Values talk is in. Ever since Enron, business leaders trip over themselves to ensure that values are more prominent in their materials. Political leaders sell their program on the appeal of the values they represent. Feature stories highlight successful business people who adjust careers in order to find balance in life, or work for a cause rather than for a profit.
Still, many people seem grumpy. The news about Iraq, government boondoggles, poverty, or crime seems to have greater impact. Some people—well-adjusted, educated, and seemingly successful—are tuning it all out. They no longer subscribe to newspapers and count a snippet of a newscast as enough to keep them up-to-date, yet they pick up enough information to have negative opinions about the state of the world.
My professional responsibilities involve a disproportionate share of receptions where mingling and small talk is the expected norm. After the obligatory repartee involving last night’s hockey game, family, and immediate work circumstances (You still busy these days?), some reference to current events is sure to enter the conversation. Though my data is hardly verifiable, I would posit that people are more cynical, confused, and crotchety about the state of the world today than they were a decade ago.
As someone interested in public life as well as understanding what makes people tick, I usually respond to these conversations with questions. It doesn’t take more than one or two questions before basic assumptions about right and wrong, truth and error, what is good, true, and beautiful (or bad, false, and ugly) enter into the conversation. And it is these conversations, rather than the news events which are complained about, that are making me cynical, confused, and crotchety.
Let me state my case bluntly. Most people aren’t able to articulate in any coherent manner what it is they believe. The terms democratic, justice, responsibility, or freedom—to mention just a few—change meaning from day-to-day, with the authority being the radio host on the morning drive into work. Today, we listen to a lefty host, tomorrow to an arch-conservative, but it seems that some people not only can’t label the difference, they hardly recognize there is a difference.
There are a few reasons to which we might attribute this lack of coherent thought. One is that there is so much information available that we don’t have (or take) the time to organize the data of public events into a framework. Without a perspective to sort the important from the seemingly urgent, the lasting from the noisy, or the cause from the consequence, the brain simply is overwhelmed by the data, which flies at us at a frighteningly fast pace. And, since the sensational and negative still has greater news value than the lasting and positive, the data blur makes the world seem pretty negative.
One can debate whether the recollections of a more pleasant yesteryear are mere nostalgia or whether things really have become worse. A few features of our postmodern times, however, are not disputed. If 50 years ago the majority of children grew up within the context of some consistent framework of right and wrong between their home, church, and school communities, today, most do not. If 50 years ago there was significant consensus on what was understood by life, marriage, freedom, tyranny, and respect, today, there is not. That doesn’t mean that yesteryear was better or that there were not inconsistencies; it is just that words meant something, and one could rely on being understood in a way that is not the same today.
The effect of these changes is not just a lack of consensus about which values should be promoted and form the basis for social life. It is that we are a society that increasingly is unable to have a social dialogue about anything that involves values talk. Not only do we not agree when it comes to this stuff, we don’t know how to really argue.
There are those who suggest what we do means much more than what we say, and they have a point. Christians are fond of quoting St. Francis of Assisi: “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” However, that is usually a negative argument, used defensively to deal with those whose actions don’t match their words. But this does not mean words are unnecessary. Language and communication of our ideas are an essential part of our humanity. Debate and definitions are an important part of learning.
The challenges of our time won’t be solved through values talk alone. But talking about values is a good place to start.