Steven C. Roach, a Professor of International Relations at the University of South Florida, writes, “Decency remains one of the most prevalent yet least understood terms in today’s political discourse. In evoking respect, kindness, courage, integrity, reason, and tolerance, it has long expressed an unquestioned duty and belief in promoting and protecting the dignity of all persons. Today this unquestioned belief is in crisis. Tribalism and identity politics have both hindered and threatened its moral stability and efficacy.” Unfortunately, tribalism and identity politics have spread beyond the political arena and are negatively affecting society and America’s way of life. To counter this cultural trend, Lisa Cholnoky (@LisaCholnoky), a New York City-based parent and graphic designer, began a one-woman campaign to bring decency back into public discussions. Her first modest effort, in 2017, was to design a “decency button,” which she wore every day. According to the website National Day Calendar, “The impact was immediate; the message contagious.”
In July 2017, Cholnoky mailed a decency button to every member of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. In September, her movement was recognized on the floor of House and Representatives and members were encouraged “to reach across the aisle with civility and serve as role models for us all.” Obviously, the message was, and continues to be, lost on a number of them. Undeterred, Cholnoky established National Decency Day in 2019. National Decency Day is celebrated annually on 14 May. The Decency.Today website notes, “We know that at the root of understanding each other starts with a commitment to decency. Whether in our local or national discourse, reminding each other of the importance of civil discussion and shared purpose — no matter our differences of opinion — is a fundamental right that each of us can contribute to.”
What Does Decency Mean?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines decency as “conformity to standards of taste, propriety, or quality.” What are those “standards”? I like Roach’s list which includes among decency’s standards: respect, kindness, courage, integrity, reason, and tolerance. Another word often associated with decency is civility. The late religious leader Gordon B. Hinckley wrote, “Civility carries with it the essence of courtesy, politeness, and consideration of others. All of the education and accomplishments in the world will not count for much unless they are accompanied by marks of gentility, of respect for others, of going the extra mile.” Unfortunately, author Gregory McNamee writes, “We live in bitter, angry times, with a hall-of-funhouse-mirrors quality to them. … In this swirl of flying invective and free-floating rage, we’re barely talking to one another except to shout. All this speaks to a crisis of civility.”
It was exactly this lack of civility in public and private conversation that motivated Cholnoky to establish National Decency Day. The Decency.Today website insists, “Decency starts with simple ABC’s: Active listening; Better understanding; and Compassion.” Rita Kakati-Shah, Founder and CEO of Uma, and Kelsy Trigg, a Vice President at SAP, insist, “Proving you’re decent is a long-term effort. You cannot simply say ‘I’m a decent person’ and then it’s set. It’s part of your long-term relationship building with others. … Being decent doesn’t have to equal agreement. You don’t have to agree with someone to treat them with decency. By simply taking the time to listen to someone, and hear their thoughts, that’s showing you care. You can be honest and explain why you have an alternate view point, but at the end of the day, listening and respecting one another goes a long way.”
Decency and Leadership
Judging by the behavior of today’s political leaders, one could easily conclude that decency and leadership have no real connection. According to Bill Boulding, Dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, that’s not true — at least in the business world. He explains, “Successful leaders today and in the decades to come must possess triple-threat leadership capability: IQ+EQ+DQ. In other words, they must possess a combination of two familiar attributes — intellect and emotional intelligence — and one that I believe must be recognized and elevated: decency.” He adds, “A decency quotient, or DQ, … implies a person has not only empathy for employees and colleagues but also the genuine desire to care for them. DQ means wanting something positive for everyone in the workplace and ensuring everyone feels respected and valued. DQ is evident in daily interactions with others. DQ implies a focus on doing right by others.”
Kakati-Shah and Trigg agree with Boulding. They write, “Many companies focus on IQ and EQ when measuring their employees, but … the concept of a Decency Quotient [is just as important]. DQ measures if a leader is genuinely focused on doing right by others. In the workplace we should measure ourselves by honesty, kindness, and integrity, and ultimately DQ is something that fulfills that.” Boulding concludes, “If business can become more intentional about decency, I believe it can become a healing force our world so badly needs. It can begin to rebuild the trust that corporations have lost with employees and customers. It can be the model for how people who are very different come together to work with common purpose. It can help solve some of the world’s toughest problems by uniting people to find solutions. But for decency to win the day, DQ must be recognized as an essential quality in leadership. Intellect and emotional intelligence are vital, but it is decency that ensures IQ and EQ are used to benefit society, not tear it down.”
It’s a shame that a Decency Quotient can’t find a home in the political arena as well. Because politics is the most visible and divisive topic in today’s world, the embrace of a Decency Quotient might help bring a little civility back into political dialog. As Cholnoky has stated, “The decency movement represents a moment in the midst of the polarized atmosphere in which we find ourselves for all people to reclaim the tradition, practices and skills for civil discussion of our differences of opinion. Centering the focus on decency marks a valuable opportunity for schools to reaffirm this standard of civil discussion for students of all ages and to talk through the practicalities of how to treat everyone with respect and master the art of listening.” We could all use a refresher course in “the practicalities of how to treat everyone with respect and master the art of listening.”
 Stephen C. Roach, “Decency and Difference,” Michigan Publishing/University of Michigan Press, 2019.
 Staff, “National Decency Day,” nationaldaycalendar.com.
 Staff, “Decency is a grassroots movement dedicated to bringing civility back to our daily lives.” Decency.Today website.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes, Three Rivers Press, 22 February 2000.
 Gregory McNamee, “Civility vs. Decency,” VQR Online, Fall 2018.
 Jaden Love, “What decency has to do with dialog,” Jostle Blog, 29 October 2020.
 Bill Boulding, “For Leaders, Decency Is Just as Important as Intelligence,” Harvard Business Review, 16 July 2019.