American Babel

The cover of Newsweek asked, “Whose values?” We have to do more than just say, “God’s.”

A recent cover of Newsweek superimposed the words Whose values? on an angry, I-dare-you, line-in-the-sand kind of face. Inside the magazine, however, senior editor Joe Klein’s essay was calm and thought provoking: After a 30-year spree of unlimited personal freedom and rampaging materialism, he asked, how shall we fight the “monster hangover” and fill the “values vacuum”? Despite Klein’s irenic tone, we can hardly pass up the opportunity to take up the discussion.

After asking “Whose values?” Newsweek continued: “Whose justice? Whose morality? Whose community? Whose family?” By asking whose values, family, morality, and so forth, instead of what or which values, family, or morality, the venerable newsmagazine planted its feet squarely in the squishy mire of subjectivism.

In our society, values are seen primarily as subjective functions of the individual. Thus our culture treats someone’s belief that sex before marriage is wrong on the same level as one’s enthusiasm for the Pittsburgh Pirates or one’s unaccountable taste for asparagus.

Where Does It Hurt?

Before we try to cure the patient, a little medical history and a diagnosis is in order. How did the present darkness come to be?

One of the ways this subjective notion of values was injected into American society was through our elementary schools during the early seventies. The pathogen was a program known as Values Clarification. In the wake of the rapid moral fragmentation of the sixties, Values Clarification was an attempt to teach the process of valuing without communicating the content of any value system. It was a surrender to the post-My Lai, post-Woodstock notion that Americans could no longer hope for any kind of unified moral vision. Teachers taught our children to celebrate their values, even as they refused to suggest what their values ought to be. Like Jiminy Cricket, they told their charges just to let their consciences be their guides; but unlike that cartoon personification of conscience, they could hardly bring themselves to say a lie was, well, wrong.

Perhaps one who sat at the feet of these teachers was the movie reviewer who recently expressed reservations about the “darker” side of the newly polished and rereleased Disney animation classic, Pinocchio: “ ‘Pinocchio’ rigidly enforces the finger-wagging behavioral codes of the ’40s: Good boys don’t tell lies.

Good boys go to school. Good boys resist temptation and listen to their consciences.” The reviewer, cited with horror on the editorial page of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, called the movie “a catalog of ’40s prejudices.” Honesty, dependability, self-control, and having a clean conscience were once virtues; then they became values; and now, apparently, they are prejudices.

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This subjective approach is nothing new. C. S. Lewis had to argue against something quite similar in his 1947 book The Abolition of Man. Lewis encountered the offensive notion while reading an English composition textbook. That book’s authors treated value statements in such a way that the schoolboy “will believe two propositions”: first, that statements of value “are statements about the emotional state of the speaker,” and second, “that all such statements are unimportant.” This worried Lewis, for most schoolboys doing their “English prep” would have “no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.”

Indeed they are, as Lewis wisely demonstrated. By denying that statements of value reflect what the universe objectively is and what we objectively are, the authors undermined any reason to pay attention to any persuasive case about what is just or beautiful or true or good for us or our posterity. When we believe we cannot make valid judgments regarding life’s most important categories of thought, we create the preconditions for either tyranny or anarchy.

The solution Lewis pointed to was the Tao, a moral tradition of nearly self-evident ideas about the right way to live held in common by the world’s great religions and philosophies. Perhaps he used a term associated with Eastern religion to avoid being accused of trying to force his Christian morality on unbelievers. And to that end he collected examples of this body of insight from Jewish wisdom literature, Christian “natural law” theory, Greek and Roman philosophy, Confucian teaching, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead—among others.

Lewis was no lover of a cold, stiff, dead tradition. He knew that the specific shape of this body of moral wisdom could be debated, and that there was room for change and development. But only from within the tradition, he said, could moral values be debated. Deciding to dump the Tao and to shape the young with values of our own making is not helping young humans ripen into maturity; it is taking away their humanity, Lewis claimed. Such teaching would not produce learning, but operant conditioning. The young would become not people, but bundles of stimulus-response mechanisms.

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The nightmare populated by moral automatons is a far cry from the Christian vision of what human beings are and can be: ethically responsible agents. When the old theologians identified the ability to make and act on moral judgments as one element constituting how we image God, they were on target. Disconnect human beings from their moral capacity and you will never have another hero. All you’ve got is a roboflop.

“Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of man,” Lewis wrote. The old way, he said, “was a kind of propagation,” adult human beings teaching their young how to be mature humans, the way grown birds teach young birds to fly. “The new,” he wrote, “is merely propaganda.”

The Slicing And Dicing Of America

Certainly the United States is now ripe for propaganda. The transformation of virtues into mere tastes is part of the fragmentation of our society. The same forces that have sliced us into deli-thin market segments through cable TV, FM radio, and sharply targeted, lifestyle-specific, direct-mail technology have programmed us to consume as an expression of individuality. We not only shop for clothes and CDS and cars that express our personalities, but we “shop” for churches, values, and candidates on the same basis.

But the cult of individuality, as Tocqueville noted, “saps the virtues of public life and destroys all virtues.” This is, in Joe Klein’s memorable words, “the slivering of America.”

In so fragmented a society, the question “Whose values?” can be transformed into a cry for authority: “Who can tell me what I ought to value?” Into this vacuum step demagogues and dictators. But also stepping in is reactionary fanaticism. We can say of this fierce devotion to the past, whether it is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, what Lewis said of the “new ideologies” of his time: that they “consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context … and swollen to madness in their isolation.”

Devotion to the foundational wisdom found in the Bible and in other time-tested traditions, however, objectifies values and points to a Greater Reality. In doing so it removes our focus from ourselves, and transforms values (the things we prize) into virtues (the strengths we must achieve). When we prize things rightly, we become ready to sacrifice for them. And we transmit and teach them by living them out, fulfilling our promises and commitments.

The Tao Of Pinocchio

Whose values, then? Significantly, Lewis made no plea for a return to Christian values, arguing only for the shared wisdom of the ages. Nevertheless, truly human values are God’s values. And God’s values are most clearly expressed in the life of the God-man Jesus: truth, mercy, justice, individual dignity, corporate responsibility. Nevertheless, we may win more hearts by appealing to that which we have in common with other traditions than by fighting those who derive it from another source.

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As “Whose values?” becomes increasingly a cry for moral direction, Christians will want to join forces with others who want to promote honesty, sexual fidelity, family loyalty, and the dignity of work.

We may want to pay attention to a small but influential movement in American academia, the communitarians. Sociologist Amitai Etzioni, a leading communitarian thinker, has rightly pointed out that the individualistic language of the Declaration of Independence is balanced by the community-building language of the U.S. Constitution: “… to form a more perfect union, … provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to … our posterity …” Communitarians note that no-fault divorce laws have hardly helped build up the community. They are therefore among the architects of proposed new laws that would much more carefully regulate divorce in marriages with children. While communitarians are not by nature moral conservatives, they do understand that a nation’s law cannot be neutral on “questions involving moral issues. Indeed,” writes Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, “neutral is the one thing it cannot be, for refusing to take a moral position is a moral stand in itself.” Lewis would have agreed.

C. S. Lewis and Walt Disney saw two sides of the same truth. Lewis taught us what is at stake: that abandoning the transmission of values ends in the abolition of man. Disney’s Pinocchio showed us what is possible: that through the exercise of the moral faculty even a blockhead can become human. And that’s no lie.

By David Neff.

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