The Values War

Most people like to think they form their worldviews based on reason and fact. Most people actually form rationales and choose facts based on their own personal narrative of who they are and how the world works. Some of these narratives are closer to true descriptions of reality than others. But at the end of the day, we’re all, to one degree or another, navigating by what feels right to us. And what feels right to us is ultimately determined by our core values.

What we value depends on who we are, what we do, where we come from, where we live, and how life has treated us. Some values are near-universal; others are very rare, and they combine in each individual to form a near-infinite kaleidoscope of dispositions.

We tend to group up with others who share our values. This phenomenon has been accelerated by the innovation of online social media, which allows like-minded folks who would never meet by accident in the courses of their lives to find each other virtually; instantly. This has undoubtedly been a positive force for unifying and amplifying the voices of oppressed minorities the world over. But it has also contributed to the deprioritization of real civic engagement on the ground in physical communities. Why would you want to spend precious time and energy out of your over-scheduled day hammering out difficult compromises with political opponents in your community when you could commiserate with like-minded friends online about how terrible those opponents are and how nice it would be if you could all move to a town somewhere nice and just live in peace?

The problem is, peace is a lie. At its best, peace is stagnation. At its worst, peace is fascism. It’s a passive-aggressive force and it is the enemy of liberty and democracy.

We live in an interesting time, to the fullest intent of that so-called Chinese curse. The Western world is polarized, and every incentive acting on us seems intent on pushing us further into our respective corners. Fear and outrage grab our attention, and our attention has become currency in a media landscape driven by advertising dollars. And with more and more of us working longer hours to afford the lifestyles they’re selling, we have less and less time to step back and think about it all. So we are reduced to relating and reacting. We relate with fellow travelers in our various struggles, and we react to attacks – real or perceived – to the security of our various communities.

And so, the whole thing spirals out of control, and we elect a president fit for a post-apocalypse novel.

Among the educated classes, the young white collar workers, the progressives, shock continues to reverberate. They feel betrayed. They expected the dominoes of social progress to keep falling in their favor. How could they not? So many people in their lives are on board. So many others raised in relative comfort, groomed for college and taught from an early age to cultivate their own various specialnesses, and to expect praise and validation for it, in preparation to very politely take the world by storm.

Please don’t mistake the above description for derision. Some mock the “Snowflakes”, and sure, there’s humor to be found there, but this class of people pushes society upwards because they have the privilege of avoiding the struggle to survive and they have the potential to generate visions for a human future others can’t fathom.

The betrayal they feel right now is very real. But instead of using this opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the world they occupy, and thus a more concrete idea of how to change it, many simply lash out at those with different values. They cling to the same tactics and strategies they used before, covering their eyes and ears and shouting about ignorance and bigotry, hoping against hope that somehow shame will prove to be a force for good.

But shame is not about unification, it’s about purification. It reinforces existing values. Shaming someone has two possible outcomes: either the shamed person will stop the shamed behavior or they will leave the group. It’s a blunt instrument, with no nuance. It cannot build bridges. It creates alienation.

The class of people on the other side – the blue collar workers, the country folk, the evangelicals, the military servicepeople, the socially conservative urban minorities – still make up a significant slice of the population. These people do a large percentage of the basic work required to keep up the infrastructure our society rests on (and mostly takes for granted). This work is difficult, often dangerous, and very rarely celebrated. Doing this work requires a tough disposition. It forms a very different set of values in those who do it. Kids raised with the expectation of a life of toil are taught from a young age to prioritize the needs of their families and communities over their own, to push through pain and discomfort with poise and discipline, to be useful, and to keep their feelings to themselves.

This might seem horrific and inhuman to someone raised for individual greatness. But the fact is, we need these people, too. We need people who are willing to be cogs in the machine that drives us all forward. Maybe someday we’ll rely entirely on robots to do our dirty work, but we’re not there yet, and we should be careful not to forget whose backs we stand on.

None of that is to say that working class values are superior to white collar and academic values. It is a reminder that these values come from a real place. They are not arbitrary. They grow from the things we ask of these people; things we could not exist without. They are not simply outmoded ideas clung to by backwards people. They serve the people that hold them, and at least for the forseeable pre-singularity future, they serve us too.

