Decency entails the right fit

Posted 7/31/20

On top of the 150,000 lives that have been lost to COVID-19 in the U.S., our society has suffered the loss of a shared and common decency. Instead of uniting against a lethal threat, this virus …

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Decency entails the right fit

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On top of the 150,000 lives that have been lost to COVID-19 in the U.S., our society has suffered the loss of a shared and common decency. Instead of uniting against a lethal threat, this virus brings out the worst in certain people. The latest example is Rep. Ted Yoho.

According to a news reporter, Yoho, a Florida Congressman, confronted his fellow member of the House of Representatives, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on a staircase in the Capitol and hurled insults at her. Though the accusations were collaborated by eyewitnesses, Yoho denied that he used profane remarks: “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language,” he said.

In her rebuttal, Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that Yoho committed the logical fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Sure, some decent men have wives and daughters. But that alone does not make a man decent. In Ocasio-Cortez’s words, “Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.”

This should not have to be explained to Yoho. And yet, here we are.

I’ve been ruminating on the word “decency.” While connotating a sense of modesty, decency also defines an appropriateness to a certain situation. The word is derived from a Latin root that had to do with wearing clothes. “Decent” meant the right fit.

Wearing clothes that fit is actually a low bar. We are not talking about our Sunday best. A shirt can fit properly even if it is dirty or torn.

And yet, it is a starting point.

Ocasio-Cortez is right to point out that Yoho is but a symptom of our culture that speaks of women in not only disrespectful but dehumanizing ways: “It is a culture of a lack of impunity, of acceptance of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.”

Poignant words for all Americans to hear. I wonder if, as a decent starting point, men should simply be silent more often. There’s Biblical warrant for this: “My beloved brothers, every one of you should be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). The term “toxic masculinity” is relatively new, yet it is notable that the ancient text commends silence as a way to control anger.

When he does speak, a decent man might also take the counsel from the 13th-century Persian poet and Islamic scholar, Rumi: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary?’ At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind?’” I think these Three Gates of Speech would go a long way toward Ocasio-Cortez’s definition of decency — treating people with dignity and respect.

Moreover, when I think of the men I’ve admired and try to emulate, they have all shared a common characteristic even though they came from different backgrounds, races and cultures. I’ll call this shared trait “quiet decency.” They did not attempt to appear strong by putting others down. They were not vain and did not need attention, especially not at the expense of someone else. Many of these men were soft-spoken. All of them chose their words carefully.

One of my mentors rarely had an unkind word for anyone. Except that, if he regarded someone as arrogant or cruel, he’d say, “He’s too big for his britches.”

Decency entails the right fit. In these dire times, an appropriate silence would be a starting point to unity in the face of our challenges. I’ll give Ocasio-Cortez the last word and ask that you, too, listen to her charge: “I will not allow people to change and create hatred in our hearts.”

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church and author of Gently Between the Words: Essays and Poems. He is currently working from home with his wife and three children.


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