The Difficulty of Saying Much Useful About Values

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Why are we talking about values? Because they are uncertain, unclear, conflicted, etc. and this is particularly due to the current context – one of broad spectrum change and uncontrollable, undefinable threats producing anxiety and fear which are conducive to fundamentalising thinking under the cover of ‘plausible deniability’ in public life. This context has been developing since 1945, at least. It seems likely to be with us for a few more decades. It will take that long to reintroduce authentic language in public discourse rather than the marketing speak which comes out of mouths of all descriptions these days. Without that, little objective progress can be made.

The possible values, as many commentators have noticed when we had a flurry of questioning our diversity as in July/August, are pretty much the same across the mono-theisms, and can be found in many non-western settings. What differ are the standards or norms. People tend to see their own standards as the preferable norm in most things, but especially in matters of beginning, ending and negotiating the middle of life – birth, death and family. A society can sustain quite a range of these if the general quantity and accessibility of resources (broadly construed) is adequate to moderate competition internally. A global perception of change and uncontrollable threat directly affects perception of adequacy of resources – negatively: there never can be enough resources to defend myself from bird flu and terrorists, and job loss and (I don’t worry too much, but I’m self-employed and 62).

I personally have a lot of time for the Chinese practice of basing life on relationships, though I don’t like all of the outcomes – certain types of corruption. But then I don’t like the corruption of a law-based system in which relationship difficulties across the full range human activities are outsourced to legal systems, and increasingly so if the rates of litigation mean anything. (Wouldn’t it be nice to see a story every week of a family which has resolved its disintegration without litigation – they make up about 95% of the breakdowns?). On the other hand I’m clear where I wouldn’t offend the government (I’ve spent time in the trackless wastes of the Taklamakan).

Choosing the values
Which values should be highlighted at this time? Those which are essential to responding well to the current macro context. Among these might be: (1) truthfulness, truth-seeking, truth-building (facets of truth in action), (2) relationship, connectedness, engagement (facets of ‘community’).and (3) some virtues like persistence and courage.

Configuring values
As clusters and ranges, structured between primary and secondary, constitutive and enabling – immediately shows interdependencies with implications for action. As well, treating them as oppositions, as your layout suggests, introduces theoretical splits where a continuous range is the actual condition. E.g. “Community” and “individuals” are not alternatives they are facets of a wholes (pairs, families, groups, etc.) with varying saliences under different conditions. The current public discourse on ‘family’, ‘choice’, and ‘terror’, for example, render discussion impossible (and are used that way by powerful discussants) because the value they represent is unitary – a single thing, undifferentiated, without degrees.

Presenting values
An implication for how to present ‘values’ might then be to present them as clusters, bunches, groups, aggregations (each term suggests a different gathering principle for relating them) in ordinary language. A practical example: The ‘mateship-self-deprecating-tall poppy-anti-intellectual-she’ll be right-muddling through-bailing wire’ cluster which is recognised in Asia in the appreciation of Australian executives’ and managers’ adaptability, pragmatism, etc. (by contrast with the self-important posturing of some originating elsewhere). The language has the potential virtue of solid historical roots with accessible objective instances.

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