The Decline of Decency (And How to Get it Back)

*This post has not yet been edited (I needed to get these thoughts out now)

“Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic. Decent people throw up their hands. Protest and rebuke are useless, a waste of breath.” Amos 5:13 MSG

Cats meow. Dogs bark. We don’t get surprised when a cat meows. We don’t get offended when dogs bark. We expect it because it is what they do and it is who they are.

A good friend once gave me this advice when helping me through a difficult relationship with someone who was simply put, a jerk. He taught me not to be surprised when people behave in ways that are consistent with their character.

Growing up I heard enough harsh language directed at me by my peers that I eventually learned how to turn it down, turn it off, and eventually I learned to turn it on them. The problem is that what I was really learning to do was to have a disregard for decency.

If you grew up in the eighties like I did we had a mantra that made this every child’s mission. “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!” 

Sounds silly, but we actually meant it. We embraced it. We used it as permission to allow ourselves to lower our standards and engage in indecent behavior and banter because we learned that saying it first or saying it louder made us bigger, better, and more powerful.

What’s most troubling about our current culture is not that people say horrible things, it’s that many decent people seem to be throwing up their hands and throwing down their standards and as a result we have all abandoned a sense of decency and dignity in the way that we talk to and about each other.

When I read the words of Amos the prophet I can literally feel his frustration. I expect cats to meow. I expect dogs to bark. What I don’t expect is for decent people to quit being decent people.

I am encouraged though that Amos doesn’t just leave it there.

Seek good and not evil and live! You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, being your best friend. Well, live like it, and maybe it will happen.- Amos 5:14 MSG

If I am going to be completely honest just the other day I almost threw my own hands up. I was ready to lower my standards, but I remembered an old proverb.

When you wrestle in the mud with a pig you both get dirty, the only difference is the pig actually likes it.

So I took the advice of Amos and I decided to seek good and not evil and am inviting you to consider three important ways to restore a sense of decency and dignity in our discussions and dialogue during these dangerously indecent times.


1. Care about what others care about.

“Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” -Paul (emphasis added)

One of the misunderstood aspects of autism spectrum disorder is that those on the spectrum lack empathy. After I was diagnosed with ASD I understood why people thought they understood me. In reality most people still don’t understand me especially as it relates to how I express my emotions. Ironically, I think the misconception about empathy is actually rooted in an overstated importance of empathy. Don’t get more wrong empathy is important, but if you look at the actual definition of empathy then you will realize that empathy actually carries no moral or ethical guidelines.

Empathy is the ability to understand or anticipate a person’s perspective and to share in their feelings. Empathy can be good, but sharing in the feelings of others isn’t always positive especially if those feelings and attitudes are morally wrong.

The larger problem with empathy is that empathy at its core reinforces implicit bias. It is very easy for me to empathize with those whom I can identify with. People and people groups that are most similar to me actually become the group(s) that I am most likely to share feelings with.

When you think about it, empathy only really requires that I attempt to understand those whom I can most easily identify with. This type of empathy can lead to further bias because I am compelled to only care about what people who are most like me care about.

If we want to resurrect the forgotten value of honor we must partner empathy with compassion. Compassion is what gives empathy the moral integrity that it needs to truly be effective. Compassion means that I choose to love, support, and interact with people in crisis even if I don’t share their story. I connect with people who are different from me because of compassion not empathy.

Compassion also cautions us from trying to rewrite the narratives of others because it doesn’t connect with our personal experience.

Empathy without compassion is simply group think (or group feel) and when how my group thinks and feels becomes my only concern I lose a sense of value for the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.

We live in a culture where no one actually cares what they say or feel about others because they don’t care what others say or feel about them. We pride ourselves on not caring what others think as if it is a badge or honor and nobility to live completely detached from the way people experience us. This is not freedom. It is a false pride that leads to an utter lack of decency and humanity. While having a healthy sense of self-worth is important, it is virtually impossible to create a culture of honor if we refuse to reflect on how our actions and words cause others to view us.

If you’re a leader this is especially true.

“…the powerful have to worry about how others think of them..”- Malcolm Gladwell

We have to care about the things that others care about.

2.Learn to argue about what is right and not just who is right.

“You fools! You know how to interpret the weather signs of the earth and sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the present times. Why can’t you decide for yourselves WHAT is right?”-Jesus  (emphasis added)

Decency at its core is about standards. Standards are about measurement. Measurements are objective. Objectives are about goals.

Disagreements are a natural part of human interaction. I would be a naive fool to think that everyone will always have the same perspective and the same solutions to issues. While we can’t get around the debates and the disagreements about what everyone believes about what the right things are, we can start by agreeing to actually fight about and for the right things.

The decline of decency has been exposed in our inability to stay focused on what is right instead of who is right. “What is right” is about standards. “What is right” is about objectives and goals. “What is right” is about choosing community over competition.

When we choose to fight about who is right who choose the lesser of the two missions. Conflict is a reality but when the goal is to be right instead of doing what is right we make conflict personal instead of making it purposeful.

3. Admit that our “flaw finders” are faulty.

Jesus once cautioned against judging others not merely because judging others was wrong, but primarily because our ability to find flaws is faulty.

“How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?”-Jesus

What we often fail to understand about ourselves is that we can’t see past the filters of our own perspectives let alone call out the flaws of others. We all have filters. We all view the world through a particular set of lenses that are shaped by our context, our age, our race, our gender, our nationality, and our education just to name a few of those “logs” that Jesus was speaking about.

The technical term for the filters that form our subconscious views is implicit bias.

If we have any shot at returning to a sense of decency and decorum in the face of disagreements we must admit that our life comes with a particular set of lenses that color how we view the world. Until I can admit that I have a log in my eye I won’t recognize the limits of my own judgement and when I falsely believe that my judgement is unlimited I assume the role of a disinterested and distant deity and in the process I destroy any chance for human decency.

“God keeps track of the decent folk; what they do won’t soon be forgotten. In hard times, they’ll hold their heads high; when the shelves are bare, they’ll be full.” Psalm 37:18 MSG

When times get hard and the language and rhetoric are harsh and harmful. Don’t raised your hands raise your standards. When it’s hard not to throw your hands up and give up, stay true to God, speak the truth in love, and hold up your head but most importantly hold up your standards because God is keeping track.

Keep it decent- Pastor L

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