriented people who know how to work the system; people, in short, who are experts in “winning.” But that, in turn, means that unless they have extraordinary awareness and mastery over what drives them, these leaders’ instinctual choices will, in large ways and small, reflect the mainstream culture’s ways of operating.

Where does this process leave the well-intentioned people who so passionately identify with these movements? Sadly, because of their powerful emotional identification with the cause, most of them stick with the group’s party line, becoming in the process unwittingly apologists for their leaders and the compromised messages they embody.

  • Liberals who bite their tongues and go along with President Obama’s failure to push for meaningful financial regulation and Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war.
  • Evangelical Christians who condone wildly uncharitable judgments leveled at gays and lesbians.
  • Catholics who remain loyal to leaders who condone and then minimize massive, systemic child abuse.


If Radical Decency (or a similar formulation) ever “burst out of the collective unconscious” as a “new way of looking at the universe,” it would offer the many well-intentioned people, affiliated with these mainstream movements, a life and, potentially, world-altering perspective.

Their new “it” would be this: The problem is not greedy businesses, or corrupt and profligate government, or the failure to follow the Buddha or Mohammed or a literal reading of the Bible. It is, instead, the pre-eminence of a set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – that deeply compromise our humanity. And the solution is to systematically implement an alternative set of values: Respect, understanding and empathy, appreciation and acceptance, fairness and justice; that is, Radical Decency.

Radical Decency works well as the new “it” because it is specifically designed to deal with the pre-eminent challenge of our time: The indecent values that dominate our lives and world. For a new sensibility to emerge, this clarity of focus is essential.

Because Radical Decency is not a pre-existing religious, political, or social movement, one of its virtues is the absence of additional agendas that might otherwise to deflect and divide energy, or confuse its purposes. This fact makes it a perfect gathering place for people operating from diverse perspectives: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers; liberals, conservatives, and free market ideologues. In short, well-intentioned people who identify with these movements can continue to be who they are and still be radically decent.

If Radical Decency took hold as the new “it,” here’s what could happen. Armed with a new clarity of purpose, these well-intentioned people would increasingly separate themselves from the indecent aspects of their established movements, de-legitimizing in the process their co-opted leaders and flawed messages. And, understanding their deep kinship with similarly situated people – operating from their own unique perspectives – a new more inclusive movement for change would emerge.

How would these reformed and reinvigorated political, religious and social groups be organized? What would their leadership look like? How would they cooperate with one another? What would the inclusive, overarching movement – that they would be a part of – look like? These and many other questions remain to be answered.

But, in contrast to the cynicism and mistrust that our mainstream ways of operating evoke, theirs would be a process worthy of our confidence and respect. Why? Because, with their whole-hearted commitment to Radical Decency, we could trust that they would steadily move toward policies and ways of living that are more decent and humane.

This is the world I long to live in.

Reflection 45: Re-visioning Social Change Work

From my teenage years forward, I have been puzzling over this question: Is there an effective strategy for creating a more decent, just and equitable world that I can be a part of? Preoccupied with this issue I became a lawyer, acquiring – so I thought – the skills needed to effectively participate in such an effort.

In my 25 years as a attorney I was involved in many activities that seemed, at the time, to offer a workable answer to my “big” question: The civil rights movement, political campaigns, single issues advocacy, lawsuits, civic education, volunteer tutoring, domestic and overseas service trips. In the end, however, I felt deeply frustrated. The larger goal of an effective change strategy seemed forever out of reach. None of the activities in which I immersed myself seemed, in a final reckoning, to even remotely alter the indecent trajectory of our culture.

Asking myself why, I arrived at this answer: The tentacles of our system reach much more deeply than is commonly understood; thoroughly infecting the ways in which we think and feel; deeply limiting our ability to be in fruitful relationship with one another. Realizing that change efforts need to grapple with these psychological issues as well, I re-tooled as a psychotherapist – and began to develop Radical Decency as a more comprehensive and, hopefully, more effective strategy for change.


In this Reflection, I offer a critique of our mainstream approaches to change and discuss the ways in which Radical Decency can, potentially, alter them and magnify their impact. I make these arguments with considerable diffidence. The people who devote themselves to conventional change efforts are the best among us and their initiatives do so much good in the world.

But the deeper reality is this: In ways that are subtle, indirect, and chillingly effective, the system diverts and marginalizes reform energy. What happens is that change efforts are condoned and even encouraged – but only up to a point:

  • A new law is passed that moderates some of the system’s worst excesses but leaves its operative mechanisms unchecked.
  • A humanitarian initiative is funded that, while meaningful in its immediate impact, touches only a relative handful of lives.

The problem with this approach is that these visible, accessible but ultimately limited-in-scope projects capture the time and energy of many of the most reform-minded among us. And, consumed by these activities, these natural leaders of, and participants in, larger changes effort never take on the more radical initiatives that could, potentially, fundamentally alter the cultural landscape.

Here’s how the process works.

At a structural level, reform-oriented people are channeled into one of three tracks: “Change within the system” approaches – lawsuits, elections, lobbying for new laws; “service” approaches – tutoring children, work at a homeless shelter, tending to people’s physical and emotional ills; and “save the world” approaches – seeking an end to hunger, war, or disease.

Notice, first of all, how effectively this structure isolates and divides reform energy. One group lobbies for changes in the environmental laws, another organizes tutoring programs, and a third raises money to fight AIDS. But strikingly absent are meaningful efforts to coordinate these efforts, in an attempt to magnify their impact.

Moreover, each of these culturally condoned approaches, viewed individually, is inherently limited. Trying to pass laws or elect more enlightened leaders requires you to compete in a system that has been systematically structured to reward the very values you are trying to overthrow. Outgunned many times over, in terms of lawyers, lobbyists, and campaign contributions, can we reasonably expect these efforts to fundamentally alter our status quo ways of operating?

Service-oriented activities, for their part, are admittedly oriented toward individuals, and not systemic reform. And the idea that millions of individual acts of kindness will magically coalesce into an irresistible force for fundamental change is a comforting, but untenable, illusion. While social movements may sometimes originate in a spontaneous spark – felt by many – they can never take root and grow in the absence of self-conscious organizing and community building.

The self-limiting aspects of “save the world” efforts are subtler but not less real. We mere mortals may decide that ending hunger is an inspiring goal. But what exactly should do we do when we get to our desks? Who do we call? What letter do we write? Faced with the overwhelming enormity of the task, most of us quietly shelf our longing to make a difference and return to the more immediate task of getting by in life. In short, save the world initiatives, more often than not, are invitations to paralysis and avoidance and not to meaningful action.

Note moreover, that these efforts are almost always issue specific: Hunger, or disease, or illiteracy. So even if the “big” issue of choice could be solved – a doubtful outcome – its impact on the culture’s broad sweep of indecency would be tangential at best. Despite their ambitious (and worthy) goals, these “save the world” initiatives are similarly partial and incomplete.


In what ways can Radical Decency support us in escaping these deeply embedded structural impediments to change? By offering an expanded frame of reference that allows people, immersed in activities that now seem disparate and unconnected, to more fully understand the depth of their common interests and goals. Then, building on that understanding, supporting them to forge new, more creative collaborations that will, hopefully, broaden their respective missions and magnify their effects.

