It is an equal surprise for this scribe, to choose and write upon “decency” on a weekend very early in the morning, for the reason that this trait, or characteristic or attitude, if not moving towards entire extinction, is at least going through a major metamorphosis of change. The ugly, today, is recognised as decent. The unthinkable decline in basic decency is receiving widespread recognition across all segments of society. So, why do I want to write about it?
Since childhood, I have been fed to believe and have faith, that ‘decency’, in all its forms and manifestations, is a sine qua non, for leading a life of internal peace. Being from the mostly unkind and ruthless corporate world; it would be an endeavour to relate the subject, as much as I can, to the attitude of managers, supervisors and leaders, at workplace. Human progress, I believe, has continually led to decline in human values, and the respect for it. The scientific, medical, engineering, computer sciences, etc fields have received major technology impetus; most of it good; but its consequences of banal approach towards life, has been an exacting price, for progress. It has led to lowering of the basic level of engagement between human beings. The indecencies of yester years have today acquired the title of “in thing-----fashionable”. The most unacceptable concepts of interaction have come to be guiding principles of engagement.
In “Fors Clavigera”, the virtuous and the non-virtuous (read decency) is best described in the following words, “The good man, living in mistaken effort, and dying miserably, to the ruin of his country; the bad man living in triumphant good fortune, and dying peaceably, to the ruin of many countries”. Further at another place, “virtue does not consist in doing what will be presently paid, or even paid at all, to you, the virtuous (decent) person. It may so chance; or may not. It will be paid, some day; but the vital condition of it, as virtue, is that it shall be content in its own deed, and desirous rather that the pay of it, if any, should be for others.” Decency demands “giving” not “receiving”.
The progressive decline in the cultivation of behaviour, that normally would encompass, propriety, virtues, modesty, etiquette, civility, courtesy, politeness and appropriateness, has led to the growing acceptance of conflicting attitude towards these noble traits. Generally, on any shop floor today, speaking in low decibel level is considered as weakness. Those who shout, even unconvincingly, get away. Isn’t our youth being fed by politicians in particular, with joy in persecution, with delight in mockery and arguments that are shunned of a generous behaviour/attitude; instead the arguments are full of vulgar spite and preposterous display of arrogance. Slanderous, disparaging and denigrating choice of words in conversation, inclusive of those used in TV talk shows, is increasingly coming to be accepted as “decent conversations ".
It is an accepted truth now that to charter into new horizons and frontiers, one has to jettison old baggage of outdated thoughts and relative behaviour. A spacecraft when it has to zoom out of the gravitational pull, fires new engines, but also simultaneously sheds the unwanted weight of what was considered important at the time of launch. There is therefore discarding of the unwanted to propel further towards progress; but should discarding lead to also abandonment of decent standards? To arrive at a new destination of discovery, at times, you have to leave old thoughts and practices, not decency!
While dumping the old process of doing a particular function is certainly positive, if the new introduction ushers greater efficiency; however the fundamental element of humanism that may be associated with the process, must not be expunged. You, as manager can berate the process a colleague is performing, but not the colleague himself. New approach must not be directed to emasculate time honoured principles of grace, dignity and decency. Regardless of the wildest provocations, there is never a room to indulge into emendation of universally accepted truths.
Indecently, most managers in meetings rush to opine on gravest of issues, with least knowledge and understanding. Most recognise their personal weaknesses when it is either too late, or has no bearing on future operations. It is a serious dissipation that blocks leaders/ mangers for being assiduous, to take all issues with a grave sense of seriousness.
Nikita Khrushchev, the warty, communist peasant and leader of the then USSR, was filled with extreme anxiety, lest, he is blamed for the young, handsome, deeply decent and cultured. On JF Kennedy’s assassination, the widow of JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy, wrote a letter to Khrushchev, which historians have termed as “Chivalry in despair is the spirit of this letter”. The letter was written during one of her last nights at the White House, following the assassination. While reading some of her lines I quote here, dear readers do recall history that these two giants, JFK and Khrushchev came very close to a nuclear war between US and USSR--- die-hard adversaries, but men, at least one of them certainly, being decent. She (Jacqueline) wrote “...So now, on one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper in the White House; I would like to write you my message. I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this case in his mind”. Further, she goes on, “…… you and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up - you respected each other and could deal with each other”.
Later in the letter, she says, “the danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men, as by the little ones. While big men know the need of self control and restraint- little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk before they start to fight”. (Modi! Are you listening to history?) She ended the letter by asking Nikita to convey her thanks to his wife for having tears, in her eyes while signing the condolence book at the US Embassy in Moscow. This I believe, no class diplomat can match to put together, in the most solemn moments, an appeal for peace, for the love of her husband’s crusade for global peace. Everything said, but within the ambit of grace and decency. And that too, to an adversary known then internationally for his rather uncouth behaviour. Richard Nixon in his pen-sketch says about Khrushchev, “of all the leaders I have met, none had a more devastating sense of humour, agile intelligence, tenacious sense of purpose, and brutal will to power”.
There is no respect for age in conversations today. Decency in attitude and conversation is now a slave to authority, position and power. Lacking the choice to be decent does not make anybody decent. Demonstration of decency to an office holder is a gift to the “office” and not to the “holder”(occupant). Decency mustn’t be restricted by the need for reciprocity. It is a beauteous state of mind and not reliant on available circumstances. Entrenched in nobility, decency costs nothing. The quality of decent attitude in a character is put to test only in contradiction. Hypocrisy is not decency. A decent manager is invariably a humble individual.
Unfortunately, uncouth behaviour is christened in the business world as being “street smart”. What a fallacy? How ugly is the premise of thought. Most, business and political leaders, not just nationally but internationally too, do not have the necessary training, wherewithal and significantly the desire to be decent. A few decades back, would it be conceivable and acceptable, for the President of USA to say (said in a tweet), “when the looting starts, shooting starts”. Is this a decent response to social riots?
Undoubtedly, decency begets decency. It is one major quality that distinguishes a manager/ leader from the crowd. The law of giving is inexorable. Every single facet of indecency or folly of being not decent, lessens the power to do and to enjoy; every endeavour after rightness of action fortifies the will and illuminates the judgment.
In being decent, is not to make applicable a view of self depreciation, but instead follow modesty, which should result in the just estimation of one’s standard of behaviour. In the breach of the basic tenets of decorum and decency most of us are touched by an internally driven instinctive revulsion.
Decency, as a trait, as an attitude, when it takes roots as part of our psyche, ensures that no person or circumstance can ever manipulate your action or pollute your thoughts. The infirmity of indecency is an eventuality. It cannot be otherwise. Let’s lift the corpse of decency from the pyre and breathe fresh life into it.
The writer is a banker and freelance contributor