Values are a shared engagement with life. They help us identify, the how, of our relationship to our actions. Why is a particular action completed? Well, because of a particular value held. What comes first is a value, followed by behavior. The road to violence requires conflating values with a particular behavior. This is a tactic of anti-dialogue. If a value, say “freedom,” is indelibly associated with a particular action, like shopping, then all other behavior becomes not-freedom.
Values in this model, rather than being something that points to how we all belong to a shared reality, become a further means of creating separation between us and those we disagree with. As a held value becomes equated with an identity, the fermentation of an adversarial mindset is inevitable. Not coincidentally, this mindset allows us to no longer look at how we are manifesting our values in our behavior. Such honest self-reflection would lead to the conclusion that those who oppose us do not hate us for our values, they hate us for how we put them into action.
Let’s take the value of life or active living. In all the rhetoric from pundits, declarations in movies, and honest bigots, America and Western Civilization is at war with “animals” and “savages.” Their actions are routinely looked at as “cowardly.” The result is a view utterly lacking in nuance declaring our enemy simply doesn’t believe in the value of life or freedom. The lack of nuance here does more than betray our common humanity, it completely denies any avenue for understanding. Disagreement can and must occur when actions are counter to one another, but to deny the opposition any connection to the ability, of valuing something is not only wrong, it’s ridiculous.
Are we really so caught up in nationalistic self-worship that if someone doesn’t act exactly the way we want, they are not merely disagreeing but are cut-off from human engagement with reality? If the opposition doesn’t hold to any value like life or freedom, how do we account for their behavior? We are so quick to look at behavior in our own lives that don’t match the highest of our values and declare them to be aberrations worthy of introspection and cause for personal growth. What if each time one of us lied or cheated we were unequivocally declared absent of valuing truth or honesty? We’d rightly feel incensed at such a ridiculous charge and fight to defend ourselves. Yet when it comes to those who oppose us, we give no such latitude.
Values don’t occur in an existence void of relationship to anything else. We are not walking around plucking values out of the air like falling leaves. They are the mental constructs through which our worldview works to manifest behavior. This is why we can act in supposedly opposite ways and still think we’re being true to ourselves. Values do not demand particular action because there is no action that is equal in substitution to any value.
Does the pro-choice person simply not value life? Certainly, the opposition would have it declared so. Are we to look at those who protect their families, work to support their children, and yet support a woman’s right to choose as being anti-life? The answer with any degree of honesty is of course not. Does the pro-life person simply not value freedom of behavior? Certainly, their list of acceptable behavior is different, but to the caricatured extent of absolute rigidity in action? The answer with any degree of honesty is of course not. Are we then to look at people who, however reprehensible their actions in war, simply don’t care about life? If the answer is yes, then we must therefore declare our own military as utterly absent of valuing life as well, for killed non-combatants in the form of collateral damage is a fact of every bombing run and missile launched.
The very fact that such a statement will undoubtedly cause emotional apoplexy indicates both that the knee-jerk declarations concerning our enemies are absurd and that we are doing a frightfully terrible job of objectively looking at our own behavior. An armed assailant attempts a mugging to get money for food and is instead killed by the potential victim. The difference in judging their actions is not due to a difference in held values but in how those values were put into practice. This means looking at their worldview. The person committing a crime did not care less about life than the person defending themselves, their point of reference was simply different.
Starting and stopping discussion at the conflation of values with behavior is a great way to blind oneself to the complexity of reality and how we relate with it. There are certainly valid and real disagreements, but not at the level of values. Rather, the disagreement is with what is behind or before the values are instantiated, that being the person’s ideology or worldview. That one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter does not mean there is no possibility for honest engagement with ethical discussions or even that some behavior can be considered truly abhorrent. What it does mean is that how a person constructs their view of the world will often lead to very different manifestations of the values shared by everyone.
Those who fight us do not hate us for our values. They do not hate us for our freedom or our liberty. They hate us because we are the “other” in their worldview. Their values manifest in particular actions precisely because their worldview has declared a means of engagement that is “US vs THEM.”
In determining the best and yes, better, way of manifesting our shared values, we would do well to remove ourselves from a similar mindset. Such thinking disconnects us from our shared humanity, resulting in behavior that was it committed by those we oppose, we would rightly condemn.