The key element, driving this shift, is Radical Decency’s comprehensive perspective.

Our current crisis is not about unjust laws, or rampant incivility, or an epidemic of depression and anxiety, or racism and sexism, or a failed education system. While all of these conditions exist, they are in fact the expectable consequences of a more fundamental malady: A system in which a wildly over emphasized set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – predominates and drives our choices in every area of living, from the most personal and intimate to the most public and political.

The answer, then, is to focus on these dreadfully consequential symptoms – of course – but to do so within the context of the larger value issues at the heart of our failed culture. In other words, fight for better schools or a reformed financial system if that is the issue that moves you. But do so in concert with others who are seeking reform in others areas, with the unifying goal being a progressive shift toward a society in which the new norm is Radical Decency: Decency to self, others, and the world – at all times, in every context, and without exception.

Doing so, “change within the system” types would, for example, notice the unique insights that “service” types have to offer when it comes to applying principles of decency at a more micro, interpersonal level; understanding that their macro, reform work is powerfully vitalized by these new understandings. Thus, their interest in this work – instead of being cursory and superficial, as is now more typically the case – would be intense, hands-on, and thoroughly integrated with other aspects of their mission.

And, needless to say, “service” types would be equally invested in absorbing and incorporating, into their work, the insights and strategies that “work within the system” and “save the world” types have crafted in their struggle to transform our politics.


How, then, might this expanded perspective change (for example) the specific strategies and approaches of a reform-minded, “work within the system” nonprofit?

An important starting place would, of course, be the more intense collaboration with “service” and “change the world” types just described.

In addition, its push for decency, justice and equity would not be directed outward only. Principles of Radical Decency would guide every aspect of its business operations as well, including wages and benefits, purchasing, money management, overall decision-making – even the way in which its meetings were run.

Radical Decency would also powerfully reshape its approach on substantive issues.

In the political arena, the prevailing view – seldom critically examined – is that manipulative, power oriented ways of operating need to be used, as well, by the advocates for greater equity and justice; that the only way to fight fire is with fire.

The problem with this “pick and chose” approach to decency is that it is far too slippery a slope. Adopting the mainstream culture’s business as usual political techniques, otherwise well-intentioned people become unwitting participants in – and, thus, perpetuators of – the very value system that lies of the root of the problems they are seeking to solve: The culture’s self aggrandizing, win at all costs mentality.

Guided by a larger vision of decency, however, these politics-as-usual tactics would be replaced by ways of operating – frequently pioneered by service types and psychotherapists – that, while appropriately aggressive, are honest, respectful, understanding, and empathic. And with this consistency – and clarity – of approach would also come an increased ability to challenge the deeper manifestations of indecency that drives our politics – and so inhibit the ability of our hypothetical “work within the system” nonprofit to realize its goals with respect to its issue of choice:

  • The obsession with winning;
  • The systematic buying and selling of public officials via campaign contributions, contracts, and jobs;
  • The breathtaking absence of meaningful dialogue;
  • A mainstream media that utterly fails to challenge the nonsense politicians spout “because it has to, to maintain access;”
  •  Our willingness to overlook and excuse the self-interested, indecent actions of our allies on “other” issues and in other areas of their life.

With Radical Decency as its reference point, the boundary between decent and indecent – while exquisitely difficult to navigate – would no longer be confused, shifting, and filled with convenient, easy way out exceptions. Either our hypothetical organization would strive to be decent to itself, others, and the world or – in its indifference to decency in one or more areas – it wouldn’t. And, modeling and advocating for this approach in all of its choices, it would be far better able to mount a coherent challenge to the mainstream culture’s pervasive and pernicious attitudes and practices.


Needless to say, this vision of social change would also include an analogous, expanded perspective on the part of “service” and “save the world” types as well.

Working from this expanded vision, all of us – including, importantly, people seeking to infuse their “non-activist” lives and mainstream workplaces with Radical Decency’s principles – would understand the self-evident importance of deeply immersing ourselves in, and supporting, the work of our comrades in arms. Hopefully, then, as our vision expands and our separate and varied initiatives coalesce into a unified, values-based movement, so too would our impact in the world.

Reflection 34: Triumphal Business and the Demise of Checks and Balances

In the early 1980s, I was an attorney deeply immersed in the EPIC bankruptcy.

Here’s what happened: A smart promoter bought undervalued model homes in housing developments, mortgaged them, and sold the mortgages in bulk to Savings and Loans, then the country’s prime originators of mortgages. The S&Ls loved his product. Instead of accumulating mortgages one by one, they could now close 50 or 100 in an afternoon.

The problem with this plan? Since the mortgages were immediately resold, the promoter had no financial stake in how the loans actually performed. And because his product was so popular, keeping up with demand became a huge challenge. So, before long, he was selling junk – loans secured by mortgages far in excess of the underlying properties’ values. But the S&Ls didn’t care. EPIC was, after all, a “hot” company, run by a “genius” and potential losses, if any, were years down the road. In addition, since “everyone was doing it,” the pressure was on not to be left behind – leaving other S&Ls to report this impressive growth on their financial statements.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Back in the 1980s, the S&L crisis – of which EPIC was a part – was a very big deal; a bail out that ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But we learned nothing. 25 years later, the exact same thing happened again. Promoters – making obscene amounts of money from front-end fees, and having no stake in the quality of the underlying product – became the prime drivers of the mortgage industry. Only this time, the promoters included the country’s largest investment banking firms and when the bubble burst, in 2008, it froze up the world’s financial system, shaking it to the core. This time, the losses were in the trillions.

And the trend continues. Very little by way of structural reform has come out of the 2008 housing crisis, and no effort has been made to hold the Goldman, Sachs’ of the world – or their senior executives – criminally accountable. Is any reasonably sober observer willing to bet it won’t happen again?


The essence of political power is the ability to aggregate large amounts of money and to command large numbers of people to do your bidding. At the time of the founding fathers, the primary, taken-for-granted source of this sort of power was governmental. Thus, they structured a system, based on separation of powers and checks and balances, to prevent excessive governmental power from flowing into the hands of one or a small group of people.

Given their focus on governmental power, the system has worked well. For over 200 years we have avoided a dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of a President, Congress, or (less plausibly) the courts. But that system was crafted in a very different world.

Since then, and especially in the last 50 years, technological advances have created a revolution in communications and in our ability to analyze and manage vast amounts of complex material. That, in turn, has created hitherto unimaginable opportunities for businesses to shift enormous sums of money from one investment to another with extraordinary speed, and to create and keep track of ever more intricate and far-flung investment strategies.

As a result, the possibilities for accumulating wealth, by managing money, have exploded. Today’s most visible moguls – exemplified by Warren Buffett and Goldman Sachs – focus, not on production and profitability, but on investment strategy and rate of return. They move seamlessly into and out of industries based solely on return; aggressively investing in the mortgage business at the height of the bubble, moving on – to new markets and new opportunities – when it burst.

Given these new realities, businesses can now marshal the tools of power to an extent that would have been unthinkable to the founding fathers. So, while arbitrary and destructive governmental power is still a threat, it is no longer the sole source of danger.


