I wrote a few weeks ago about the demise of decency as an anchor of American life. Unfortunately, nothing since then provides grounds for optimism. Quite the contrary.
A brutal, remorseless Cabinet secretary was fired, not for kidnapping, caging, and “losing” large numbers of children but because she did not break enough laws. The president threatened to commit acts of terrorism against our own people by dumping what he describes as dangerous criminals into cities that don’t submit to his will. A bank CEO whose fingerprints are on the global economic crash that stripped jobs and homes from millions of families publicly railed against “socialist” programs that help unemployed and uninsured Americans, despite his having received $25 billion in government welfare cash to bail out his own business.
And most Americans just shrugged.
That reaction is understandable. A steady drumbeat of self-dealing, deception, vulgarity, and aggression desensitizes. Self-protective detachment is a natural response to physical and psychological assault. Besides, what impact can one person have when even the mighty Senate’s majority has been largely brought, or bought, to heel?
Quite a lot, actually. Although not easy or immediate, restoring decency is not a herculean proposition.
Restoration depends not on legislation, mass demonstrations, election results, or a charismatic champion but on more of the rest of us more consistently making five basic choices as we move through our daily lives.
First, build our opinions upward from core values, not downward from tribal interests.
Conservative, progressive, democrat, republican, independent, white, American, Christian, and the like are not core values. At best such terms are fuzzy generalizations, Rorschach blots interpreted in widely different and often irreconcilable ways. At worst they are gang signs devoid of substantive content, deployed for personal advantage. Core values are far deeper, less elastic, and more operationally powerful than political, tribal, or cultural labels.
The best starting point is, in my view, the Golden Rule articulated in Matthew 7:12 and embedded in the teachings of most world religions. If the Golden Rule is applied generally and without regard to whether someone is an ally or rival, or “like me” or “very different,” it carries us most of the way back to decency.
Second, view personal responsibility as extending beyond our own lifespans.
Perhaps the most indecent aspect of our current era is the looting of future generations to feed current appetites. Exploding the deficit to pump cash to the richest political donors. Deconstructing legal and regulatory infrastructure to evade accountability. Denying climate change – in the face of overwhelming evidence – to avoid mild inconvenience because dengue fever won’t arrive and the first major city won’t submerge until after we’re safely dead and buried.
Look into a child’s eyes and try to imagine how what we currently support or tolerate will impact her children’s lives. If your response is “they’ll figure it out” (i.e., “f— them”), go back to step one above.
Third, speak up when we encounter indecent behavior.
I cannot reverse the current government’s cynical defunding of programs to combat violent white nationalist extremism, but I can and should respond when I encounter someone verbally abusing people for speaking Spanish in public … denigrating black athletes as ungrateful “animals” for kneeling … or haranguing a trans person that each sentence of the Bible must be obeyed strictly (while eating a bacon burrito purchased while shopping on Sunday at a mall owned by atheists).
Bullies, bigots, and grifters thrive in the “safe” space created by our polite or timid silence, and appropriately challenging their self-presumed dominance in the public commons is a powerful act of decency.
Fourth, recognize and reflect on privilege.
So much of the contentiousness of the current era, including the supposed “culture” wars, is not about values or God or public policy but about privilege, about who is entitled to be heard … to make decisions … to exclude or control others.
Like evolution and subatomic particles, privilege is a pervasive reality, and it takes many forms. Unlike evolution and subatomic particles, however, privilege can be seen acting in real time and with the naked eye … whether it’s D-list celebrities stealing other children’s educations by bribing their own kids’ way into universities … politicians laboring with decreasing finesse to extend minority rule by hook or crook … or clergy abandoning supposed values in exchange for appointment of judges who will help launder bigotry, tax advantages, and bare-knuckle politics as religious faith.
Recognize it. Understand that it’s usually unspoken and assumed. See that it can be cynically weaponized to create and exploit false affinity (e.g., “I’m a white guy born into immense wealth who has never shopped for groceries or met a tradesman I didn’t cheat, but I wholly understand and will fight just for white working-class you”). There is no road to decency without the insight that comes from reflection, self- and otherwise.
Fifth, hold bad actors accountable.
Indecency thrives when it carries no personal consequences.
If you kidnap and “lose” children, defund programs for handicapped kids to finance billionaire tax cuts, spend your day shamelessly lying into a camera, molest scores of minors, facilitate the rich rapist’s escape from justice, dedicate your career to stripping health insurance from the sick, poor, and elderly, or promote race-based supremacy for political gain or personal profit … you shouldn’t be allowed to settle comfortably back into lucrative sinecures or polite society when you get tired or fired.
Decency cannot and will not be restored until truly bad actors and the entities that shelter and enrich them are held accountable. Full stop. If privilege thwarts legal and political accountability, then continuous free speech must be deployed to fill the void. If you feel a surge of sympathy, direct it toward victims, not unrepentant perps.
The arc of history does not bend toward justice – or decency – by itself. It is bent one way or the other by the application of pressure. By many people, powerful and not. In everyday life. Every day.
Reach out, grab on, pull hard, and don’t let go.