Opening the subject of Values

With the change in world politics I feel it is really timely to open a discussion on values. The current political climate in the US particularly emphasizes the need for us to really examine our values and whether we either behave according to them or just pay lip-service and otherwise not think much about them.

Many daily individual and group decisions are dictated by our values, our intentions are shaped by them, they have the power to affect us emotionally. “Too often, the important choices in life are made on the basis of peer pressure, unthinking submission to authority, or the power of the mass media” (Simon, Howe and Kirschenbaum, 1995)  And I would add, values that lay just beneath our consciousness.Without knowing what is guiding our behavior and emotional reactions, we are really blind to who we are.We are not able to reflect on what is steering us and as adults, choosing what values we want to hold onto – the ones we won’t compromise.

My visit to my childhood home last year has deepened my interest in the subject. I wonder what happens to immigrants to a country that emphasizes or re-prioritizes values differently? Several children of immigrants report that they felt their parents wanted them to adopt the values of this country in order to “get ahead.”  I remember the struggles I had as a mother of growing children. Should I insist on following my traditional values in child-raising or prepare them to fit into the society in which we lived?

What are values anyway?

“Values shape our assumptions about the future, provide the content within which issues and goals are identified, and set standards for people’s behaviors and actions” (Juana Bordas – Salsa Soul and Spirit) that is, they both shape worldview and grow out of it. has many definitions – including the sociological one ” the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard. These values may be positive, as cleanliness, freedom, or education, or negative, as cruelty, crime, or blasphemy.”

Satish Kumar (Resurgence Journal and Schumacher College, UK) differentiates between extrinsic and intrinsic values. Extrinsic values are the ones promoted by our society- such as growth, profitability, targets. Intrinsic are values such as well-being, creativity, peace, health, service. Kumar expressed that extrinsic values need to grounded in intrinsic values, a focus on creativity, well-being, peace and health would add new and humane dimensions to profitability and growth, for example.

At this time it seems  that an overriding value in the Global Economy is the amassing of wealth – by any means. Our children learn that money will solve any problems they will encounter and wealth is a guarantee of happiness. Is it?

A paper 20 years ago compared the economies of post-war Germany and the US. The difference in values of each country which underlay the economic progress was remarkable. The research reported that the German people are seen by their country as producers, whereas Americans are viewed and treated as consumers.  And we are certainly directly or indirectly exhorted to shop and consume.

Consequently Germany looks after its people so they can keep producing -and universal health-care, working conditions, the environment are all better than most other industrialized countries.

It is different story for for consumers however, the more unhappy and unhealthy they/we are, the more we will consume: medications, therapeutic shopping, devices for our convenience, and all the gadgets we are bombarded with by the media.  A psychologist at a conference that I attended took his colleagues to task for working with the advertising industry to design advertising that wounds. They are all paid much more than practicing the healing arts. We have to fight and demonstrate for access to health care for all, which is a right in many other countries.

When I think of the things I am most proud of in my life, that which I value – buying objects just does not compare with say, being instrumental in getting free food to low-income seniors or facilitating people to learn new skills that enhance their lives or helping newly hatched turtles to get to the ocean.

To the ideas of extrinsic and intrinsic values, I would also add  cultural values – values that reaffirm and are reaffirmed by the traditions bequeathed to us. These often are ignored or dismissed when they could be seen as assets to society and to its individual members.

My own experience as an immigrant to several countries bears out the idea that we can and do lead double lives. For example: if we are raised in a culture where collaboration on everything is a way of life, we soon learn that collaboration on a math problem in school can be construed as cheating and punishment ensues. As children we learn to shape-shift or leave the arena where there is a cultural conflict. We experience our cultural identity being under attack. Or we decide that the values of our parents are old-fashioned and no longer relevant.

Some of the children of immigrants with whom I have conversed, say that after they have done as instructed and applied themselves to getting ahead in this country, they want to investigate the traditional values of their culture, they want to find out more about their cultural identity.

I know that when I recently visited the country where I was raised I felt like I had come back home to a part of myself that had never really belonged anywhere else. And it lay in the way people related to each other – and what was/is important to them in their lives.

California, where I now live, is home to people of many different national origins. It seems that exploring their traditional values, hearing about them as a way of understanding “the other”, understanding what our own values are, might just build a bridge of common ground between us.

Next post will contain lists of what academic research has determined to be the values of certain cultures to help us determine which ones are our own values.










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