Through the use of its now, almost unimaginably large aggregations of capital, the business sector has, in the last half century, greatly expanded its power over our lives. How has it done this? Not through coercion – the traditional way in which government exercises its power – but by buying off virtually every segment of society that could meaningfully limit its power.

The most visible example is, of course, government. While there is a clear philosophical divide between the two major parties, the deeper reality is that they are both fueled by business contributions.

So, on the really make or break issues – such as meaningful regulation of business – the real divide is between largely symbolic programs, the Democratic approach, and no regulation at all. And, lest pressure for change come from other sources, our culture is organized so that almost every college, media outlet, and religious organization of any size is heavily dependent on investments, loans, and/or contributions from businesses and people who business made wealthy.

As one of my law professors noted, “business is not vicious, it’s just avaricious.” But the fact that its goals are not explicitly immoral does not mean that its actions are benign. Business’ priority – pursued with singular focus – is on policies that allow it to pursue its amoral goal of ever expanding profits with impunity: Tax breaks and public subsidies; programs that lead to lucrative government contracts; a weakening of any sort of regulatory control.

The result? The last 40 years has witnessed a steady reduction in support for social safety net programs, the better to fund tax savings that disproportionately favor businesses and the wealthy. It has also witnessed an historic cutting back, or outright repeal, of many of the system’s most important checks and balances on business, including:

  • Antitrust laws;
  • Usury laws (outlawing excessive interest rates);
  • Glass-Steagall (regulating banks/limiting opportunities for self-dealing);
  • Class action lawsuits;
  • Bankruptcy protection for individual debtors.

And, efforts are ongoing to similarly emasculate personal injury lawsuits, environmental laws, and programs that protect the rights of employees.

These policy shifts have caused incalculable harm:

  • The savings of millions have been devastated as banks demand repayment of debt only made possible, to begin with, by the exploitative, regulation free environment they worked so tirelessly to create.
  • Insurance companies – regulated in theory only – gouge customers for premiums and deny valid claims.
  • Credit card companies arbitrarily raise interest rates, on exemplary customers, to levels that a generation ago would have been subject to criminal and civil sanction.

The list of abuses goes on and on.

Note that, utterly failing to deal with this new power reality means that, as a culture, we are now living in a world where there is a complete disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. We continue to trumpet our system of governance as one of mankind’s great triumphs. And yet, we have allowed the very essence of that system – checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of undue power – to be totally gutted.


To me, the most important take away from this chilling state of affairs is that, while current, mainstream strategies for making things better – elections, lobbying for more enlightened laws, efforts of nonprofits and service organizations – are necessary and helpful, they are, in the end, inadequate.

A more robust response?

First, we need to reframe the problem, something I attempt to do, in part, in this Reflection.

In addition, we need to name, again and again, things that currently go unnamed, such as the complicity of media, the religious establishment, academia and, of course, both Democrats and Republicans.

Finally, we need to develop new strategies for change.

Where to start? By working to replace compete and win, dominate and control – the amoral values, predominant in business and the culture at large –– with a counter set of values that can systematically reorient our outlook and offer fresh perspectives on where and how to push for change.

This last goal is a primary motive force in the development of Radical Decency. In other Reflections, I discuss certain ideas that have emerged from a systematic thinking through of this approach, ideas that could be part of new, more effective change strategy:

  • Building a counter-model of business based on Radical Decency (Reflection #15 Social Justice – Focusing on Business; Reflection #43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection #39 A Radically Decent Business – Lessons Learned);
  • Making this values shift an enduring priority at the center of our lives – that is, in our most intimate relationships – by tending to our patriarchal ways in all of their manifestations (Reflection #61 Women, Boundaries, and Sex; Reflection #72 Men’s Moment(s) of Truth; Reflection #69 Moving Beyond Patriarchy)
  • Creating and nurturing values based communities, the fertile soil out of which social movements can grow (Reflection #29 Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots);
  • Creating deeper, more enduring, and diverse collaborative alliances with like-minded people (Reflection #7 Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection #45 Re-visioning Social Change Work);

Our wisdom – and moral and emotional stamina – are sorely tested when we seek to make a more meaningful contribution to a more just, equitable, and decent world. But, the alternative – getting by in the world as it is – is, for most of us, an anxiety provoking, spirit draining way of living. Radical Decency is – as I am fond of saying – not just the right thing to do. It is also the surest pathway to a more vibrant and fulfilling life.

Reflection 20: Social Justice – The Third Rail of Radical Decency

When it comes to our self and our intimate relationships, many of us approach Radical Decency with curiosity, even eagerness.

But when it comes to social justice, things are different. Confronting the grim, unforgiving face of poverty and discrimination is too demanding. We instinctually fear that a full engagement with these issues might make uncomfortable demands on our time and money

Unfortunately, finessing our commitment to Radical Decency, in this area, is all too easy. Because injustice is so thoroughly condoned in the mainstream culture, there are no perceptible sanctions attached to indifference. Indeed, even half-hearted efforts, far from being critically examined, are celebrated in completely disproportionate ways. We seldom point out the obvious: Small financial contributions relative to net worth and occasional service days – while helpful – are no cause for congratulation.

Radical Decency can transform us but only if it is embraced boldly. If our commitment is tepid – if we shy away from its most perplexing and uncomfortable challenges – its rewards will be equally tepid.

Why? Because we are so thoroughly immersed in an indecent culture. For this reason, if we practice decency on a “pick and choose” basis, the attitudes and values of the mainstream culture will inevitably invade and pollute the small islands of decency we seek to create in our private lives.

Failing to fully embrace the philosophy’s challenge in the area of social justice will, like any other significant omission, irrevocably compromise our ability to inhabit the psychic and emotional states that transform Radical Decency into a vital, life-changing philosophy – and are among its greatest rewards:

  • Living in the present;
  • Appreciation, acceptance and empathy for self and others;
  • Clarity about priorities and choices;
  • An ennobling purpose in life.

See Reflection 13, Decency Is Its Own Reward.


Recent progress notwithstanding, discriminatory patterns continue to vitally affect women, racial and sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and others. However, we also need to recognize our dismal history with regard to economic injustice.

Decade by decade, the gap between the rich and poor steadily widens, even as programs to level the competitive playing field or to relieve poverty’s consequences continue to shrink. “Decency to the world” requires our full engagement, not just in response to sexism and racism but also with the thornier, less acknowledged, and deeply consequential issues of economic injustice.

Our engagement with social justice issues needs to begin with the recognition that – despite heroic efforts by many remarkable people – our current efforts are not working. Better political candidates, new governmental programs, more generous support for the nonprofit sector – none of these mainstream approaches has been able to counteract the avaricious, profit-first, economic forces that dictate our public choices. Understanding this, leads inescapably to the following conclusion: We need to create new, more effective ways of engaging with issues of social justice.

To do so, however, we first need to better understand why patterns of injustice are so pervasive and persistent. And that is the focus of this Reflection.

