On Decency

Decent, polite, normal, responsible, deserving, moral and fair are all words that carry a lot of baggage that makes them less than helpful in some discussions.  At the risk of oversimplification, I would like to divide that baggage into two categories to help understand where the snags occur in trying to formulate a good position on things that wind up with these descriptive terms in them.  Those two categories are Conformity and Humanity.  Now, you may notice that these two categories also have baggage. In fair disclosure, I tend to find my positions loaded with the baggage in the one that I think sounds nicer to me.

The baggage I throw into the Conformity category is all of the ways that we tend to feel that following established rules is the determining factor as to the merit of a position or a behavior, including whether to sanction or tolerate that position or behavior. For example, if there are people waiting for service, there is an established rule that the one waiting the longest will be the next one to be served. It is fair and simple and whether we take a number or stand in a line, the “right” thing to do is to conform to the standard, even if you feel that your need is more urgent.  There are cases in which the rule is not so simple, such as triage at the ER, or the elevator stopping at the next desired floor rather than going to each floor in the order it was pressed, but these rules are the basis for an orderly society, as well.  When rules seem to be changing, those who have a lot of conformity baggage have the most trouble.  Does the guy still pay for the date? Do you hold a door open for someone? The most comfortable answer in the baggage is to just do things like they have always been done. This requires belief that none of the circumstances that led to the old ways have changed in a relevant manner or at least none have changed justifiably.

The baggage that goes in to the Humanity category tends to be less about conventional rules, and more about a perceived goal of the rules. For example, in the Conformity category, there is little difference between being courteous and being polite, whereas in the Humanity category, politeness is about form and courtesy is about consideration.  There is nothing courteous or discourteous about which fork to eat a salad with, other than if it makes someone uncomfortable to see you use the untraditional fork, you may show them the courtesy of following their convention. While it may be polite to let the woman exit the elevator first in the parking garage, it may be more courteous for the man to step ahead to relieve her of the uncomfortable situation of being followed in a parking garage. This emphasis on what others feel rather than on what is the standard is the difference between these two categories.

The conformity model has several advantages and is not devoid of merit, but someone who sees things through the humanity model might find the conformity model to be backward and small minded in other ways. Let’s take a look at a few of the things on the plus side of the conformity model.  Let’s start with the old adage that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”  Those who fall all over themselves to be nice to others can find themselves creating an intricate web of double standards. “I can’t celebrate my heritage, but you can celebrate yours, because my heritage upsets you” is one of those you may hear of from time to time. Also, from the humanity model point of view, you can understand how uncomfortable it is not to know what to do, and those who cling to conformity have a safety net of always knowing what to do, because it is the normal thing to do.  Who has not felt embarrassed to be at a table with someone who behaves in a way that makes a scene? Knowing “how to behave” virtually always means knowing how one is expected to comport themselves under different situations, or in other words, how to conform to societal norms. We can all relate to this. They are not norms if everyone makes up their own, they are only norms because they are standard for everybody.  When cultures clash, it is often due to different norms. I recently read a story from a couple of different viewpoints. A group of black women took a wine country train tour.  Several other passengers found their behavior to be discourteous, because when these friends get together, on a bus or a train or in a limo or at a restaurant, they laugh and tell stories without worrying who overhears their conversation, but people who would take this tour more frequently were used to the idea that the point of the train was to quietly view the scenery while sipping their wine.  Nowhere in the brochure was this assumption mentioned, it was just what people who took the tour frequently came to expect, so when the group of friends did not conform to the assumed expectation, they were seen as rowdy and obnoxious, and asked to leave the train, and were entirely perplexed by the whole situation. You sit at a table and share wine and laugh, what else do you do? Oddly enough, these women probably had more hours of train travel than anyone else on that train, who only rode a train on that tour, so how you pass the time on a train was from two entirely different perspectives. Neither was non-conformist except in the eyes of the other.  When we look at conformity alone, those who have their own norms can only be seen as the ones who are wrong.

