Can’t we all just get along? These are the now famous words of Rodney King, the Black man whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police was the spark that ignited the 1992 riots/civil unrest (choose your term), which engulfed the city for three days. The answer to that iconic question may unfortunately be, apparently not.
Now twenty years later, Los Angeles is surely a calmer place than it was back then, but one that is nonetheless still divided. Just as the country is, and the world, for that matter. Rick Santorum rails against all manner of evil abortion and gay rights activists, Mitt Romney and Republicans generally seem to believe that nothing the president has done could ever possibly have been for the good, the Supreme Court justices appear to be split along ideological lines over healthcare reform, and all this reflects a country where the overall division between Red and Blue reflects an almost even 50-50 split.
But let’s not stop there. The reforms of the Arab Spring, so hard-fought and so hoped for, now seem to be devolving into a series of sectarian struggles between those who want western style democracy and those who favor Sharia law. Egypt, for example, centuries ago a paragon of peace and stability and learning in the Arab world, is struggling these days over how to define itself. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who might just become the next Egyptian president, believes that women should be veiled and segregated from men in the work place, that adulterers ought to be stoned to death, and thieves have their hands cut off. Similar struggles are happening in places like Morocco and Yemen, and who even knows what will take place in Syria, once its current bloody dictator finally gets his well deserved comeuppance? The St. Petersburg, Russia, city council has just passed a law making any open positive reference to homosexuality illegal, and in Uganda they are deciding whether gay people ought to be jailed, or simply put to death.
The world over, religious leaders from the Pope in Rome to the Ayatollah in Iran to any number of fulminating right-wing preachers here in the United States inveigh against the destructive evils of secularism. God will in the end win, we are told, and the godless shall reap their just deserts. Meanwhile, liberals too often think that those who disagree with them are either sadly misinformed or, well let’s admit it, just plain dumb! Which, to be sure, probably does not help matters much (as tempting as it may seem), and in the end it drives a bigger wedge between us.
So, the question in my mind is whether or not there is any way to bring us together. And the stakes, by the way, are not small. Leave aside for now the whole question of religion, or of hand-cutting, or of condemnation of homosexuality, bad enough – God knows (does God know?) in itself – and let’s focus for a moment on the very fate of the planet. ExxonMobil, the archconservative oil company that made more than 40 billion dollars in profits last year (yes, billions, with a “b”), has an “enemies list” of Washington politicians who do not agree with its policies. Like the religious right, they have now become an almost exclusive backer of Republican politicians, and want desperately to get Obama out. Mitt Romney will be much more pliable, they conclude, and friendlier to their needs, and he has in fact promised that he would be delighted to cooperate.
All of the above may seem a little disparate and disconnected, but I believe the theme that holds the whole mishmash together comes down to one simple word: values. Religious people like to think of themselves as those who “vote their values,” but as a matter of fact that is exactly what everyone does. You do not have to be religious to have values. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to live in the world without having some sort of value system. Even criminals have values. They may not be yours, or mine, but they have values.
What are values, after all? You don’t need to be a philosopher to answer that question. Values are very simply those ideas, those ideals if you will, which each of us considers to be right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, fitting or unfitting, seemly or unseemly, proper or improper. Values are a kind of internalized ruler, a yardstick that we all carry around within us against which we measure the world, the people in it, and their actions, as well as our own. Whenever we say “That guy was a jerk,” what we are saying is that he did or said or espoused something that is contrary to my value system. And I damn well don’t like it!
That’s the thing about values, in fact. They really mean something to us. We very much believe them, despite the fact that too often they may be held at an unconscious level. One way or another though, whether we are fully aware of them or not, they are deeply, profoundly imbedded in our consciousness. This is not a game or a mere academic exercise. These are the very “rules according to which people live their lives,” and you’d better watch out if you cross those rules. At one end of the spectrum, people kill each other because they have different values. They stone dissenters, or they cut off their hands, or they imprison them. At a somewhat milder, though still dangerous enough level, they just call each other names, or put those names on “enemies lists.” All because what the other guy did or said is not right; it’s improper, it’s inappropriate, it’s unseemly, it’s sinful, it’s – well – it’s downright wrong!
What follows from our values is not just how we lead our individual lives, but how we believe that society ought to organize itself. In my own value system, for example, while the individual reigns supreme, we also ought to mitigate our more selfish instincts, treat each other politely and with respect, and give one another some space. But not everyone puts individuals at the top of the heap. There are lots of societies in the world where the collective is far more important than any individual’s needs. That may come off as sounding too abstract. What I mean, for example, is that maybe the family, or the tribe, or the religious group is what ought to call the shots, and it’s incumbent on each individual person to bend him or herself to the will of that group. Let’s say that Abu Ismail does get to be president of Egypt some day, and you happen to be gay. Well you’d better hide that fact and not espouse all those western (individual) style desires to express who you are. Best just shut up, marry a woman, and have kids, because religion and “the family” (read: one man and one woman) are the things that are valued here – or else!
And who’s to say that I am right, and that Abu Ismail is wrong? This very question, in fact, takes us right back to the issue of values once again. As soon as you see those words “right” or “wrong,” you know immediately what territory you have strayed into. Which is why I’m glad that I live in the United States after all, because in theory at least this is where all men, and women, too, presumably (note we are talking about individuals here) are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And if that’s not a statement of values, I don’t know what else it might be.
Unfortunately or not, each person also believes firmly and beyond any shred of doubt that his or her values are the best values that there are. Otherwise, after all, we wouldn’t hold them in the first place! Which in the end is the reason why it may not be so easy to get along. Of course, the opposite side of the proposition is, what other choice do we have? We can wage war, we can cut people’s hands off, we can imprison them, or we can try to come to some kind of compromise whereby I’ll let you live by your values, if you’ll let me live by mine. That’s what I thought we were trying to do here in this country, by the way. That’s what I thought they meant when they said that we were all created equal. That’s what I thought was meant by the rule of law.
And maybe it is. Maybe it’s as simple and as uncomplicated as live and let live. Except this too comes down to a statement of values. What it means is that it’s proper to give individuals their space. After all, I have my rights, don’t I? If Abu Ismail would only listen to reason, if ExxonMibil would only see how destructive their policies are, if the Supreme Court would only recognize that each of us has a right to healthcare, if the St. Petersburg city council would only let people live their lives. It’s all so obvious, isn’t it? Anyway, I think so. And, God help us, let’s just hope that I’m not wrong!