In other Reflections, I build on these understandings: Offering a roadmap, grounded in Radical Decency’s principles, for more effectively addressing issues of social justice. See, in that regard,

  • Reflection 7 Gathering in the Good Guys;
  • Reflection 15 Social Justice – Focusing on Business;
  • Reflection 45 Re-visioning Social Change Work;
  • Reflection 49 Politics – Systems Analysis, Values Solutions;
  • Reflections 75 and 76 Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 & 2; and
  • Reflections 73 Making Broadcast News More Radically Decent.


Seeking to understand why injustice is so persistent in our world, one perplexing – and, to my mind, crucial – question keeps coming up: Why do the victims put up with it? Systematically cut off from the mainstream economy, starved for services, and locked up in astonishing numbers, why don’t the residents of North Philadelphia burn Center City down?

Another key question is why the more privileged, with whom the poor and disenfranchised live in such close proximity, allow this to happen? Why do so many good people ignore what’s going on just a few miles from their homes; just outside the window of the commuter train that takes them to and from work each day?

Three key processes help to answer these questions.

The first grows directly out of the culture’s predominant “compete and win, dominate and control” values. Given the compelling, day by day pressure of these values, serious and sustained attention to larger, social issues feels, to most of us, like an unacceptably risky diversion of time, energy, and resources from our compelling need “get by” and “get ahead” in our intensely competitive world.

The second process speaks directly to the “why do they put up with it” issue. In Community and Confluence, Philip Lichtenberg describes a pivotal psychological transaction that operates in sexism, racism, economic exploitation, and every other authoritarian system: The dominant person’s projection of his pain onto the victim and, crucially, the victim’s internalization of that person’s pain.

So as a young lawyer, I was the unwitting beneficiary of patriarchal and economic privilege. Preparing for court and unable to find a file, I would yell at my secretary: “Where the [bleep] is the discovery folder?” Thrown into a place of anxiety by my aggressive words, she would then scurry around, seeking to solve my problem.

What Lichtenberg points out is that, as the privileged person in an authoritarian system, I had transferred my anxiety to my secretary – and, she had taken it on.

This same pattern repeats itself in myriad of ways with disenfranchised people. The result is that, like my secretary, they fail to react to bullying, exploitative behaviors with appropriate pushback. Instead, internalizing the aggressor, they experience pain – anxiety, confusion, and self-judgment.

This transaction is emotional and not cognitive. And one of life’s more uncomfortable lessons is that, recognizing an established emotional pattern, does not mean we can flip a switch and stop it. Once in place, psychological systems are exceedingly difficult to unravel. So, not surprisingly, this process of internalizing the aggressor hamstrings the ability of disenfranchised people to overcome social and economic exploitation.

In Encountering Bigotry and Getting Even, Lichtenberg and his co-authors provide a detailed program for weaning ourselves from this debilitating authoritarian pattern. I would urge anyone interested in Radical Decency to read these books as well as Lichtenberg’s seminal work, Community and Confluence.

The final process I want to discuss further explains why so many good people are so passive in the face of grotesque – and routine – manifestations of injustice.

To frame the issue, consider these two hypotheticals.

In the first, a woman stops her car before a man who is bleeding profusely at an accident scene. Her first instinct is to respond to his urgent request for a ride to the emergency room. But, then, remembering the cost of the new leather seats in her Lexus, she declines.

In the second hypothetical, a man is going through his bills and comes across a request, from a highly reputable nonprofit, for $200, to “save the life” of a child in Bangladesh. Having just flipped through his mortgage, electric, and cable bills, he quietly throws the request in the trash.

The premise of the researchers who created these hypotheticals is that there is no substantive difference between the two scenarios. In each, a choice is made to ignore the dire needs of a fellow human being and, instead, to devote resources to the protagonist’s much less compelling material needs and desires.

And yet, not surprisingly, the researchers report much greater outrage at the woman’s behavior.

So what is going on? The answer is that, as we evolved as a species, we developed a powerful empathic system. But the context within which it developed was a hunter/gatherer society, our reality for 290,000 out of the 300,000 years that constitute our history as Homo sapiens. And in that environment, there was, literally, no larger world with which to concerns our selves.

So, even today, we respond powerfully, at a gut emotional level, to the bleeding man in front us just as our evolutionary wiring dictates. By contrast, we are not wired to react as empathically to suffering occurring halfway around the world – or in an unseen neighborhood, a few miles from our comfortable suburban home.


All three of these processes are deeply engrained in our psyches. And because they are emotionally based, they will typically trump reasoned arguments in favor of a more robust engagement with issues of social justice.

But our emotions are not our destiny. Better understanding and attending to them, we can consciously cultivate a different path, weaning ourselves over time from these old habits of mind. And that goal is vital if we hope to reap the benefits, individually and collectively, of a Radical Decency practice.

Reflection 12: Radical Decency in Politics — Pitfalls and Possibilities

Radical Decency’s goal is to systematically replace the values that predominate in our culture – compete and win, dominate and control – with a new set of values:

  • Respect;
  • Understanding and empathy;
  • Acceptance and appreciation;
  • Fairness and justice.

But embedded in the culture are a myriad of beliefs, ways of operating – and supporting institutional structures – that maintain and deepen the grip of its mainstream values on our lives. If we hope to meaningfully advance Radical Decency’s ambitious goal, a thorough understanding of these processes is an essential first step.

With this as its starting place, Radical Decency offers fresh perspectives on what really drives our lives – “what is” – and what we need to do to craft more effective change strategies.

In this Reflection, I deal with these issues in politics and public affairs.

I have been involved in public affairs for almost 50 years: The civil rights and anti-war movements as a young man; Common Cause/Philadelphia in the 1970s; the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia; the National Constitution Center; domestic and overseas service trips; Radical Decency; and, when it seemed important, partisan politics.  A lesson I have drawn from these experiences is that the key processes that make meaningful change so difficult are seldom recognized and discussed – and, for that reason, all the more effective.


One of the geniuses of the mainstream culture is that it rarely quashes people who want to reform it. Instead, they are distracted and marginalized, leaving the engines that drive the mainstream culture free to pursue their purposes with little meaningful interference.

A key element in this process is the way in which our reform energies are channeled and, in so doing, domesticated and marginalized.  Everywhere we turn, we are encouraged to work in discrete subject areas – poverty, housing, the environment, nutrition and health.

And the problem with this approach? The best intentioned and most highly motivated among us wind up working on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Then, they are provided with just enough financial support to keep them going but not nearly enough, even to accomplish their (highly commendable but) partial agendas. These processes, and possible responses to them, are discussed in greater detail in other Reflections: # 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other; # 7: Gathering in the Good Guys; and # 45: Re-visioning Social Change Work.

Another phenomenon, instrumental in this process, is way in which the mainstream culture creates the illusion of meaningful choice around particular elections and issues.  Inordinate amounts of energy are then sucked into the fight over this “pivotal” election and that “make or break” issue. The result? The systemic issues that could more effectively promote meaningful change are never attended to.

The obvious example is elections. They are, without question, important. Millions of lives are affected by our choices.  But, in the end, they offer no realistic prospect for fundamental change. The consuming sense of urgency generated by Kennedy vs. Nixon, Kerry vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Romney masks a deeper truth. On the vast majority of big issues, nothing ever changes – not, at least for the better.

