5.6. The Bogus Debate over “Values”

Politicians have figured out that nothing gets us more riled up than appealing to our “values.”

We often use “values” to inform our politics.

Whether it’s certain ideals like equality, fairness, and human rights…or religious values…or the “values” that make our countries unique…they’re central to which politicians and policies we choose to support.

I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. But we need to be really, really careful with how we translate “values” into politics.

Societies are messy. Societies are complicated. Societies have an objective reality to them that can be evaluated: whether this policy will work, what the consequences of that policy will be.

These are traits that clash with our “values”—which tend to be simpler, more subjective, and starkly black-and-white, or good-or-bad.

If we rely too heavily on our “values” to dictate how we should manage our affairs, we’re going to lack the nuance, the complexity, and the shades of gray that we need in order for the seven and a half billion of us on this planet to actually get along.

We can even be seduced into denying or rejecting reality altogether, throwing our support to demonstrably inferior policies, simply because we feel they align better with our “values.”

Over the past few decades, our politics have become increasingly value-obsessed.

It’s an intentional project. Because politicians have figured out that nothing gets us more riled up than appealing to our “values.”

So, since the 1980s, there’s been a very deliberate effort—financed by billions of dollars of advertising and messaging—to translate all of our political issues into a battle over “values.”

And what’s been the result, in the United States?

An increasingly bitter fifty-fifty split among its people, with each half believing they’re noble warriors on behalf of their truly righteous values…and the other half is a depraved, dangerous, unprincipled threat to the good of the nation.

As we the people fight amongst ourselves, stuck in this stalemate—the politicians, corporations, and special interests are cleaning up, getting their way because we the people are too divided to hold them accountable.

It’s not wrong to be passionate about your values. And it’s not wrong to use them to inform your politics—as long as you do it carefully.

But we’re abusing the heck out of our “values.”

We’re being exploited by politicians who are skillfully turning our passion for our values into votes for them.

We’re failing to deal with some really big political, economic, and social problems—because we’ve turned those objectively awful conditions into heated debates over abstract “values” that can never be resolved.

We’ve got to stop it!

You aren’t a traitor to your “values” if you approach politics as it really is: a far messier and more complicated project than the idealized world of “values,” that requires consensus-building and compromise.

The worse things get, the more important it is that we focus on what works.

It’s still important that our policies should be ethical, of course. But there’s a lot of agreement over what constitutes basic dignity and respect.

We can find a lot of common ground there…if only we’re willing to relax a bit, and resist this effort to turn everything into a referendum on our “values.”


This is the 82nd in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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