The Lost Language of Values
The personal is political – as Social Justice Activists have told us for the longest time – but not because it is inherently that way but is because it is the frame which everything is shoved into today.
The personal has become political.
The problem with this is any discussion of values is reprimanded as being authoritarian. Any statement of ones likes, dislikes, or of something being good, bad, corrosive, beneficial gets heard as a policy statement – not a values proposition that one wants furthered by civil society or culture or some other vehicle that is not political.
For instance, in the political culture I am most familiar with - libertarian and classical liberal types – expressions of concern that something might be socially corrosive gets heard by the group as being tantamount to wanting to ban or prohibit that thing.
Conversely, conservatives hear calls to legalise pot or prostitution or anything else as being an endorsement of those things.
Social progressives react to any statement by social conservatives of something being socially beneficial from traditional family formation to keeping certain customs as authoritarian as if merely pronouncing that these things to be good is to want government programs enforcing them on society at large.
All this makes discussion of values difficult. Each political tribe hears another’s values talk as an attempt to cram down their own vision of the good life on to the rest of society.
But amongst political tribes is not even the proper place to have make these points. But the traditional place where values are put forward – civil society institutions – doesn’t even get a platform in today’s hyperpolitical times.
But so much of the most divisive issues today are based on values. Our inability to talk in these sometimes even idealised or emotional terms have led us to never-ending political spats that could be resolved.
Take climate change as an example. We (according to many) could solve the problem tomorrow through a mixture of nuclear energy, natural gas (including fracking) and carbon capture. This solution would accord with the expressed desire of both camps in the climate change debate. On one side there is the climate change activists that want to move to a future where there is no additional (human produced) CO2 released. On the other side there are those that worry that climate action (and particular the policies proposed by those in the climate activist camp) will deprive people of cheap reliable energy that fuels so much industry and in turn creates the prosperity that we all enjoy.
But this solution is not acceptable to either camp despite it satiating the desires of both.
On one hand there are the activists that don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste and want to use climate change to reorganise the economy along ideological lines. Then there are those to whom the idea of renewables holds more of a mythic status of man living at one with nature (disregarding the environmental damage done in the processes of producing energy from sun, wind and water as Michael Moores’ documentary Planet of the Humans shows).
Then there are those on the conservative right that have an attachment to coal and mining in its traditional forms. There is a certain manly archetype – perhaps even the last bastion of frontiersmen – embodied in the rugged outback miner. There is some romantism to producing the energy that fuels our economy and way of life via an industry that requires so much grit and hard work. Again, never mind that a lot of the industries that will be replacing mining are as manly and gritty. Even the renewables industry that the latte sipping metrosexuals love so much need manly men, such as a guy I met recently whose job it was to climb up wind turbines and service them (and when I say climb I mean they actually climb up them – no ladders – just a rope).
None of this feeling type stuff, like a preference for renewables or coal because of a romantic image of them fits into a policy debate but never-the-less influences it by creating a stalemate where none should exist.
The inability to speak in terms of values is also a symptom of a political culture that is rational not empirical. Values are typically not rational; they are based on things that have worked in the real world not on paper.
A constitutional monarchy may not be a rational form of government but comparatively those countries with them have stood the test of time. Rationally, children have certain biological needs in order to survive, but we know from our experience in dealing with other people that there are things that go beyond the biological or even the material that children need to succeed in life and the type of family they grow up in makes all the difference.
Values are based on experiments carried out in human systems, which are by no means would meet the scientific standard, for one there is no way to remove all the variables, but all these experiments in how to live or what system allows people to work together the best shouldn’t count for nothing.
This was on full display during the last few years where everyone that expressed concern over using the one measurable metric – COVID-19 cases – as the driver for public policy was accused of wanting to kill grandma for the sake of the economy. Rather than being concerned that the entire system of checks and balances of government was being turned on its head, or that things such as human contact or the self-determination that comes with being able to go to work to earn a living (rather than sit at home and get money from the government) was lost by the policies pursued in order to bring down case numbers.
But instead, the values discussion was shoved to the side in favour of the rational, countable, data that drove public policy.
The most important thing that the language of values can give politics is to inform when politicians shouldn’t act. If the language of values informed the public policy over the last few years, we would have seen far less politics and far more community and civil society responses to COVID-19. The destruction wrought by the last few years of lockdowns, school closures, vaccine mandates, and every other on-the-fly order that has been penned by politicians and enforced by bureaucrats could have been limited.
But first, if we are to reclaim values as a legitimate entry into public discourse, we need to de-politify everything. Instead of clinging to our political tribes so fiercely we should be re-connecting to communities based on way more important and long-term things.
Reclaiming the lost language of values is needed but first starts with sidelining politics.