So, across the last 50 years, without regard to who is in office: Our enormous defense budget remains; the grotesque underfunding of services for the poor has steadily increased; businesses continue to use their economic leverage to enrich ownership and senior management and squeeze workers and consumers; degradation of the environment continues; and unnecessary wars are fought.

Equally distracting are the so-called big policy fights. John Kenneth Galbraith noted years ago that what usually captures our attention are hotly contested, rather than important, decisions. Thus, we recently spent 2 years, riveted by a tax and budget battle, which resulted in a 4% income tax increase, applicable only to that part of an individual’s income that exceeds $450,000.

In reality, most really important changes just happen, without little or no debate at all.  In the late 1970s, for example, a bankruptcy reform bill was quietly passed allowing judges to modify labor contracts. Over the ensuing decades, this has become a key mechanism used to disempower the labor movement.

Equally invisible in their implementation, and in seismic in their impact, have been

  • The dismantling of country’s pension system (401ks replacing true pensions);
  • The transformation of the criminal justice system into a decentralized system for locking up and disenfranchising shockingly large numbers of African Americans and other minorities; and
  • The deregulation and centralization of the financial services sector, paving the way for massive money grabs by our largest financial institutions.


The juice that keeps the current indecent system going is the priority it places on money, power, and success; that is, on its compete and win, dominate and control values.  In the service of these goals, indecent behaviors are condoned, encouraged and celebrated while, on the other side, “being nice” is subtly (or not so subtly) dismissed as soft and naïve – the province of losers. With this mindset permeating every aspect of our lives, it is hardly surprising that “nice” public policies – that is, policies that are humane and empathic – are pushed to the margins of our public awareness and debate.

Compounding the problem is this dispiriting reality: While the temptation to be indecent for the sake of success is immense in our private lives, it is even greater when it involves strangers; that is, in the area of politics and public policy.


What we need to do to change this mindset – and the indecent public policies it brings in its wake – is to promote an alternative set of values that is just as forceful in the other direction; that make decency a priority in every area of living and, crucially, at all times and without exception.

Why? Because our current approach to change – employing the advocacy tools of the mainstream culture to fight “this” policy battle, or “that” one – will never work. Failing to challenge the values-based premises that drive the mainstream culture’s policy choices, here is what typically happens.

Well-intentioned nonprofits, with little or no reflection, modify “less important” aspects of their mission and ways of operating to meet the expectations of a key foundation or other mainstream funding source. And, as these exceptions accumulate over time, the clarity of their mission erodes, and their tactics increasingly mimic the tactics of the mainstream culture. In the end, playing the culture’s conventional game, but with far fewer financial resources than the corporations and lobbyists that oppose them, guess who wins?

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that more conventional reform efforts should be limited or curtailed. The ameliorative work of nonprofit entities, healing professionals, and more enlightened office holders is highly important. Their work softens the virulent consequences of the existing system, helping millions. The problem, however, is that this work is too often confused with the transformational political work that our culture so desperately needs. We need to be clear about the difference – and deeply supportive of both.

The approach I advocate is a difficult and uncertain pathway toward fundamental political change. But the alternative – to go along with the indecent values that drive our culture and, in this way, being marginal players (at best) when it comes our most basic public policy choices – is worse.


Needless to say, this approach is both intellectually and emotionally challenging.

Thus, for example, we need to embrace the fact that public policy is thoroughly implicated in our private choices – in how we allocate our time, energy and money. Doing so, we need to decisively diverge from culture’s singular focus on financial security and consumerism; replacing it with financial choices that reasonably account for decency to self and, at the same time, actively considers decency to others and the world.

The approach to public policy I advocate also needs to challenge the taken for granted ways in which we view collaboration.

We live in a culture that promotes and celebrates individualism and also places a very high value on privacy; translated to mean that you have no right to know what I am doing, and vice versa. Effective public policy initiatives, however, require collective action and that, in turn, requires deep and sustained collaboration. With this in mind, notice how effectively these mainstream values discourage collective efforts, encouraging a “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” approach and, more darkly, allowing deeply irresponsible private choices to be protected from public sanction by our fierce over emphasis on privacy rights.

A far better approach would integrate a more modulated and qualified emphasis on individuality and privacy into a larger perspective that more fully accounts for the effort of others – melding our efforts with theirs. In this new approach, we would no longer take refuge behind a cloak of anonymity and, instead, hold others – and ourselves – accountable for our choices.

Still another key challenge involves the attack/counterattack style that is so predominant in our politics – and the importance of weaning ourselves from these habits.

The simple — and uncomfortable – truth is this: Ridiculing Sarah Palin (on the left) or Barack Obama (on the right) – as opposed to challenging their policies and tactics on the merits – only reinforces the caricaturizing and dismissive behaviors that allow others, in other contexts, to discriminate against minorities or to dismiss the suffering of the poor.  On this crucial issue, I strongly recommend Encountering Bigotry, by Philip Lichtenberg, et al, a book that brilliantly and with empowering specificity describes how to engage in this vital work. See, also, Reflections 75 and 76: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1and 2.


These steps – greater collaboration, increased personal accountability, attention to the quality of our political dialogue – are not, realistically, going to transform our public policy in the foreseeable future. However, initiatives such as these are the vital the ground out of which a meaningful shift toward more decent and humane public policies can emerge. And if we neglect them, movement toward this goal will, I fear (and believe), continue to be surpassingly small.

Reflection 7: A Comprehensive and Inclusive Approach to Change

In this Reflection, I discuss key ways in which Radical Decency supports a more integrated and, thus, more effective approach to change.


Radical Decency is a values-based call to action. It invites us to organize our lives around a set of values that are practical, understandable, and all encompassing:

Be decent in all that you do – to yourself, to others, and to the world.  And to do it at all times, in every context, and without exception.

We practice Radical Decency trusting that it will guide us to concrete, day by day choices that, as they accumulate, are the surest path to the philosophy’s ambitious goals: To create better lives and to meaningfully contribute to a better world.

In this way, Radical Decency is a significant departure from the visions of change that predominate in the culture. These formulations consist, largely, of high-sounding goals with far too little thought given to their implementation. We are told to “do justice” but are not told how. And, for most of us, any instinct to act dies with the realization that the contributions we are invited to make – a donation here, a volunteer day there – will have no perceptible impact.


Notice, also, that the philosophy’s values-based approach – by its very nature –drives us toward a fundamentally more inclusive and, thus, a more effective approach to change. Why? Because the predominant values it seeks to supplant – compete and win, dominate and control – are infused in every area of living.

For this reason, Radical Decency needs to unfold in virtually every sphere of life. And the obvious corollary? Everyone with a sincere interest in Radical Decency – whatever their area of activity – needs to be embraced as partner in the cause.

Business people are an excellent example of how this process works. In most social change venues, these people are viewed (at best) as part time and compromised participants. While most of their time is devoted to fundamentally amoral, profit-seeking activities, they can at least raise money and write checks.

But Radical Decency castes them in a very different light. Since business and the workplace are the epicenter of the mainstreams culture’s indecent values, it is one of the most fruitful and exciting venues in which to apply its precepts.