In the Conformity model, to be decent is to adhere to virtues that are established, such as dress modestly, live in a clean and well-maintained abode, earn a comfortable living, and treat people in a polite manner. To be polite is to follow “manners” such as keeping your elbows off of the table, saying “good morning”, not using foul language, calling someone “sir” or “ma’am”, and waiting your turn to speak. Courtesy is to be polite in interactions.  To deserve something could be to have a debt owed to you, or to have broken a rule that carries a punishment. To be moral is to behave in a way that is prescribed by the prevailing moral authority, such as a religion or the law. Fairness is the result of following the same rules.

The Humanity model does not have the same simplicity as the conformity model. It can be confounding because it can lead to apparent contradictions.  It is more nuanced because it does not preclude the potential areas of personal comfort are based on the tendency to rely on conformity.  For example, how boys and girls are expected to behave is layered with conformity, such that a transgender person is drawn to conform to the gender identity they experience. From a strict conformity perspective, this is “wrong”, and if we disregard the issue of conformity, we are hard pressed to explain how or why we need to let the transgender person conform in a nonconforming way, and what that even means. This means that you have to actually think about what is the “best” way to determine what a “good” way to behave is.  Conformity is common, and plays into “common sense” thinking more readily that considering what someone else might need or feel, or whether what they feel is the proper issue at hand. If dealing with how one feels causes another to feel bad, which is most important? The most people’s feelings? The fewest?

There is an overlap in which people trying to conform to behaviors that are grounded in the Humanity model based on observing what the “rules” must be.  This is where the “PC” backlash gets a foothold. Someone who noticed that there is a difference between how one group tends to be treated versus another group wrongly assumes that there really are justifiably two distinct standards, rather than a set of conditions that lead to two similar but distinct situations.  For example, pride in your ethnicity and it’s accomplishments despite oppression can be celebrated while pride in your ethnicity without regard to all those who were oppressed by it might be less cause for celebration, and be an extension of the oppression to celebrate it.  While ethnicity cannot be controlled for independently, the issue is not ethnicity, but the relationship between ethnicities, in terms of dominance and oppression, from the Humanity category, but from a conformity perspective it simply presents a double standard.

As viewed from the Humanity model, Decency is about treating people the way you would want to be treated were you in their position, and no, nobody believes you if you claim you would want to be told to shut up. Politeness has to do with being pleasant and trying to make the other comfortable, including observing the niceties they seem to prefer, while courtesy is about considering others in your actions. You wipe your feet upon entering not because it is expected but to keep from messing up someone else’s home. If someone dresses in a way that is odd to you, it is not an attack on your values if you allow them the courtesy of having their own different but largely equivalent values. To deserve something is dependent on the situation. If I get a free public school education, we must agree that either you deserve the same, or neither of us deserves it.  Whether you are using the word to claim something was earned or to claim something was owed or merited, the criteria should be the same. Nobody deserves to inherit a million dollars, but that does not mean they deserve to have it taken away, either.  If I claim that hard work is what earning is about, then the stock boy at the grocery store probably earns more than the CEO of an oil company, even though we know he does not get it. If you are going to use words like “deserve”, you should think about what you really think they mean, and not just speak from the gut. It will tell you that you deserve everything you have and those that don’t have it don’t deserve it, and that math usually does not hold up.

So, I propose a new term. Rather than ever use the phrase “Politically Correct”, let’s say “Humanly Decent”, as in “Expecting those people to behave the way you would is not Humanly Decent”. Using demeaning terms based on broad stereotypes to describe people you do not really know is not Humanly Decent. Assuming that just because you never considered someone else’s feelings before means that their feelings were never worth consideration is not humanly decent.  Any backlash earned by overzealous people being “too PC” still does not eliminate the importance of being decent to one another, whether you call it PC or not, but if you have decided you “hate all things PC”, then forget that word and just try not to be a total ass, and instead focus on being a decent person.


About UncleJoe

I'm a middle aged male who has attended a seminary as well as receiving a degree in philosophy from a secular university neither of which would particularly impress you if I said which. I have pondered and puzzled questions of faith and the lack thereof for many years. I don't not claim to be holy, or an expert on everything, simply observant and interested. I'll make bold statements about what I see as the way things are, and you don't have to take my word for it. Call me on it. I am here for the discussion.
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