Decency — A word to live by


I’d like to confess something I feel guilty about.

It happened a long time ago, back in high school.

One of my classmates — I won’t give his name or even a pseudonym, for obvious reasons —was a gangly, pimply wreck of a teenager. His walk was a shambling lurch, his speech a jumbled garble, his dress grotesquely scruffy.

He was the odd one of our class, the goofy one who always sat alone in the cafeteria and never attended any school events. Naturally, he was taunted to his face and talked about behind his back, and the subject of numerous tricks and pranks.

They call it bullying today, and probably did then, too, and it was merciless. I often wondered how he could bear even walking into the building day after day, knowing what was in store.

No, I did not participate in any of it. I left him alone. At least I had that much decency.

But I never did anything about it. I didn’t speak to any of the school authorities. I didn’t tell my classmates to knock it off. I never stood up for him or offered him a kind word of support.

I saw something that was clearly wrong and just let it go. I cared more about my own standing with classmates than I did about how shabbily they were treating a fellow human being, and that has haunted me to this day.

Call it guilt or call it shame, it’s the voice of conscience telling us that our virtue has been tested and we have come up short. We either did something we knew we should not have, or else failed to do something we knew we should have.

That’s the key. What we should feel guilty about, as a first step in becoming better people, are our actions, the things over which we have control.

We should never feel shame for who we are, the groups we belong to simply because of the accident of our birth. We do not have to answer for things over which we have no control.

But if I understand the message coming through loud and clear these days — I’m pretty sure that I do — those are precisely the things I am now supposed to feel guilty about.

I should feel guilty for being born white in a place in which nonwhites have less privilege, male in a culture where so many women have been mistreated, heterosexual at a time when gays are enjoying their new-found political clout, American in a world that seems to seems to magnify our country’s sins but ignore its virtues. Now that I am no longer young enough to feel guilty about wasting the legacy of previous generations, I’m probably supposed to feel guilty for being old enough to hoard the resources and opportunities the newer generations lack.

Sorry, but I’m not going there.

Volumes have been written about the follies of collective guilt and the dangers of trying to answer the damage done to one group by doing equal or greater damage to another group. I doubt I could anything to those discussions.

It is enough for me to say that I will try — perhaps not always succeed but certainly always make the effort — to treat all peoples I met as unique individuals, deserving of the benefit of my doubt until and unless their actions persuade me otherwise. And all I can ask of others is they afford me that same respect.

I once tried to come up with a definition of morality and started with the thought, “to never harm others.”

But sometimes just making a choice harms others, so, I decided I needed to make it, “Never go out of your way to harm others.” But what about choosing to harm someone who might otherwise cause harm to many others? I had to make it, “Never go out of your way to harm others with no good reason.”

I finally realized that I could keep adding qualifiers forever and still not have an adequate definition.

So, I came up with a simple, two-word definition of morality that still guides me today: Behave decently.

That is how the sum of our lives will be judged. Everything else is just the fashion of the moment and following the path of least resistance.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to awoods@aim

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