What better place to work for fundamental change than in the belly of the beast? Imagine how different our world would be if the prevailing view in boardrooms and executive offices was to treat co-workers, customers, and the environment with habitual decency.  How different things would be if profitability was priority 1A – vitally important but clearly subordinate to the goals of Radical Decency.


Radical Decency’s lodestar prescription for living – to be decent at all times and without exception – drives us toward more integrated change initiatives in other ways as well. Seeking to live up to this ambitious goal, we are impelled to take stock of our decency efforts in every area of living, from the most personal and intimate to the most public and political.

Several years ago, I created a “Roadmap” that attempts to enumerate specific acts of decency, contemplated by the philosophy, across the full range of activities that constitute our lives. Here are some examples, drawn from that document:

Tend to your emotional needs: Nurture, companionship, novelty, play, etc. (decency to self).

Be honest, don’t manipulate to get result; don’t mislead nonverbally (decency to others).

With strong emotions/different communication styles, stay open; when breakdown occurs, do repair work (decency to others).

Balance resources used, accumulated, offered to others, and conserved (decency to the world).

Be open, inquisitive about varieties of oppression – yours and others – and how it is resisted (decency to the world).

Working with specific aspects of Radical Decency, such as these, most of us will quickly notice that our practice is fairly strong in some areas and in obvious need of improvement in others. And, with this clarity, we are set up for greater success as we seek to improve and expand our Radical Decency practice.

We will, in addition, be primed to reach out to people with greater skill in areas where we are deficient (social justice types teaching and supporting personal growth types; personal growth types teaching and supporting decency based businesses, and so on).  And, as this process grows and deepens, there will be a natural coming together of change agents from diverse areas of activity; magnifying and improving everyone’s change efforts.


Still another way in which Radical Decency deepens and expands our change efforts lies in the habits of mind it cultivates.

Forced to confront the many complexities that arise when we seek to be decent to ourselves, even as we maintain decency to others and the world, Radical Decency is a challenging approach to living. Howard Lesnick, a law professor and gifted thinker and writer, cuts to the core of the philosophy’s intellectual and emotional challenge, in Listening for God when he “cautions against” “taking the rightness of parental preference for granted” in a society where “the degree of parental preference is far too extensive to be morally justified.”

All too frequently, there are no obvious or easy choices. We are regularly stretched to harmonize and integrate – or, failing that, to balance – what often seem inherently conflicting priorities: My career vs. my obligation to family and friends vs. larger issues of social and economic injustice. But we need to persist in these efforts despite the many situations in which, given the culture’s predominant values, our choices will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or simply ignored.

These difficulties are, paradoxically, one on of the key benefits of the philosophy.  Seeking to be the best we can be in these “wisdom stretching” moments, we are pushed – at times of reflection – to cultivate our creativity, thoughtfulness, and intuitive awareness; and – at times of choice – to stretch our analytic skills and to exercise both courage and prudence, as situations warrant.

Most of all, Radical Decency cultivates a deepening sense of curiosity about every aspect of living – from the subtleties of own thoughts and feelings, to the intricacies of an intimate conversation, to the historical forces that repeatedly result in violent social upheaval. How else can we become the creative force for decency we aspire to be?

And as curiosity and, with it, our insight and empathy become consuming pre-occupations, the culturally engrained habits that separate us from others – judgment, possessiveness, greed, need to control – begin to wither, crowded out by these new habits of thought, feeling and action.

As this process takes root, our approach to other change agents will, once again, be fundamentally altered. Instead of seeing their efforts as different and unrelated, or in competition for scarce resources, we will be primed to be deeply curious about their goals, insights, approaches to change, and specific tactics. And, in this way as well, we will be impelled toward a path of deepening collaboration with other, reform-minded people.

Reflection 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other

Radical Decency grew out of my journey with the Eccoes Foundation, an organization my wife and I started in 2000. With our long involvement with personal growth and social justice causes, we were puzzled about how little overlap there was between the two. To unravel that mystery, we decided to start a public foundation that offered grants to organizations operating at the intersection of these worlds.

In our 3 years as operators of a grant-making organization, we found any number of inspiring groups that acknowledged the connection between social justice and personal growth. But true programmatic integration was hard to find. Instead there were social justice groups that, recognizing that personal healing enhanced their effectiveness, would sponsor staff retreats. On the flip side, we found personal growth groups that had social justice committees or sponsored occasional community-oriented events. But in every instance, the organizations we funded clearly existed in one world or the other.

This experience led me to a lot of head scratching, writing and, ultimately, Radical Decency. It is offered as an approach to living that, fully thought through, has the potential to integrate people and organizations with a passion for social justice and personal growth into a more unified and effective force for change. 


What can explain this separation between the worlds of social justice and personal growth? As I see it, it is a series of culturally promoted messages, relentlessly reinforced, that push us to “do our own thing,” to focus on “our” career, to be a “success.” And what is success?  The accumulation of more and more personal power, recognition, and wealth.

These attitudes, in turn, foster a pervasive sense of “personal ownership,” not just of things but also of ideas, programs and philosophies. Indeed, how many of us are immune to a sense of diminishment when our good idea is adopted – but we receive no credit?

The net effect? The many people who share a passion for creating a better life and meaningfully contributing to a better world are separated from one another; fragmenting their energy; reducing their effectiveness. 


What is less obvious is the extent to which these values are embedded: (1) in the very structure of the organizations these “good guys” join and create to promote their goals; and (2) in the ways in which they think about their lives and careers. To illustrate the point, consider the very different opportunities and rewards available to me as a commercial bankruptcy attorney, on the one hand, and as a public interest lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist on the other.

As a mainstream attorney, tending to “my career,” I developed a name for myself in a narrowly defined and financially rewarding area of the law; cultivated a stable of good paying clients who were loyal – to me; and measured my success in terms of the money I made. Playing by the predominant culture’s rules of personal aggrandizement, I was offered an easily identifiable career path and way of living, and was rewarded for that choice with the mainstream culture’s indicia of success – money and respect.

By contrast, the career paths available to me as a public interest lawyer looked very different. I could specialize in housing law – or civil rights – or environmental law.  But there was no readily available career path that allowed me to work, more generally, on the deeply flawed ways in which we live. 

Similarly, while social work school trumpeted an approach to healing that considered both the personal and political, incoming students were required to choose either a clinical or policy track. In other words, it could train you for a career that focused on social justice, or personal healing and growth – but not on both. Once again, there was no career path for someone who was interested in an integrated “big picture” approach to change.

So right from the start – in both of these reform-minded professions – the structural realities of the culture pushed me to shrink my focus; to work on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Why? In retrospect, the answer seems self-evident.  The predominant culture, with its genius for self-perpetuation, tolerates small incremental improvements, but has no tolerance for – and hence offers no structures to support the work of – people who seek more fundamental change. 


This narrowing process is also deeply interwoven in the organizations the good guys create to implement their visions. As a society, we have created vast markets to finance risky new ventures and to reward organizers and early investors when they are successful. These structures are, however, only available when the prime virtue of the product is its ability to make a lot of money. In other words, access to these empowering financial structures is limited to people who embrace the predominant culture’s vision of success. 

