Decency

A while back, I got into an interesting discussion with Andrew on the subject of courage, which stemmed from my temporary reticence about speaking my mind in public, or my resentment, if you will, of my “obligation to publish”. (I’m happy to say that I’m much better now.) One thought led to another and I soon found myself warning against a situation in which it might take “heroic amounts” of courage to tell the truth in the social sciences, management studies included. Andrew rightly found that prospect depressing.

But along the way I also noticed the particular virtue that might make all the difference here. It’s an insight worth explicating, if for no other reason than to reveal its flaws. (Let me know if you can spot any, please.) It seems to me that we depend on the decency of others not to make too great demands of our courage. What is this strange comportment we call decency that it could have this power?

In the comments, Erik suggested that the anonymity of peer review removes the need for a great deal of courage. And in an important sense, this is exactly the sort of thing I mean. It’s not that I think anonymous reviewers are congenital cowards, though I’m sure many disgruntled authors would like me to validate them in this belief. Rather, since it takes no courage to review a paper (in ordinary cases), we have to rely on the reviewer’s decency. Since they are protected from our personal judgment of them, we can only hope that they will not exploit their freedom to cruelly abuse us, or lead us on a wild goose chase for pointless references, or waste our time with needless revision. We count on them not reject (or accept us) for their own personal gain, and to tell us honestly what they of our work.

But by the same token, where strong institutions ensure decency, e.g., where editorial oversight protects authors from unhelpful reviews, it also takes less courage to submit a paper for review. We know the editor is not going to let our reviewers abuse us and we can rest assured that if they do form a very negative of opinion of our work, they will not be able to form a correspondingly negative opinion of us.

I’ll never forget the lightbulb that went off in my head many years ago when I was reading Edward Johnson’s Handbook of Good English. He said that it’s an editor’s job is to “protect the author from criticism”, meaning unconstructive complaints about language and grammar from the end reader. An associate editor’s job at journal, by extension, is to protect the author from unconstructive criticism of one’s ideas, first from the reviewers, by demanding a certain standard of them, and thereafter from readers, by selecting competent reviewers that are actually able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the paper that has been submitted.

I like to think of decency as the virtue of “immediate rightness”, or appropriateness in the moment. It’s a matter of keeping the surfaces of social interaction tolerably pleasant. Our code requires us to “respect the dignity and worth of all people” in our activities as management scholars and professionals. We might also say we are bound to be decent. It’s akin to “civility”, but that will have to be a topic for another day.

1 thought on “Decency”

  1. I like the notion of decency, but I regret to say that my experience as an editor, author, and reviewer have led me to believe that decency is ‘out’ and professional frustration is ‘in’. The sheer numbers are so painfully negative that many of us are walking wounded, just looking to inflict on others what has been done to us. It’s almost like the psychology of prison – people will kill each other over almost nothing. Editors can, at best, desk reject the worst work (with a corresponding helpful review) or edit out the worst offenses – but they are so pressed for time, they barely can manage the process. In short, decency is expedited by resources, including time and a civil work load. With tenure pressures and competitive pressures rampant, I wonder how much decency is really left to go around….or if we are becoming ‘less decent’ as time goes on.

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