The concept of ‘common decency’ might seem fairly self-explanatory, regardless of your way of thinking about or viewing the world. It might translate to holding the door open for the person behind you; tipping the service staff in a cafe or restaurant; helping a lone parent maneuver a pram onto the train. We are reared from a young age to perform small, innocuous gestures of glancing compassion, but maybe ‘common decency’ has become a placeholder for any act that asks so little as to be almost unconscious, but that nonetheless contributes to that implacable human need to feel like a ‘good’ person, to feel decent.
The etymology of ‘common’ is various. It comes from the French comun: ‘common, general, free, open, public’, from the Latin communis: ‘in common, public, shared by all or many’. It comes from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European compound ko-moin-i, meaning ‘held in common’. The second element of this is the source of the Latin munia – ‘duties, public duties, functions’.
I think the problem with trying to parse what ‘common decency’ means to me is that the moment in which we are living in is not one of any kind of commonality. Late market capitalism and neoliberalist thinking has served to entrench and intensify inequality – the richest 1% have more wealth than the rest of the world combined. The Conservative Party’s ostensible belief in ‘meritocracy’ deliberately obfuscates the system’s (a system they are actively contributing to and growing) subjugation and oppression of the most economically and societally maligned, ensuring that true meritocracy, even if it was a concept that made sense (why do people deserve a worse life just because they lack skills?), is a lie. Right now, all we as a species have in common is the incremental warming of our environs, and death.
A further barrier to commonality is the bigotry prescribed by those in power as a way of diverting attention from their crimes. The continued vitriol directed towards trans people (and the wider LGBT+ community), towards immigrants, towards those reliant on benefits – this is a barrier to commonality. The way rapid consumerism is contributing (albeit in a small way, comparative to the 71% of greenhouse gas emissions produced by fossil fuel companies) to the climate crisis, causing an ever-expanding community of climate refugees – this is a barrier to commonality.
What is required, before there can be any robust notion of common decency, is uncommon decency. What is needed is an acceptance of accountability by the privileged, a concerted effort to enact change. If the status quo wasn’t easy, it wouldn’t be the status quo. That said, what also needs abandoning is this idea that change is synonymous with sacrifice – a dismantlement of spurious hierarchies is good for everyone, even if those hoarding the good times might be reticent to admit that. The interests of all groups, no matter how incompatible we might be conditioned to think we are, are symbiotic. The dismantlement of inequality is the route to commonality. Maybe once that is achieved there will be a ‘common’ decency, where saying ‘thank you’ to the person who holds the door might get to mean something.