For people seeking to create a better world, the realities are very different. Social change oriented nonprofits have no meaningful access to capital markets, their organizers and investors (donors) can never cash out, and there are legal limits on the salaries they can pay. And, in an analogous way, change agents who work in the healing professions – psychotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, etc. – are limited by modest fees and the sale of services and products that are of little or no interest to capital markets.

But financial marginalization is only a part of the story. Since they are offered enough money to survive and are able to focus on their passion for change, many of the world’s good guys are drawn to the nonprofit or healing careers. But in accepting this invitation, they are forced – in fundamental, mission compromising ways – to play by ground rules that have been crafted by the predominant culture. 

Thus, to retain the goodwill of mainstream funders – foundations, individual donors, government agencies – they focus on limited and defined substantive areas and, more often than not, on service oriented services and products. Doing so, their more radical instincts are marginalized. While they can work to make aspects of the existing system less mean spirited, even the limited support they receive from mainstream funding sources will evaporate if they focus on more fundamental change.

Moreover, the great majority of these good people are not immune to the pull of the predominant culture’s values. They worry about cost of sending their kids to college and how to support themselves when they are old. And, surrounded by the mainstream culture’s cues, sanctions, and incentives, they are susceptible to all the material things the culture so relentlessly promotes – a comfortable home in the suburbs, fancy gadgets, nice vacations, etc., etc.

So while they choose their careers for noble reasons, the tendency to protect the financial viability of the entity they depend upon for their livelihood – by adopting mainstream business outlooks and practices – is almost impossible to resist. Pushed in that direction by their lawyers, accountants, and PR advisers, they increasingly treat other good guy organizations as competitors; view their services as a proprietary brand to be preserved and protected; and see their clients and funding sources as closely held corporate assets.  Here, once again, powerful cultural forces discourage collaboration, mutual support, and a more radical agenda.

Thus, embarking on a mission of change, the typical good guy winds up in the vise of a system that offers work on important and inspiring but, in the end, narrowly focused programs; that discourages active cooperation with other change agents; and will, if fundamental change is sought, financially quash the organizations they rely upon to support themselves and their families. 

Small wonder, then, that organizations working at the intersection of social justice and personal growth are hard to find. Our world is specifically structured to prevent good guy energy from cohering into a unified and, therefore, more effective force for change.


Overcoming these cultural forces is a daunting task. And, tackling them is one of Radical Decency’s central missions.

Radical Decency’s approach to living seeks to systematically replace the cultural norms that produce these results with attitudes and behaviors based on respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, acceptance, fairness and justice. The hope is that, building out from this values-based perspective, new outlooks and structures will emerge that will allow the energy of reform minded people – the good guys – to cohere into a more collaborative and effective movement for change. For a fuller discussion of how this might occur, see Reflection 6, Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection 45, Re-visioning Social Change Work; Reflection 89, A Call to Action, Part 1 – Community; Reflection 90, A Call to Action, Part 2 – An Expanded Collaborative Vision; and Reflection 91, A Call to Action, Part 3 – Expanded Collaboration in Action.

Reflection 2: The Deep Roots of Our Indecent Politics

As an observer of politics for more than 50 years, one persistent and powerfully present theme is this: The steady deterioration of decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – in both tone and substance.

In these years, the rhetoric of our two major parties has promoted meaningfully different agendas. Republicans’ public position is that, if we allow private, competitive markets to operate without restraint, greater decency will be a natural by-product of the private choices that accumulate under this system. Democrats, on their side, similarly endorse free market principles but seek to maintain and increase decency through governmental corrective initiatives.

Executive power since the 1960s has bounced back and forth between the parties: Kenney/Johnson followed by Nixon/Ford; Reagan/Bush One followed by Clinton; Bush Two followed by Obama. So, if our major parties actually subscribe in practice to their publicly stated goals, you would expect to see some coherent progress toward a more decent world during their years in power in ways that reflect each of their approaches.

But this hasn’t happened. When it comes to decency, the actions of both parties have been strikingly at odds with their official, publicly promoted ideologies:

Republicans have been deafening, in their silence, when it comes to leadership in promoting the private initiatives that are supposed natural by-products of the free market’s “magic,” exemplified by the utter absence of any enduring trace of Bush One’s “thousand points of light,” or Bush’s Two’s “compassionate conservatism.”

And the Democrats have been richly complicit in the erosion of safety net programs including, for example, the Bankruptcy Reform Act, signed into law by Carter, that deeply compromised the sanctity of union contracts; Clinton’s welfare “reform” and repeal of decades old regulations separating lending from investment banking; and Obama’s failure to seek meaningful financial re-regulate in return for $1.59 trillion in bailout funds; and

So what is going on? While disingenuous choices by contemporary politicians are part of the story, the more fundamental cause is deeply rooted in our evolution and history as a species.


Over the course of our 300,000 years as a species, humans have evolved exceedingly effective survival mechanisms; mechanisms that have allowed us to grow, in the last 50 to 100,00 years, from a geographically limited, sub-Saharan group of primates into the planet’s dominant species. And, the best theorists point to sensitivity to one another – and, with it, our ability to cooperate and communicate – as our key evolutionary edge.

While we are weaker and slower, our ability to intuit what others feel meant that a nod of the head or change of expression could be instantly understood by a fellow hunter at 50 yards. Living as hunter/gatherers, — the reality for almost all of years as a distinct species – this ability and the capabilities it fostered were the key to our evolutionary success.

The implication, confirmed by contemporary neuroscientists such as Dan Seigel, is that we are fundamentally affiliative beings. Our natural state is to be in intimate connection with, and to care for, one another. As Seigel says, it makes no sense to think of a single brain in isolation. From birth, and throughout life, our brain is molded and evolves by interacting with other brains. That is how we are neurologically wired.

But this is not the full story. Like other mammals, we have a second emergency system: Fight or flight. And because it is designed to deal with mortal danger it has a number of unique characteristics.

First, it is fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain. A car cuts across your lane without warning and what happens? You swerve superfast – your fight or flight brain in action. Only then do you realize that a car cut in front of you – your thinking brain.

In addition, since failing to remember the mortal risk of a crouching tiger 6 months or 20 years later would be a truly lousy idea, evolutionarily speaking, that part of your brain never forgets.

Finally, once activated, your fight or flight brain takes control of your mind and body. To support immediate counter-measures, it rushes hyper-alert chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) into the system and blood to the large muscle groups. And it shrinks the activity of the thinking brain, thereby minimizing the risk of having complex considerations interfere with the fast action required to insure survival.


So what does all this evolutionary and neurobiological theory have to do with our indecent politics? That gets back to our species’ history over the last 10,000 and 200 years.

As hunter/gatherers we spent long days quietly cooperating with one another in the mundane tasks of survival, with only occasional episodes of terror: A confrontation with an animal or neighboring group, a natural disaster. But then, about 10,000 years ago, as Jared Diamond describes in Gun, Germs, and Steel, we learned how to domesticate crops and animals.

