The word “values” is a term that you hear thrown around a lot these days. When it’s used in the singular we seem mostly to be referencing its more or less literal meaning, having to do with the worth of something, as in the expression, “the value of a dollar,” or something (some thing) being of great (or of little) value. But what I’m more interested in is the symbolic or metaphorical meaning of the term. That may at first sound a little abstract, but the application of our values generally in life, and in the political sphere particularly, and the ultimate concrete results of that application in the real world, is anything but abstract.
Let’s begin by agreeing that everybody has values. You cannot live in human society and not have values. I don’t care who you are, even the worst, the most hardened, criminal has values. His (or her) values may not be your values, or my values, but they are values all the same. So what exactly are we talking about when we use the term values? They are an internalized system often unconsciously, if tenaciously, held, whereby each individual makes judgments about the world, how it works, or how it ought to work, and about people or things in the world. Most of the time, our values are automatic, that is, we don’t stop and think about them. We don’t have to. We know them; we recognize them immediately. They are powerful and they are visceral, as if somehow coming from the profundity of our inner selves. They are a system, essentially a kind of internalized ruler against which we measure things. In so doing, we make important decisions about whether an action, a thing, or a person is good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, proper or improper, acceptable or unacceptable, advisable or inadvisable, some may even say sinful or virtuous. They constitute one of the most important aspects of our lives, because it is essentially by and in accordance with our value system that we make decisions about how to lead our lives.
Let’s take a simple, if admittedly mundane, example to begin with. The other day, I was driving to the gym, when a guy cut me off on the freeway, weaving in front of me without so much as a flicker of a directional signal, so much so that I had to slam on my brakes in order to avoid him. When, a few minutes later, traffic slowed enough that it allowed me to pull up beside him, I saw that he was texting something on his cell phone. I was furious, and wanted to scream out the window at the guy, telling him what a jerk he was. I didn’t have to stop and think, “Well, what are my values in this instance? Am I in favor of following the law when it comes to driving, or do I feel as though it’s OK to ‘multitask’ by driving (more or less), while texting your boss, or you girlfriend, or your damn lawyer, for that matter?” I knew immediately that he was wrong. And, aha, as soon as you hear yourself use that word “wrong” (or of course its counterpart, “right”), you know instantly that you have entered into the majestic and hallowed halls of your own value system. Even in such an innocuous example as this we see two important things about values. One is that we recognize in an instant what they are and how we feel about them, and two, we often react with emotion. I knew right away, without thinking, that this guy was wrong; and he really pissed me off! So, there you have it: immediacy and emotion. My values are such that I think it’s right, it is proper, it is appropriate for everybody’s safety to follow traffic laws while you’re driving around at 65 miles an hour, and his (apparently) were that it is perfectly proper, appropriate, and acceptable to send an “important message” as soon as the thought strikes, no matter where you are.
Now, if such a small thing as being cut off on the freeway (it happens all the time, right?) causes such a reaction, what about the bigger issues? Without getting into where our values come from (a topic of its own for another essay, or a book, or a whole library of books), what values do we hold related to the enormous questions that are facing our country right now? It seems to me that the political conventions we have seen of late are very good indicators of the things that are valued by each of the parties. Mitt Romney, for example, mocked the very idea of climate change. He also spoke of letting people alone and allowing them to exercise their own creativity and make their own way in the world. Americans act best when they act alone, and we don’t need any help from big government. At most, we might accept some level of assistance from family, or from church, but government is almost always and everywhere a bad thing. It was the classic “bootstrap” speech in modern guise. As Mark Shields cogently remarked on the PBS coverage of the convention, using a baseball metaphor, “Mitt was born on third base, and thought he hit a triple!” Michelle Obama, on the other hand, in her brilliant and human and very humane speech, and the President, himself, in his, espoused what I thought of as what is best about American society. They both came out loud and clear for helping those in need (especially when those people don’t have a millionaire daddy, or if they don’t belong to a church that requires everyone to tithe 10% of their income). They were for justice, for compassion, for service, for mutual assistance, and for inclusion. In a word (and according to my value system anyway), the Obamas were absolutely right on, and Mitt Romney was dead wrong. The President even went so far as to mention global warming, and said that climate change was not a hoax. Most of the speeches at the DNC may have been about jobs and the economy first of all, and then the so-called social issues secondarily, mainly women’s rights generally, reproductive rights specifically, and allowing (or not allowing) people to marry whomever they may love. Still, any mention of human-induced changes to the environment has to be a very welcome (and very politically risky) thing.
So I hail the Democrats for their values. I also understand that you get elected mostly because you’ve talked believably about the things that people want you to talk about (i.e., what people value). And I may think that climate change ought to have been front and center in the president’s speech, not merely mentioned. Still, I get it that no parent is going to spend much time worrying about the future of the world’s climate, if tonight what is most pressing is whether or not there will be enough food on the table for the kids to eat. I understand that this is a huge problem, and a very human one, and that there are lots of other enormous problems facing this country right now. Maybe there always have been, but they somehow seem even more numerous and more ominous these days. Everything from jobs for the millions of the unemployed, to healthcare for those without it, to a staggeringly burdensome public debt that will sooner or later weigh down the entire economy and grind it to a halt, to overpopulation of the globe, to – finally, once again – the warming of the planet to such an extent that it may someday extinguish life in its entirety.
It’s all so huge, in fact, that it may sound like a job for God, or at least for some kind of superhero, but for the moment I’m afraid all we have to deal with these problems are fallible human beings, and their attendant values. As such, I for one am in favor of people taking a close look at those values because, believe it or not, it is possible to change them. You shouldn’t do so without a great deal of self-scrutiny, and some very serious introspection, but it can be done. I’ve known people who have done so, as no doubt we all do.
I only hope that whatever changes people make will be for the good. After all, I know that my values are proper and advisable and appropriate, and that those who disagree with me for the most part have values that are improper and inadvisable and completely inappropriate. I know this because I know it. I feel it deep inside. And don’t tell me that I’m wrong either, because, damn it, I know that I’m right! But then, so do you. And that’s the problem with values.