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Looking ahead to a year of decency

In the late fall of 2020, I listened to a 2016 interview with Sen. Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina, in which he was asked his thoughts regarding Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.

Graham “choked up” a little as he referred to his friend and colleague in the Senate as “a better man you cannot find.” Followed by “as good a man as God ever created.” He used the word “decent.”

“Decency” is not a word that’s used much lately. The climate of political exchange has, instead, been one of derision and hate speech. In a recent, brutally honest article in the Atlantic magazine discussing the legacy of the departing administration, the author, George Packer, stated that in recent years America has become “more divided distrustful deceitful meaner.” Other damning descriptors were used. Decency was nowhere to be found.

Decency can be defined as “honesty, good manners and respect for other people.” A decent person is a moral person who has an in-built sense of right and wrong. He or she can be counted on to be courteous and fair-minded — civilized if you will. A decent person values others. If Lindsay Graham is right and that is who our new president is, hallelujah for the United States of America.

But it is never that easy. There’s always a twist. An article by Kenan Malik published in The Guardian in the early stages of the pandemic stated, “Decency is a necessary underpinning of the good society, but not a sufficient one. Beyond decency lies politics. How decency is able to express itself and what kind of society it can build depends on political will and collective struggle.”

I am optimistic about a changing “political will” — if for no other reason than constant ranting and raving in the public square is so fatiguing. Don’t we long for something different? In the words of members of the incoming administration, “We are better than this.”

I am also optimistic about “collective struggle,” perhaps because the pandemic of 2020 has us so well-practiced at struggling.

“It may seem a ridiculous idea that the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” These are the words of the central character in Albert Camus’ 1917 novel “The Plague.”

When I look around at our current plague/pandemic, I see examples of decency in play — people helping people. Acts of kindness and good will. The woman who stood all day outside a California hospital holding a sign for health care workers coming and going. It said “Heroes.” The neighborhoods wrapping their purchasing power around floundering small businesses.

In graduate school, decades ago, I was enamored by an academic with an unlikely name — Wolf Wolfensberger. He influenced disability policy and practice by introducing the idea that people are more likely to experience “the good things in life” if they feel truly valued. Maybe that’s what’s meant by “collective struggle.” Maybe.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.