The effect on humanity was seismic. Now, for the first time in our history, one group of people – through control of the food supply – could forcibly exercise control and dominion over others, and do so on a vast scale. The result: Our history as a species moved decisively and dramatically in that direction. We ceased to exist as small, isolated groups of hunter/gatherers. City/states, nations and empires became the norm.

But with this new, very different way of living, the people in control needed to develop new, ever more complex techniques for maintaining and expanding their power. When we remember the powerful physiological effects of fight or flight, it is not surprising that strategies that activated that part of the brain became key tools.

Demonization of the “other” became, and has remained, a mainstay of our governance. Why? Because when people are in a fight or flight state – out of fear of annihilation by an enemy – their willingness to follow, and to be controlled by, a leader greatly increases.

Thus, cultivating our auxiliary fight and flight mechanisms for political purposes has a long history.

But a key, crucially important additional piece of the puzzle is this:

Technological developments in the last 200 years have vastly upped the ante. Why? Because so many of life’s taken for granted down times – the times that allow us to be in our base-line affiliative state for a great majority of our hours and days – no longer exist. And, as an unintended but enormously important consequence, there has been an exponential increase in the times during which fight or flight states of mind are predominant.

Thus, for all of our time on earth – until 200 years ago – nighttime automatically resulted in a cessation of work, while summer’s heat and winter’s cold naturally and inevitably modulated the intensity of our activities. In addition, work rhythms were modulated by the weeks, and sometimes months, it took for communications to be sent and received.

But all that has now changed. We eliminated winter 150 years ago (with central heating), night time 120 years ago (with the electric light), and summer 60 years ago (with air conditioning). And, beginning in the mid-19th century, physical distance has been progressively obliterated as a limiting factor – with trains, cars, and planes; the telegraph telephone; and, in the last 20 years, cell phones, emails, texts and the Internet.

Now, thanks to technology, we can work all the time; a tendency that the culture powerfully reinforces with its emphasis on compete and win, dominant and control mindsets – whatever the cost. The result? Our fight or flight physiology is, more and more, in a state of constant activation. We are literally at risk of having this emergency auxiliary system become our new, base line mental state.


So why is our politics so indecent? Because, without regard to party or ideology, our mainstream politicians unerringly – and unnervingly – reflect the fight/flight mindsets that, increasingly and at an accelerating rate, have taken center stage in our lives.

The result? Though they may believe their own rhetoric, the great majority of our political leaders are not motivated by a desire to create a more humane, equitable and just world. To the contrary, the day-by-day choices that, over time, mold and reflect their priorities operationalize these deeply engrained flight or flight states of mind. In their deeds, if not their words, their priority is to “compete and win” and then, once in power, to maintain their position through “domination and control.”

On the Republican side, the route from rhetoric to reality is fairly straightforward. In their expressed ideology, decent outcomes occur automatically. If we are all free to pursue our private interests, the invisible hand of the free market will take care of the rest. And the absence of increased decency is explained, not through possible flaws in the theory – and, thus, in their policy choices – but through Democratic policies that prevent full implementation of the free market.

On the Democratic side, the journey to what is substantially the same outcome is more circuitous and, thus, more difficult to come to grips with. And this is an important point since, on balance, more people with an expressed passion for social justice identify as Democrats (me, included).

For this reason, their more hidden path away from decency, and toward compete and win values, means that the very people who are most motivated to blow the whistle on mainstream politics’ indecent ways are also more likely to remain mired in their side’s official story; concluding, for that reason, that the fundamental problem is with the other side – the Republicans – and not with the system itself.

Here’s how mainstream Democrats arrive at this place of indeecency.

They begin, it is true, with a series of programs that, if implemented, would promote decency: Jobs training, housing and education subsidies, an increased and expanded minimum wage, and so on. But then, the system grinds them up. And so, as the years go by, the great majority of these initiatives either do not become law or, if they do, are watered down to a point where their impact is more symbolic than real.

In the mainstream Democratic version of our politics, however, the failure of these “good” Democratic initiatives is attributed to the machinations of “bad” Republicans. And so, comforted by the belief that the Republican’s are the real problem, they gloss over their thorough complicity in what I see as the real story of our politics: A long series of bi-partisan, “under the radar screen” policies choices that favor the rich; that is, the funders of the very compete and win, dominate and control agenda that is so central to purposes of all our politicians, both Democrat and Republican.

Once you start to look, examples of this unacknowledged, largely invisible agenda show up everywhere. In addition to the policy choices cited at the beginning of this Reflection, here are a just few more examples:

  • Rules changes that have allowed senior corporate executives to receive massive payments in the form of stock options, with their favorable capital gains tax rates;
  • A massive expansion of our patent and intellectual property rights that give pharmaceutical, hi-tech and other industries expanded monopoly power over a vast array of products;
  • Emasculation of insider stock trading rules;
  • A massive expansion arbitration clauses that cut off consumer recourse to the courts;
  • Exclusion of mortgage debt and student loans from bankruptcy relief;
  • A steady increase in the inheritance tax exemption – from $675,00 in 2001 to $5.45 million in 2016.

For a fuller explanation of this phenomenon, I highly recommend Robert Reich’s concise and insightful book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015). And see, my discussion of his book in Reflection #87, Economic Inequality, Part 1 – How We Got Here.

A final note: Despite their defining importance to our political fate, these choices (and the overall policy trend they represent) are almost never a part of the political debate that shows up in the mainstream media. And that is no accident.

Even if we put aside the mainstream media’s complicity with the mainstream culture’s “compete and win” values, the promoters of this agenda more far typically embed these initiatives in highly technical language hidden, within the dense fog of legal language that is a part of even the simplest bill or proposed rule. Alternatively, they are the result of (not at all benign) inattention and, thus, legislative/executive inaction in the face of private choices that, as they accumulate, deeply and negatively impact the public.


In saying all this, I want to emphasize that I am not a complete pessimist. Politicians who do transcend these fight or flight mindsets – and they do exist – enjoy an inherent advantage since their policies are more congruent with our true nature as affiliative beings.

Moreover, there are inherent problems with policies and tactics that push us toward chronic states of arousal since they are manipulative, exploitative, and physically and emotionally draining – all qualities that limit their continuing appeal. In the end, politicians with a more humane approach have, I believe, the better of the argument.

But we need to recognize that we live in a culture that is deeply out of synch with our biology and has been, to an increasing degree, over the last 200 years. Thus, while mainstream politicians can simply exploit current trends, politicians and political activists who are seeking a better way have the much more difficult task: To mount a challenge to the status quo that persuasively presents a more decent alternative.

Understanding the problem we face is, of course, vitally important. But diagnosis only has lasting value if it is a prelude to corrective action. In other Reflections, I seek to address some aspects of this all-important “what to do about it” question. See, for example, Reflection #49 Politics – Systems Analysis, Values Solutions; Reflection #73, Making Broadcast News More Decent; Reflections ##75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2; and Reflection #88, Economic Inequality – Making Things Different.

My hope, needless to say, is that by focusing on the deep values-based roots of our current political situation, the many decent, well-intentioned people that exist, across the political spectrum, can come together in a unified effort to create a more just, fair, and humane world.