So to simply dismiss people that hold these values as ignorant bigots who stand in the way of progress and blame them for allowing themselves to be manipulated by a man who clearly doesn’t share their values is not helpful. It didn’t work during the election campaign, and it won’t work now. It will simply push these people further into the arms of your enemies. Because at least they pretend like they know the struggle.

The way to fight this battle is to understand how the values of our political rivals are formed, so we can find ways to speak sincerely to those values instead of continuing to denigrate them even as we benefit from their existence.

Obviously, it’s much more complicated than two clear classes of people with monolithic and clearly-defined values clashing with each other. Often, you get elements of both in families, and even in single individuals (I’d count myself among these). But the dynamic I’m describing seems to dominate the sphere of the world I’m exposed to, and seems to me to be a key piece of analysis that has been given short shrift in the commentary I’m seeing.

I’m not asking you to tolerate ignorance and bigotry. I’m asking that when you encounter it, instead of immediately reacting with (completely justified) horror and seeking the solace of like-minded people to relate with your horror, pause for a second and ask yourself why someone might think that way, trying to get beyond the easy dismissal, and see where that takes you.

We need to be vigilant with ourselves, lest our worldviews drift further into the realm of feelings than that of facts. It is impossible to fight an enemy we refuse to look at through clear eyes.

What we give up for safety

Last night, as I lay in bed trying to sleep in spite of my spinning brain, enjoying the fluffy heaviness of the fresh bedding but resenting the oppressive season that necessitates it, my thoughts escaped to summer. Half-dreaming by then, I found myself transported back to my preteen years, galloping my escape from the frustration and awkwardness of junior high social life over dirt roads and fragrant fields, bareback atop a not-quite-used-up quarter horse who had in her prime borne circus clowns.

It was a privilege to grow up around horses; one I wouldn’t recognize until much later. I don’t come from what most people would recognize as the Equestrian class. I’m the child of a construction worker and a homemaker, who both come, ultimately from hardscrabble immigrant farmers and toilers. But my maternal grandmother came into some money in the early 1980s, out of a nightmarish family tragedy, and after a few years, brought a couple of American Saddlebreds home to the family dairy farm.

She’s never been one to talk about her inner life with me, or maybe anyone, but just now, sitting here thinking about the basic, taken-for-granted realities of my family’s history, I see something I hadn’t before. She took that money – money given in legal recompense for my grandfather’s untimely death; money that could never replace the loss of life, love, or years – and she lived the life he would have wanted her to live. She went out into the world and she did things, excellent things, even when she felt broken inside. Because in expressing her best self in the world, his love for her lived on.

She bought horses, and showed them. Eventually she remarried, and moved off the family farm to a nice hobby plot on a hill overlooking a private lake. She started breeding her prize mare, and one of the fillies she raised and trained ended up on the cover of a magazine. She played piano and organ at church, and continues to challenge herself with new instruments. She took up flower gardening, and even now, into her 80s, she keeps up a glorious summer yard, though the horses are all gone.

The afore-mentioned quarter horse, Galazar, was purchased for us kids, because Saddlebreds are not known for being gentle or patient. My aunt, the baby of my Grandmother’s eight children who is only a year my senior, was my constant summer companion. She was a trained equestrienne, and had shown with my Grandma from an early age, and thus had her own horse; and Arabian gelding named Prince.

At Grandma’s house, we were rarely supervised, and basically ran free in a way that would give today’s overbearing parents a heart attack. I thought about this, lying in bed last night; riding bareback through fields in shorts and tank tops, barefoot, without helmets – Hell, we didn’t even know helmets were a thing at that point. It might have been stupid, but God damn, it was fun. We were so alive in those fields; almost unhinged. Free from all of the aspects of “real” life we felt closing in around us as we approached adulthood. And yet, we could have died doing it.

But nothing worth doing is entirely safe. The truest joy in life steps toe-to-toe with death.

This is a core piece of who I am, and I see now that I am, at least in part, my grandfather’s death and my grandmother’s life. And, for better or worse, I’ll ride my bike without a helmet and drive too fast for as long as I can.

And definitely spend more time with my grandma.