Common Decency, Common Courtesy, and Common Sense – critical to the survival of a culture. While the definition of each of these might vary slightly culture to culture, I think there’s some foundational common ground.
As a culture, we seem to have lost our bearings with regard to this 3-legged stool that supports a culture. When it happened I’m not sure, but it feels like it’s been rapidly accelerating over the past 30 years. We’ve lost the ability to allow any disagreement into our dialogue, as we no longer have an understanding of how decency, courtesy, and sense can guide us to learn from one another when we disagree rather than hating and hurting one another.
The desire to treat our fellow human beings with respect and compassion. The willingness to forego some comfort or profit in order for another to be more comfortable or to feel some small gain. This notion of common decency is foundational to most religions. In the case of my own religion – Christianity – the entire religion is based on the teachings of a man who gave himself completely to not only teaching these principles, but to demonstrating them in the life he led.
But these principles seem hidden in our culture today, don’t they? There will always be mean-spirited people who lie and cheat and bully others, but a culture founded in common decency will shun and banish those people. How is it then, that people like Limbaugh and Hannity and Orielly and Beck and Olberman survive and thrive on the airwaves of our public square? How is it that Americans continue to shop at stores like Walmart who strive hard to assure that good jobs aren’t available in America, both by continuing illegal and immoral practices to assure that American workers can’t organize, and by producing every product they can overseas in countries that consistently support labor practices that most of us would consider slavery, child abuse, or worse?
We make decisions every day with our wallets – our continual vote in the marketplace. Every time we allow one of these abusive, lying, cheating bullies to appear on a TV that we watch, we cast a vote in favor of what they represent. Every time we make a purchase at a Walmart, we cast a vote in favor of what they represent. We have absolute power to simply set our jaw, and make them go away by refusing to support them and what they represent.
Yet we don’t. Why not? Our refusal to take a stand against these practices makes us complicit in their actions. Certainly supporting the concept of reasonable wages will make our prices rise, but the America I grew up in had the decency to allow my neighbor to make a living wage rather than force him to live in poverty so I can pay a little less for some trinket I might want to buy.
The lying, cheating, bullies are out in force right now as we run up to our election. Will we continue to swallow their pill of dishonesty and lack of common decency, or will we set our jaw and vote with a conscience rather than with our selfish greed?
I had dinner with a friend not long ago, and our conversation meandered around to courtesy. As common decency has crept further and further from our relationship palette, so courtesy has become less and less important. Courtesy is an expression of care, concern, and respect for another person. Extending a courtesy to another person is an open hand that lets them see the respect you have for them.
My daughter went through a period when she refused to let me open doors for her. She’s a strong-willed and intelligent young woman, who seemed to see having a man open a door as an expression of weakness on her part. As she’s grown up, I’ve noticed that she not only lets me open doors for her, but will actually pause slightly to give me the chance to open it. She’s come to realize how much it means to me when I’m able to express my respect for her by opening the door for her, and she’s learning to give this gift to me more often. She’s every bit as strong-willed as she ever was, and becoming more intelligent every day. And she’s learning the art of courtesy in a culture that’s working hard to keep her from doing so.
I should mention also that my daughter is teaching me a thing or two about courtesy as well. Although I really don’t care a bit about fashion, and have nearly zero fashion sense, I’m allowing myself to learn from her – how to identify “cute” shoes, what colors go together well, etc. I do this not because I really care about cute shoes, but because these are things that are important to her, and by learning from her, I give her a gift and a courtesy.
The courtesy that our children display is a perfect reflection of what we have taught them about how to express care, concern and respect for other people. How our generation behaves is far less important than how the next generation behaves, and the common courtesy we teach them has a very big impact on that behavior.
Common sense was, at one time, the true measure of a person. If a person has all the education in the world, but lacked basic common sense, s/he was considered to have little practical knowledge. If a person spewed rhetoric that couldn’t stand up to the rigors of logic, s/he lost all credibility.
It was important that a person be able to sew a button on a shirt if necessary, or to understand the most basic principles of how to put something together or to apply common repairs. This represented common sense, and the ability to understand things and solve problems. Today, such things have come to represent “common” labor, and fewer and fewer people can do these things. Worse, they’re often proud of their lack of common sense, making it clear that they don’t have the ability to perform these basic tasks, apparently unaware or uncaring of the lack of common sense this displays.
In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “If a boy has not got pluck and honesty and common sense he is a pretty poor creature, and he is a worse creature if he is a man and lacks any one of those three traits.”
Lest anyone sense any taint of sexism in this statement, the reader should also know that in the year 1913 – well before there was any sense of gender equality in our culture, TR also said, “Much can be done by law towards putting women on a footing of complete and entire equal rights with man – including the right to vote, the right to hold and use property, and the right to enter any profession she desires on the same terms as the man.”…”Women should have free access to every field of labor which they care to enter, and when their work is as valuable as that of a man it should be paid as highly.”
The decline of common decency is directly related to the decline in common sense. It’s the loss of the common sense required to discern truth from fiction that’s allowed the ascendence of the liars, cheats, and bullies that are paid so much money by the media to spew their distortions and half-truths. The lack of common sense keeps us voting for people who spoon-feed us honey while destroying the orchard, and keep us spending money with multi-national corporations who are destroying the fabric of our economy.
Like every culture, ours is held up wholly by the 3 pillars of civilized behavior – Common Decency, Common Courtesy, and Common Sense. I question how much longer we can stand as these pillars erode around us. The power to rebuild them and make them strong lies completely in our hands. Will we pick up the tools and start to repair the extreme damage that’s already occurred.