I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s value systems, and while this sounds both pretentious and obvious, there’s a deep well to draw from when you’re daydreaming. For my purposes, I want to try and define what I mean when I say ‘value.’ Normally when you hear the word ‘value’ it’s associated with either concepts of right and wrong, or how much something is worth. Family values. A $20 value. A valued family heirloom. That last one is probably the closest common language comes to the idea that I’m trying to convey.
For me the idea of a value is closer to a motivation or a drive, but I still think ‘value’ is more fitting. Motivations and drives feel more primal. The values that I’m talking about are a lot more complicated than that. For every action a person takes, there is a motivation behind the surface goal. It’s often hidden behind explanation and generally it’s not something people are expected to know with any kind of deep certainty, at least not on a conscious level. What makes a family person? why do they choose to eat any given thing? why dress a certain way? why a certain profession and not another? And while these are all, in a way, a compromise, I’m concerned with what drives a person to express that compromise in that particular way.
A value system is not ‘manners.’ It’s not your code of conduct, and it’s certainly not that surface-level concept of how Things Should Be. Values are not morals—morals spring from values, but they have more structure and they’re ostensibly built on the unrefined concepts of “right” and “wrong.” A value is the ‘why’ part of a Narrative that drives an action. If you want to read more on what I think a Narrative is, take look here.
Let’s look at an easy example. Donald John Trumps values are Revenge and a Fear of Inadequacy, and every action he takes can be traced back to those two pillars. He was born to a racist capitalist who never really loved him, and at some point his desire to prove himself to his father turned into a form of “I’ll show him.” He has lived a life of true privilege and those unearned advantages have given him the raw materials to delude himself into thinking that he’s in some way superior. It’s far harder to entertain the alternative, that he was chosen at random. (Side note: most advantages are unearned. I mean, no one chooses their genetics or upbringing. You’d have to be a fool or not dealing in good faith to claim otherwise. Talent is also an unearned advantage. So is height. Beauty. Intelligence. Sometimes even disadvantages can be advantages in that they provide the crucible for honing your unearned gift, especially if your values include ‘struggle.’)
The funny thing is that a lot of these values aren’t by choice either. By the time you’re able to make real decisions for yourself, much of your underlying narrative has been set and it’s up to you to double down on it or try and undo it. That’s why self discovery and exploration is so important.
One value that absolutely disgusts me is the value of domination. It’s poisonous and has infused almost every aspect of mainstream western culture. It’s the difference between making a living and making a killing. I see it on the road during my commute, I hear it in self aggrandizing and misogynistic lyrics. Living in America, a militant and elegantly oppressive regime, it flavors everything. Mergers and acquisitions, car commercials, clothing, etc. And while there’s nothing wrong with playing a competitive game with an eye toward winning, we have forgotten that there are very few mandatory zero-sum games.
This zero-sum mentality belongs to one of the two Primary Values, Fear and Progress. Fear is what tells you that others are out to take what’s yours. Fear is the thing that tells you you’re not worth anything unless you can step on someone else. If you destroy them, even better. Fear tells you there’s not enough to go around. Progress’ primary goal, however, is the improvement of the human condition. Do not confuse the comfort of a few for progress. Do not confuse achievement for progress. The worlds tallest building, technological monopolies, the latest tech startup, self driving cars, all these are not progress.
Fear is weak.
There’s no real reason why anyone has to ever go hungry, there’s no real reason why someone has to commit suicide due to extreme loneliness or pain. I know I’m wading very close to John Lennon territory, but it’s bigger than that. Ensuring everyone has quality of life is good for all of us, especially if we live in a society that values actual progress. Think about all the musicians, scientists, philosophers, and artists that are born and die in obscurity just because some people, motivated by fear, thought it prudent to oppress and steal. The link between a loved one dying of cancer and the desire for the latest and greatest iPhone are closer than you think.
I don’t know about you but I’d rather have peace of mind and freedom to express my true self (through work, art, interpersonal relationships, or even a nomads life) than a faster pocket computer or a vague, false notion that I’m ‘the best’ (whatever that means) or that I will escape the inevitable end of every single one of us.