“Immodest words admit of no defense, For want of decency is want of sense” (Wentworth Dillon).
DECENCY IS A VIRTUE THAT HAS FALLEN OUT OF FAVOR. If there was a time in the past when people paid too much attention to social proprieties, that era is obviously over. Deference to the sensibilities of others is distinctly uncool today. Being different is how we build our personal “brands,” and being shocking is “in.” But still, I agree with Wentworth Dillon: “want of decency is want of sense.”
Consider the basic idea behind “decency.” The word comes from a Latin verb meaning “to be fitting,” and the concept is that of respect for what is moral and modest. Now obviously, what is considered fitting or appropriate by those around us shouldn’t be the only factor in our decisions, but have we become so self-centered that the time-tested norms of morality and modesty mean nothing to us at all? Are we so arrogant as to believe that our own opinions are superior to what had been learned by the whole human race before we got here?
Surely there is some worthy middle ground between the bohemians and the bourgeoisie. Personally, I don’t want to be so tied to the norms of society that I can’t depart from them when there is a good reason to do so, but neither do I want to be so tied to nonconformity that I fail to appreciate the guidelines of good manners. If nothing else, the principle of decency should be a check on our pride and self-will: “Before I insist on doing my own thing, should I not take others into account? Would I not give them a thoughtful gift if I showed respect for what they hold to be good and honorable?”
When it comes right down to it, decency is closely linked to kindness. In matters of moral right and wrong, we should always steer clear of indecency, of course. But in matters of social norms and expectations, kindness should move us to avoid giving offense whenever possible. Out of all the reasons for acting decently in our relationships, there is none finer than simple kindness. If I am mainly interested in myself, your feelings will be of little concern. But if I love you, I will want to be kind to you. Your sensibilities will matter to me.
“Utmost decency, in all our dealings with the other fellow, is the greatest need of the hour” (Albert B. Lord).